Monday 23 July 2018

Dear David Coleman: My daughter won't eat fruit. Should I push it?

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David Coleman

David Coleman

Clinical psychologist David Coleman offers parenting advice in his weekly column.

Q. We have three children. The eldest is a girl, aged 11. When she was a baby, I was mad into puréeing veg and fruit, etc, which she loved. When we moved her to actual pieces of fruit, she hated the texture. I do remember being so frustrated I forced her to take a bite, which didn't go well, and since then she'd nearly vomit if made to eat pieces of fruit. Now she'll drink smoothies, but won't eat fruit. She does eat veg and is adventurous with other food, too. Is there a way to re-introduce her to the idea of trying fruit pieces or is it best to let her be?

David replies: The short answer is that you are probably best to just let her be. If her only issue with food is that she will only eat fruit when it is puréed or blended (but importantly is still consuming the fruit!), then she doesn't have a big problem.

That said, you may consider her fruit eating experiences as something that was a bit traumatising for her, such that she may have developed an anxiety about eating actual fruit pieces.

If so, then this is something that she could choose to overcome. The key thing, though, is that it is her choice to deal with it or not.

If you think back to the time when you tried to help her transition from puréed fruit to whole fruit pieces, it sounds like it was quite a stressful experience for you and for her. You commented that you were "so frustrated" that she didn't seem willing or able to eat fruit pieces.

Again, from what you describe, you fell into a very typical parental response of trying to persuade, cajole and ultimately force her to eat them. This is almost never successful, and can often have the same unfortunate outcome as you experienced, where the process of forcing your child to eat something can actually increase their resistance to, or anxiety about, eating it.

It might be nice for your daughter to hear you acknowledge that you may have made a mistake, back then. It may also help her to know that her dislike of fruit pieces may have a good explanation.

In addition to any discomfort or unease about the textural qualities of the fruit, she now probably feels anxious about puking or vomiting if she has to eat a piece of fruit.

So, if she is willing to experiment with trying to eat fruit pieces again, it is quite likely that she'll have to address this anxiety as part of her experimentation.

The irony of a fear of nausea being part of the overall anxiety picture is that the adrenalin that gets released if she is anxious can often trigger feelings of nausea, exacerbating the negative thoughts she might have about getting physically sick.

So, if she is to overcome her resistance to eating pieces of fruit, she will need to learn some anxiety management techniques that address the adrenalin and physical sensations of the anxiety.

Breathing techniques and visualisation (or meditation) type techniques can be really helpful in this regard.

Once she feels confident that she can regulate her anxiety a bit, by using abdominal breathing, for example, she can then start to focus on her thinking style with regard to fruit. She may have very negative associations built up between fruit pieces and feeling bad and she needs to be able to challenge these by focusing on the positives, or good things she anticipates might come with eating the fruit pieces.

If she can achieve this, then she might like to start by just cutting up some fruit into small pieces and sucking on them to release their juices, without chewing or swallowing them.

This gets her used to the physical texture, without any danger of gagging, assuming she can keep her anxiety regulated at the same time. From there she can move on to chewing, without swallowing, and then eventually to chewing and swallowing.

The key to any of this, however, is that your daughter is highly motivated to achieve it.

If she doesn't see the point in overcoming her dislike of fruit pieces then there is little point in starting this process.

Ultimately she is getting the goodness of the fruit as purée or in a smoothie, if not the benefit of the fibre that eating the whole fruit provides.

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