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When I hear parents talking about how they stamped out fussy eating with their children, it makes me smile.

It used to hurt. In the days where I’d search the internet for tips and solutions. When I’d ask myself where we went wrong. Before I realised our problems were much more deep-rooted than the typical fussy eating that is typical of all young children.

Perhaps it’s difficult to understand severe selective eating until you’ve lived with it. Briefly alluding to Arlo’s struggles with food would be met with “Oh I know, my child is terrible with food sometimes. She refuses to eat X Y and Z at home but she always eats everything at nursery!”

Of course all children go through fussy stages, especially in the toddler/preschool stage. It’s a classic pushing the boundaries exercise. But this is not what I’m talking about. This is far from the same.

Selective Eating Disorder, or ARFID

Selective Eating Disorder, now known as ARFID (Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder), is much more complex and has nothing to do with a child trying to be difficult. I am 100% sure that Arlo is not trying to cause us grief at meal times. In fact, I know he would like nothing more than to make things easy for us and to be able to try new things without fear.

His issues are rooted in anxiety. In short, he is afraid of what happens when he tries something new and doesn’t like it. He is so afraid, that it prevents him from trying it. I’m not just talking healthy green things that we all strive to get our children to eat, I’m talking about a new flavour of ice cream or a different texture on a biscuit. Even if, logically, he can see that it’s made up of all the things he loves (caramel, chocolate), he won’t touch it if he’s not sure. Even if there’s nothing else to eat and even if he really wants it.

It is about fear. Not fussiness.

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The problem exacerbates itself because after a while of eating a predominantly restricted diet, taste buds become dulled, and new foods tried can often be alarmingly strong or sharp in taste.

Arlo has a small list of bland, beige foods that he will eat. At the point in childhood when most fussy eating is resolving itself, Arlo’s list is getting smaller, and he will be six next month.

At two and three years old, he was more willing to eat and had more safe foods than he does now. He used to love pizza. Now he won’t touch it. If he can’t remember how something tastes, he won’t touch it. He no longer eats pasta sauces or sauces of any kind, so “hidden veg” is virtually impossible. He doesn’t eat any fruit or vegetables, despite his insistence that potato is a vegetable and therefore the healthiest thing that he eats. The only fresh, non-processed food that he eats is egg (in omelette form. Plain). He doesn’t eat meat, unless chicken nuggets count.

I can’t imagine a point where I will ever be able to leave him alone at a friend’s party because the food served is a constant worry for him and often ends in tears, even when I’m there to guide him through it.

We’ve spent a couple of years experimenting with all sorts of ways to get him to eat. I’ve sat with him at the table for hours. Offered all sorts of bribes, including ones I could never deliver on because I was getting desperate and at the same time realising that he just wasn’t going to do it anyway.

“I will get Andy from Andy’s Dinosaur Adventures, THE Andy, to come to this house, if you eat one spoon of that bolognaise”.

We all laughed at the silliness of that trade off – even Arlo could see the funny side that time. But when he says “Mama, I will never ever eat this”. I believe him. I believe him now.

He wants to eat more. He realises that he’s getting a rough deal when everyone around him is getting a treat. But even if he really wants to try the treat, he can’t if he’s unsure of it.

My second child, Rory (three), is a much more typical eater. A protest about eating can be dispelled with a bit of encouragement. He has foods he likes sometimes and at other times doesn’t. If he refuses to eat, he will eat later when he gets hungry enough. Arlo will starve himself and get very distressed about it, because in his head, it’s the only option he’s been left with, and no one is helping him.

If I only had Rory’s experience to go by, I would probably be one of those parents congratulating myself on the success of my child’s eating. Instead, I am so proud/relieved/happy that Rory eats in the way he does. It never gets old seeing him enjoy food. Same family, same food routines, same weaning process. The credit 100% deserves to go to him.

The reason I don’t talk much about Arlo’s eating issues, is because people tend to either not understand that I’m not taking about “fussy eating”, or the immediate reaction is to baulk in surprise.

“No fruit or vegetables?? AT ALL??”

Take note – if someone tells you their child won’t eat fruit or veg, please try not to react like this, however surprising that fact is to you. The parent will already be aware of how serious a predicament this is, and will likely have tried everything they can to change matters. It is a highly emotive matter, we all want the best for our children, and reactions like this only make the matter all the more distressing for us parents.

The future with Arlo’s eating lies uncertain. It’s clear at this point that this is not a phase. These issues aren’t going away. He currently sees a dietitian at the hospital, his initial CAMHS appointment has come through after 14 months of waiting, and we are exploring what other help/therapy may be available.

