Dear David Coleman: My daughter has stopped eating fruit and veg, no matter how I try to persuade her. Help!
Clinical psychologist David Coleman offers parenting advice in his weekly column.
Q. My daughter is three years old. She used to eat fruit and veg no problem for me, but one day we showed her a watermelon and she got scared and since then will not eat fruit at all. The same with the veg — I spend ages picking out pieces of carrot and peas. She used to eat potatoes and rice and now she won’t eat either. I have had screaming matches with her, I’ve bribed her and the end result was nothing! She even knows how to make herself vomit when she doesn’t want to eat something. What can I do?
David replies: Perhaps the starting point is to listen to your daughter. When a child vomits after being forced to eat something, it is a very strong message that she didn’t want to eat whatever it was that was being forced upon her.
In your opening you describe how your daughter “used to eat fruit and veg no problem for me”. Perhaps this is just a turn of phrase, but I do often find the reference to children eating “for me” to be telling.
Sometimes it is as if a child’s desire to eat is actually seen as a subset of their desire to please their parent. Many parents do equate a child’s willingness to eat their dinner as evidence of their willingness to behave well for their parent.
Similarly, when they choose not to eat, parents seem to equate this with a desire to misbehave, or to challenge their parent. Perhaps, by the time an eating issue has developed into a power battle between parent and child this may be true, but in the early stages, it is much more likely that a child is not eating because they simply do not want any food, or don’t want that particular food.
Many parents, however, seem reluctant to allow their children any responsibility for food choices. We dictate what they must eat, when they must eat and how much they must eat. Then, if there is any variation from this, some parents seem to feel that their child is letting them down.
In truth, though, when children eat (or don’t eat) they do it for themselves, not for us.
Although it may seem like a pedantic point to make, it actually has the power to totally change your perspective on your daughter’s eating.
If she got frightened by the watermelon, and then extended that anxiety to becoming nervous of other fruits, followed by vegetables, perhaps she has just been acting to reduce her anxiety? She may avoid fruit and veg because she feels less stressed that way? I think you could choose to let her have the power to make this kind of decision for herself.
If it is anxiety or fear that drove her initial reluctance to eat certain foods, then it will have been a very powerful, unconscious, even primitive urge within her. No amount of reasoning, or controlling, forceful behaviour on your part is likely to sway her.
Imagine you had a fear of flying and someone kept screaming at you to get on board an aircraft, or blindfolded you and told you were getting on board a train, only for you later to discover that you were on a plane. How awful might that be for you?
So, rather than setting yourself up in opposition to her, where the dynamic about food is actually all about power and control and fighting to see who will be victorious, I’d suggest that you take a very different approach, that is more about taking pressure off her when it comes to food, meals and eating.
If you take a more relaxed approach, you may decide that your job is simply to provide a varied, balanced and healthy diet for your daughter. It is not your job to make her consume it!
Children do feel a biological imperative to eat. They do, instinctively, know that they must eat to survive. Even children who are fussy about what they eat will still eat. When we take the pressure off them, and stop trying to force them to eat certain things, they are much more likely to find their own balance.
So, strange as it may seem, if you take a more relaxed approach to your daughter’s eating you may be surprised to find that she starts enjoying food more and may even return to eating some of the foods that she has dropped from her diet for the moment.
Health & Living