toddler looking at a plate of food

Food Fight!

Is your child a picky eater? Her eating preferences could be a sign of an underlying issue.

Selective eating (SE), or “picky eating,” is common in young children. Until recently, picky eating wasn’t viewed as a problem or an indication of something more. Today, however, some researchers believe picky eating might be related to a more serious issue.

Picky Eating Problems

A 2015 study published in Pediatrics found that children with SE were twice as likely to have or develop depression or social anxiety. Furthermore, the study’s findings suggested that the term SE is outdated. Rather, choosy eating patterns may be more appropriately indicative of avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID) — a feeding disorder that can develop at any point in one’s life.

“Many people may be surprised by these findings,” says Ramona Osburn, F.A.C.H.E., senior vice president of Behavioral Health at Texas Health Resources. “About 20 percent of kids fall into the picky eating category. Of that 20 percent, about 15 percent develop depression, anxiety and even ADHD [attention deficit hyperactivity disorder].

“Children with SE often have a heightened sensitivity to their surroundings,” Osburn continues. “Their sensory experiences — their senses of taste, touch and texture, and sight, for instance — are more intense. This creates a more intense internal experience, so they have stronger feelings about the things they perceive. Many of these kids are more sensitive than the average child and may be anxious or depressed.”

Perhaps the problem will resolve itself in time. However, in the time it takes to overcome this issue, problems can surface at home — causing disruptions for both the child and her family. It can be beneficial to seek help if your child is an extremely picky eater.

Yummy in My Tummy

There are good and bad ways of approaching your child’s SE. Some unhelpful methods that Osburn warns parents against include:

  • bribing her to eat certain foods
  • catering to your child’s food choices
  • punishing or rewarding him for eating specific foods

However, there are some helpful — even fun — steps parents can take to help their picky eaters.

“It’s important for children to see their parents taking pleasure in food,” says Osburn. “If your children see you’re enjoying it, they may be more likely to try and enjoy it, too. Another good method is taking time to prepare meals and have your children involved in the preparation — let them help you in the kitchen. Providing socialization with food can help alleviate pickiness and some of the internal issues they have with it, as well.”

Down in the Dumps

Only during the last 20 years or so have health care professionals considered depression in children to be a serious issue. Determining if a child is struggling with depression, anxiety, attention disorders and other psychological disorders can be difficult because each developmental stage has its own set of “normal” behaviors. The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry suggests parents seek help from their pediatrician if their child experiences prolonged signs of depression.

“Pediatricians are becoming increasingly aware of the seriousness of depression in children, and your child’s pediatrician should have references or links to resources that can help your child during his time of need,” Osburn says. “There are many good pediatric psychiatrists, as well as many counselors, who can treat children with any of the various effective methods for getting to the root of the problem.”

Trying to find a pediatrician for your child? We can help! Visit THPG.org to find a Texas Health Physicians Group pediatrician conveniently located near your home.

Physicians employed by Texas Health Physicians Group practice independently and are not employees of the hospital or Texas Health Resources.

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