He has packed lunches at school but this already affects him socially as pretty much all his class mates opt for the free school meal and he has to sit on a separate table. I worry about what he will do for food on school trips later in life, and what happens as he becomes more and more aware that his eating is “other”.

These days, I’ve moved on from feeling hurt by people thinking “fussy eating” is all down to the parent’s approach. I’ve stopped searching for the missing miracle thing that I did or didn’t do to make him like this. Despite the theory that he would follow in his big brother’s footsteps due to the food I serve Arlo, I have my typical eater in Rory, so I can finally accept that it isn’t MY fault. Nothing I did or didn’t do would change the fact that Arlo has an eating disorder; ARFID.

These days, my main concern is trying not to create any further unnecessary anxiety around food for Arlo, and to make sure that he doesn’t feel excluded at social gatherings focused around food. To make sure he never feels like his eating issues are a huge barrier. To make sure he feels he can socialise around food rather than excluding himself, cutting himself off.

So, at mealtimes, parties and BBQs at home, there will always be “safe” foods available. There will be no pressure to clear his plate or to try anything new. No food rewards or withholding of treats.

I want him to hear me when I say “I believe you when you say you won’t eat this”. I want him to know that Mama is there to help him and not try to control him. I want him to know that no matter what, we support him.

And should he decide one day that he wants to try something new, we are right here to help and to take things at his own pace.

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30 comments

  1. Oh that sucks. For both of you. 🙁 I know a couple of other families with selective eaters and they have had so many issues being taken seriously, with people just assuming it’s the kids being awkward or mum (always mum of course) not serving the right foods, bla bla bla.

    Izz went through a stage where she suddenly got incredibly fussy and I worried like hell, but thankfully we’re back to ‘standard’ level fussiness.

    I am sure it will be so much easier for him to try something new, should he decide to do so, knowing that you’ve been 100% there for him previously. 🙂

    1. That’s what I’m hoping. I think support is key, and everyone I talk to with older children who are selective eaters have said don’t push them, support them. It actually made things a lot clearer in my head once I accepted that it wasn’t “fussy eating” and that it probably wasn’t going to change any time soon.

  2. He is so lucky to have you x

    This is also a big reason why we should never compare children, and feel a failure of a parent if our child is different.

    Hope he gets to where he is comfortable.

    1. Comparing is futile, and yet so easy to do. I think it’s difficult when it’s your eldest too, as you have no other marker for what is ‘normal’ behaviour and what isn’t.

  3. This made me so sad Chloe. I had no idea – and have no idea how I would cope. It must be so worrying and frustrating – for you and for Arlo. I hope he comes out the other side eventually x

    1. It makes me sad too. I feel for him and I wish I could help him more. He tells me a lot that I have to help him try new things. He doesn’t know how to himself, so he looks to me to guide him, but we’re both as clueless as each other when it comes to doing it in a way that isn’t distressing for him.

  4. Wow – that sounds so tricky. Definitely not what you’d think of typical food fussiness at all! Fingers crossed you guys get to a place where food (and the unknown!) is a little less scary.

    1. Yes, hopefully one day. From what we’ve been told, it might not be until secondary school age when he really gets the motivation and understanding of why he might want to change his eating habits. Right now, it feels like we are in it for the long haul.

  5. This is really interesting. I had never heard of selective eating before. My daughter is pretty fussy, and a lot of foods have dropped off her list over the years, but I’m not sure it’s this extreme. Still I can relate to the struggle of being understood by other people. My daughter is also scared of trying new foods. Will your son grow out of it when he gets older? I can remember as a child not even eating pasta or pizza, but once I was around 12/13, I gradually started bring new foods into my diet.

    1. I am hoping that he will become more open to trying new things as he’s older. My brother was the same with pasta until he was 12 or so, then started trying a few new things.

  6. Wow Chloe, this is something I honestly had no idea about – I have quite a few friends who have children that are very selective eaters and I wonder if even they are aware of this themselves. I think its fantastic that you’ve written about it, its certainly opened my eyes and I will always think of this whenever I am slightly tempted to make an ill-informed comparison between my own childs typical “fussy eating” and another childs food situation in future. Well done for writing about something so rarely discussed. x

    1. It’s not something I was aware about being a ‘condition’ until recently. Am now in a few FB groups for parents of selective eaters and I’ve realised a lot. Not sure how recognised it is in the healthcare service, we’ve only just started looking into it, but his dietitian has been very encouraging so far. She seems to get it.

