How changing your parenting style could help with fussy eating
If you are the parent of a fussy eater and I told you that there is one particular parenting style that has, on average, better outcomes for your child’s eating, how would you feel?
Perhaps you’d feel anxious ('I knew it was my fault. Is it too late? Have I ruined them for life?'). Maybe defensive ('I’m doing my best here. You don’t know anything about me and my children. Stop blaming me for everything!'). Possibly hopeless ('That’s all very well, but I’ve tried everything and it’s no good. There’s nothing more I can do.').
If you do have one of these reactions, it’s entirely understandable.
After all, we can often feel as though our parenting is a reflection of our moral worth and value as a human being.
But of course, as soon as we start blaming or being blamed, the shutters come down and we’re far less able to embrace and implement change. It becomes harder to fix the problem we’re faced with because we’re either too busy trying to avoid feeling bad or too overwhelmed by the bad feelings to take effective action. And so we can end up living with the daily misery of fussy eating and all that it entails.
Why don’t all children just become good eaters naturally?
The events that unfold when you give your child food – whether they’re fraught or enjoyable - are the outcome of a complex mix of your own life experiences, values, thoughts, beliefs, feelings, behaviours, circumstances and knowledge, all manifesting themselves in that moment. And the same goes for your child, and their response both to you and the food you want them to eat. The stars might align and you might find that it goes well. Or they might not. In which case, how exactly does that make you a bad parent, even less a bad human?
Parents with children who happily enjoy a wide, varied and healthy diet – and research by the Children’s Future Food Inquiry suggests that there aren’t very many of those in the UK – may not fully appreciate how they have found themselves in this enviable position. This can result in well-meaning but ultimately unhelpful advice about recipes, mealtime rituals and discipline strategies. Something like, “just do X, Y, Z. It worked for me.” You may then dutifully try X, Y and Z only to find that the promised solution doesn’t work for you. Instead of empowering you, these failed attempts can end up adding to feelings of hopelessness, frustration, anxiety and inadequacy.
It’s true that children can struggle to enjoy eating a wide variety of foods for a whole host of reasons. For some there may be physiological, developmental or psychological reasons that require clinical diagnosis and treatment.
But for run-of-the-mill fussy eating, the difficulty that shows up at mealtimes may not have very much to do with the food itself at all.
Which goes a long way to explaining why, for some parents, solutions aimed at finding the ‘right’ food/recipe/meal plan can seem elusive.
If fussy eating is not necessarily about food, what is it about?
There are various issues we can look at that could help us solve the puzzle of your child’s fussy eating, and research suggests that one of them is parenting style. There are, broadly speaking, four styles of parenting that have been looked at in terms of their relationship with child eating outcomes. These styles are:
Out of these four styles, it’s the ‘assertive’ one that has the best outcomes for children’s eating. (You may also see it referred to as 'authoritative' parenting, but I generally avoid that label because it's easy to confuse with the very different 'authoritarian' style).
You'll no doubt be familiar with the idea of 'assertiveness' in other contexts - it's better known as a style of communication that endeavours to achieve a win-win for all parties. Its meaning is the same when it comes to parenting. Parents using this style generally deploy a combination of clear, firm boundaries, sensitivity, and support for their child’s autonomy.
I’m not suggesting these styles offer any kind of hard-and-fast parenting blueprint. Far from it. I see them more as one of the many useful tools we can use to provide insight and ideas to help us deal more effectively with fussy eating.
Becoming a parent has got to be one of the most baggage-laden roles we’ll take on, which is why self-awareness can be our best friend – albeit a frequently irritating and painful one. And being open to alternative ways of doing things can be a revelation – as any parent who has experienced a breakthrough with their child after changing tack can testify.
Can you change your parenting style?
Absolutely. It’s just that - a style. It’s also worth bearing in mind that these styles are effectively caricatures, devised to make studying human behaviour more manageable. Which means that only a few of us are likely to be walking, text-book demonstrations of any given style of parenting.
In reality, many of us will tend to use one style in some aspects of our parenting, but not in others.
For instance, you might manage to be perfectly assertive when it comes to your child’s sleep, but for reasons that are unique to you and your child, you might adopt a different, possibly less helpful style when it comes to food. (This is another part of the fussy-eating puzzle that I’ll be looking at next month – how our own relationship with food can affect our children’s relationship with food.)
But whatever your situation, if your child’s fussy eating is making you unhappy, there is every reason to believe that things can change for the better. And for me this has nothing to do with judgements, guilt or regret, but everything to do with finding a way to help and support parents who are struggling with fussy eating.
Fussy eating seems to be something parents are largely expected to quietly endure – and it’s so common that it’s easy to convince yourself that it’s just the way things have to be. But that’s not the way I see it. This is something that can really grind parents down, suck the joy out of life, and even contribute to discord with other family members. Why should that be something that parents put up with, when there are nearly always things that can be done to help?
So if I were to tell you again that there’s one particular parenting style that has, on average, better outcomes for your child’s eating, I hope I can now convince you to see that wholeheartedly as a positive thing. Because what it could provide is the missing key that unlocks the door to happier mealtimes, a better feeding relationship with your child - and who knows what else.
If you’d like to find out about your parenting style and get help with your child’s fussy eating, please get in touch with me, Sarah, for a free initial consultation. I offer clients the option of taking a psychological assessment to help them understand their parenting style at no additional cost, as one of the tools in my coaching process.
Sarah is a family health coach with a specialism in child feeding. She offers one-on-one and small-group coaching to parents who want to make different diet and lifestyle choices to support their family’s health. If you think Sarah might be able to help you find better ways to support your health or your family’s health, please get in touch and ask for a free initial consultation.
If you’d like to read more about this topic, see Sarah's article on how children’s taste preferences are formed and what parents can do to help make those preferences as wide and varied as possible.
Vollmer, R and Mobley, A (2013) 'Parenting styles, feeding styles, and their influence on child obesogenic behaviors and body weight. A review', Appetite 71