• Kristina Mulligan

Stop Calling My Child "Picky"

When I was a kid, I was picky. Like “I only order chicken fingers and fries at restaurants” and “I only eat chicken nuggets at home” picky. I knew what I liked and couldn’t be told otherwise. I sometimes tried new things, only to give a “No, thanks,” and move along – or right back to my usual menu, that is. I was picky and had picky friends. We all ate chicken fingers and drank Hi-C or Kool-Aid. We loved candy and Blockbuster and fruit roll-ups… Then one day, I grew up, decided that I loved sushi and tofu, and lived happily ever after.

If only it were always that simple, right?

I’d lived a relatively child-free life up until I became a mother. When my sister was little, I was young enough to truly not understand the ins-and-outs of parenting. I’d had a couple friends with kids, but cool aunts are supposed to feed you all the yummy junk food you want and send you back home to your parents. My point is: I’d never had a first-hand encounter with a picky eater. I’d heard the stories of, “Gracie wouldn’t eat her salad last night at dinner,” and “Jason really only wants to eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches,” but only had ever gotten the second-hand stories of parental frustration. The irritation seemed fleeting, never really monopolizing more than a few minutes of a conversation before moving on to another topic.

And then Flynn was born. His NICU experience of feeding tubes and lack of oral stimulation created some big obstacles early on, and his low muscle tone required us to introduce solids much later than the typical recommendation. By the time Flynn first tried avocado (at around ten months old), his oral aversions were pretty significant and it was a traumatic experience for us both. I had anticipated adorable hesitation but was, instead, met with pure fear and unease. Over time, this anxiety and panic hasn’t lessened but the outward display has changed. We’ve had periods where he’s refused to eat, there’s been choking incidents, and I can’t tell you how many days I’ve cried over it. Every single day is a battle, not of wills, but of patience, understanding, and trying to find something that will work today.

I didn’t know that mealtime could be such a struggle, even as someone who is in eating disorder recovery and has a complicated relationship with food. It’s possibly naïve or ignorant, but I mostly considered eating to be one of the basic human functions. It’s not. Even regardless of the physiological aspects that could impact a person’s ability to consume food, there are thirty-two steps to eating – twenty-seven occur of those occur before the food even reaches one’s mouth.

Every interaction with food is a fight, not Flynn vs. me, but an internal battle. Even “reliable” foods, depending on the day, can sometimes be flagged as unsafe due to texture, temperature, or taste. His internal environment can be different at any given time causing him to turn on the same things that he ate yesterday. And it’s not a demonstration of defiance or to “push buttons,” but anxiety as a result of the sensory components of food.

He’s cried under tables as food was being put out or prepared.

He’s screamed through conversations about food almost as many times as he’s ignored them, including simple ones like “What should we have for dinner?” Every “proper” meal takes at least an hour to complete, maybe more when new foods are on the plate. There is a list of never-ending questions to answer for each item, even if they’re familiar.

I’ve sought help throughout the years from many people, all professionals, with different ideas on how to cure my child. I have been required to force feed my baby as he screamed because “pickiness has no place here.” I’ve had our struggles minimized because “he’ll eat if he’s hungry enough.” We’ve tried supplements and medications. He’s been confined to one chair and yelled at to eat or stay until the timer is done. All of these things were a promised “fix” but have only caused setbacks for us.

I can’t tell you that any of my strategies work and I don’t have a “cure,” but I can tell you that patience and the right team have helped us tremendously. We’ve designed a program this Summer called “Six Foods in Six Weeks.” The goal isn’t to add six new foods to his safe list or even one new food – though that would be amazing – but to increase his interactions with new food, especially those that a school-age child may have to see, smell, and touch. I can say that I have learned to celebrate any and all victories with food - from tolerating an unfamiliar food in the room to trying something for the first time (or fifth time). Children need to be offered a new food as many as fifteen times before they will eat it, but for our family it is often much more.

Pickiness is often a reaction to new things. As people, we like what we like and, even as adults, rely on the same things. Pickiness is frustrating, as with other childhood behaviors that can make you want to scream. I understand this, but this sensory aversion, this anxiety is far beyond and surpasses "picky eating." Regardless, I am often told that it's not a big deal, to simply make Flynn eat, or to starve him until he decides to eat something new.

Please don’t label my child – or any other child that you don’t know – as picky. It’s impossible to know what a family’s struggles are when they are at home.

Please don't offer your solutions, even if you're coming from a place of good. We probably have already tried it and are doing our absolute best to try not to break.

Please don’t dismiss or minimize anxiety, even if you see it as “picky eating.” It already feels impossible.

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