  7. I actually felt ill when I read this. I used to hear the screams from a child that used to live next door to me; every meal time he would be hysterical. I should add that his parents were lovely and I knew the family well. The child was terrified of eating. We were all tense at mealtimes. So glad you mentioned this. Sadly the boy did not get diagnosed. It even affected his speech as he refused to chew. I admit he could have had a different condition but it sound very familiar. So sorry as you all have to deal with the distress of this; I imagine it is exhausting.

    1. Oh no, that sounds horrendously upsetting for all involved. We didn’t spend long doing meal time battles as I could quickly see that it was never going to work. I’m hoping that Arlo will continue to see home as a safe space for him food-wise. No pressure here.

  8. Oh my! I’m so glad I found this! It’s like reading about my own son, nearly 4.5 years old. We have been referred to CAMHS after about a year of dietician and paediatrician appts. Really hope I don’t have quite so long a wait as I think I might go crazy. I find it so very stressful and upsetting. Just don’t know what to do for the best really. Thank you so much for sharing. At least I know there’s one other person out there going through this too x

    1. Hopefully it won’t take too long for your referral. Croydon is a very busy borough – originally they told me 1 year, then it went up to 2 years (!!!), but then we finally got our appointment through 14 months after first being referred.

  9. I have massive food issues myself and so am not surprised that my kids do, I hate it when people tell me to simply stamp it out… as if it works like that! My son is doing soooo well with his eating these days simply because he is brave and will now try things. It takes time, a lot of effort and bravery on their part x

  10. I really feel for Arlo and your whole family Chloe. I’m so glad you are able to support Arlo so well because this must be incredibly tough for him. My kids are great eaters but I still worry that sometimes they are ‘fussy’ but this makes me realise how silly that is. Would love to read more about how you get on.

  11. Oh wow, I had no idea about this issue. Thanks for bringing it to my attention. Poor Arlo, his anxiety must be so high around food 🙁 What a wonderful and supportive Mum he has. What a relief for you too, to know that it’s an actual condition and not anything ‘you did/didn’t do’. Love your honesty about mothering, as per usual 🙂

    1. I think his anxiety is actually a bit better since we stopped trying to find ways to get him to eat. He seems less fearful that I’m going to surprise him with mystery food, anyway.

  12. I had no idea about this even being a thing. I wonder if my Ethan might have this or something similar? His eating or lack of it sounds similar. We have one meal a week that he will sit and eat and that’s it, the rest are refused or barely picked at. It always makes me so worried. We’ve tried so many things and even had the health visitor round for visits, but nothing has changed. He’s a snacky eater though I think, and I always tell myself at least he eats some fruit and has the things he does like, like peanut butter sandwiches. Thanks for posting this.

  13. Wow that really sucks for both of you. Hopefully things will improve with time and it won’t always be so stressful. It really sucks that he’s so limited and there is so little you can do!

  14. Both of my children are selective eaters 14 and 10. Bread is their staple! I feel your boy maybe feeling isolated at school, why do they separate the tables, crazy! But I’m a home educator so school always seems crazy to me. Wishing your boy a fantastic future with or without a rainbow of foods.

  15. I am also wanted to add that I was a very anxious child, I remember my mum spoon feeding me. We had a limited diet because my dad died and mum has to bring us up on her own. As a teenager I had a swallowing disorder, i wasn’t taken to a doctor and I have grown out of it, I just couldn’t swallow and would spit out bags of salvia, I wasn’t thinking anything about it it was just something I did. My 10 year old fears eating In case he vomits after a few sickness bugs. We talk a lot but not during dinner, I say who cares if your sick it’s horrible but you done it before and you got through it and you will get through it again. I give them their food and if they eat it great, if they don’t they don’t. I sometimes wonder how I managed to survive and how my kids do, but they do. I think that my teenager is just starting to realise what she put in she get out in energy etc. I brought a juicer which she likes and drinks so things are looking up, my son on the other hand won’t touch them! All the best keep your chin up.x

  16. I have absolutely no experience of this but I just wanted to let you know I’d read. It sounds like you are an immense support to Arlo, though xx

  17. Stumbled upon this post while googling selective eating disorder for my seven year old son. I’m too tired to write so all I will say is, thank the lord I have read this. My son well and truly has this and has had this all his life. The only people who understand what we go through are myself my sons dad and my mum. Everyone else doesn’t have a clue and blames me/him. Thanks so much for posting, It has taken the pressure off me a little knowing I am not alone. My every waking moment is spent ensuring my child is eating enough.

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