Eating Disorders

Child Psychologist Post: Picky Eater or Eating Disorder

Do you have a child who hates certain foods? Or a child that would rather do anything else but eat? Maybe they run and hide when a fruit or vegetable hits their plate? You are not alone. You could be raising a picky eater.

Many parents struggle with getting their kids to eat what’s on their plate, especially if it’s green or holds any significant nutritional value. Picky eating is common, especially among younger children, yet at times you may wonder if your child is TOO picky.

Some kids do not like vegetables.
Some kids do not like vegetables.

How do you know where to draw the line between a phase they’ll grow out of versus something more serious? Most people are familiar with the names of more serious eating disorders (anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder), but oftentimes kids who struggle with eating manifest symptoms very differently than adults do. Children who have serious eating difficulties may be suffering from what is known as ARFID (Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder).

Some children do not like the texture of food.

If any of the following are true for your child, it may be beneficial to seek consultation with a psychologist or therapist who specializes in eating concerns:

  • If your child’s pickiness, avoidance, or restriction is causing them to not take in sufficient calories to meet their energy needs. This may mean your child isn’t gaining weight at the rate they should be for their age and height. If they ever lose weight or stop growing in height, this should be a definite red flag.
Healthy foods can be very difficult to eat for some children.
Healthy foods can be very difficult to eat for some children.
  • The avoidance of food is specific to certain sensory features and goes beyond avoiding one or two specific foods (i.e. they avoid all hard foods, all crunchy foods, or all foods with a specific texture). They may also insist on foods being prepared a certain way and will refuse to eat them if they aren’t prepared “perfectly.”

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  • They are averse to food due to a fear based experience (i.e. they are fearful of choking, vomiting, swallowing, or having pain). It should be noted that in most cases, these children have never actually experienced these things, however the fear of them still drives them to avoid food.

food-tomato-medium

  • They show little or no interest in food, despite not getting enough to eat. They may forget to eat unless reminded.

Some things to keep in mind about picky eating:

  • Unlike other eating disorders, those who are diagnosed with ARFID are usually not concerned with their body weight or shape. In other words, the avoidance and restriction of food is not because of poor self-esteem or body image issues. However, if you notice that your child does exhibit these concerns as well, it is recommended to get additional support as soon as possible.

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  • Children who are diagnosed with autism, anxiety, specific phobia, or obsessive-compulsive disorder may be more likely to struggle with ARFID.

The good news is that ARFID is very treatable, especially if it is detected in the early stages and with younger children.

Getting support for your child now may prevent them from developing more serious eating pathology later in life. Please feel free to talk to your psychologist or therapist at Hope Springs if you have concerns about these areas. We are here to help.

Christina Stai

Author: Christina Stai

Dr. Christina Stai is a licensed clinical psychologist in both California and Iowa. She specializes in young children and received her doctorate in Psychology (Psy.D.) from Azusa Pacific University, an APA accredited school near Los Angeles. She completed an APA accredited internship and APPIC accredited postdoctoral fellowship at a residential emergency shelter with abused and neglected foster youth.  We are proud that she has joined Hope Springs.

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