Child Caring

This picky eating may be about inconsistent parenting

Dear Barbara,
My son (4 yrs 10 mos) has never been a good eater. For lunch or dinner he'll eat only Mac and cheese (one specific brand,) hot dogs (but not with grill marks,) cheese pizza, chicken nuggets (fast food and one supermarket brand) or peanut butter sandwiches. He eats a little more at school but not much. My husband and I recognize that we have indulged this behavior but we've tried (for short periods of time, eventually giving in) to feed him other foods with the hope "if he's hungry he'll eat" but it's been a year with no improvement and even regression (recently refusing the supermarket nuggets for example.) His pediatrician spoke to him about trying new foods to no avail. We bribe him with books, toys and candy but he still tries nothing. We take away privileges (tv, iPod) but he doesn't seem to care.

Additionally he's started peeing his pants and wetting his bed in the past couple of months after being dry for over a year. I don't know if these behaviors are related but they are both troublesome. He lives in a secure, happy home. Attends and thrives in a wonderful school, has lots of attention from family and friends.

The frustration of these behaviors is increasing and we don't know what to do. We've cut back on snacks and plan to cut them entirely. But he's a high energy boy and I worry about his health if his diet doesn't improve (snacks are usually fruit or goldfish crackers or pretzels, no major junk food.) I'd really appreciate any suggestions for both issues because I'm at my wit's end. Thank you.

From, Rachel, Wellfleet, MA

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Dear Rachel,

I suspect the behaviors are related and here's why: Children thrive when they have consistent structure. It's what makes them feel safe.

Here's one way to think about it: Imagine your child lives in a box. He feels safe and secure because he knows exactly the shape and strength of the sides. Every now and then, though, just to be sure -- as an experiment, as a test, and yes, sometimes because he wants more control -- he pushes against the sides. What happens if I push here? What about here? When the side has some give to it, he's curious but not worried: Huh. What does this mean? If I push it again, what happens? What about this time? And this? If the box responds in the same, consistent way each time,even though it's different than before, no big deal, the box has changed shape but it's still safe. But if the box responds differently each time? If sometimes a side is just mushy, but other times there's a gaping hole in a side? Eventually, that gets scary. So what's a kid to do? Keep pushing on the sides! When will the box feel safe? This time? This?

I'm likening your parenting to the sides of a box that isn't consistent. Your son has reached the point where he regressing because the sides have totally fallen apart for him. He's had too much control, and he's exhausted from it.

The best way I know to fix this is to set clear limits and consequences and to follow through all the time in a safe, consistent way. Remind him of the limits before a particular behavior might occur. Not as threat, not in a angry way, just as a reminder. Let's say you've had a problem with him marking up the walls. Tell him: "In our house, the rule is, we color only on paper, not on the walls. If you color on the walls, I'll have to put the markers away where you can't use them." He might color on the walls just to test: does she really mean it? Calmly, matter-of-factly, without fanfare, take all the markers away, put them in a box high on a shelf he can't reach. Tell him he can have them again when he promises to use them only on paper. He might test it again, the next time, because he's trying to figure things out: "Will that happen again? Really?" So you repeat your same behavior, too. He'll get it: This is going to happen every time. I guess I don't need to test it any more.

Assuming you have eliminated the possibility of food allergies and medical issues, which it sounds like you have, given your pediatrician's involvement, here's how it could work with food: always prepare something for each meal that he typically likes but also put some things on his plate that he might not like.Think of this as division of labor, a concept that comes from Ellyn Satter: It's your job to put healthy, tasty food in front of him. It's his job to decide which of it he will eat. Tell him that. Trust that he will not starve himself. Don't make yourself crazy over what he does or doesn't eat, don't prepare something different. He doesn't like this today? "Oh, I thought you did. Well, it's your decision." Here's are two things to remember: He will not starve. Picky eaters usually are not born that way. Click here to read a conversation I've had with Satter.

This is a process, it takes time. Months, not days, not even weeks. But once you get on firm footing again, you can be more and more flexible. Oh -- and I suspect the bed-wetting will diminish as well, assuming you have ruled out the possibility of a medical problem.

For more on picky eaters, click here.