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.
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.