“Come on, try it, just one bite.”
“No!” This time accompanied by the look.
One would think I was talking with a toddler instead of my 10 year old, who can be just as fussy about what she eats now, as she was at the age of 2.
“It’s just a phase.” my friends assured me, “She’ll grow out of it.” She didn’t grow out of it, and I started to worry. I followed the advice of experts and presented the same foods over, and over, anxiously waiting for that magic moment when she would finally try something new. When she occasionally did, it was no guarantee that she’d like it or would agree to ever trying it again. She had no medical pre-conditions, no over-sensitive gag reflex, or food allergy, just an overabundance of stubbornness, which unfortunately she got from her mom.
So why are we seeing such drama now? When our kids were toddlers, we learned to be sneaky with food. We knew to look at the big picture. We tried not to worry so much about individual meals, and instead focused our energy on how many food groups she ate by the end of each day, or sometimes by the end of each week.
This conflict is less about specific foods or hunger, and more about being a sign of a child’s emerging independence. The toddler years are rife with power struggles so we expect to see fussy eaters at this stage.
Any parent of a pre-teen knows a new power struggle over something is inevitable. Once again, your child is attempting to find herself, but now there are social influences added to the mix. At this age, your child starts spending more time away from home. She has sleepovers at her friends’ houses and you’d better believe she is checking out what they’re eating while she’s there.
“The pre-teen’s food quirks are typically a response to things like peer pressure or a budding social conscience,” Says Melanie J. Katzman, Ph.D., and associate professor of psychology at Weill Medical College of Cornell University in New York City, in the July 2004 issue of Parents magazine.
Is there anyone she knows who is a vegetarian or vegan? Perhaps your own family doesn’t eat all, or any, animal products and she is curious about trying the forbidden foods. Maybe an athlete she admires is endorsing a product that promises to make her just like them, so she has to try it. It’s possible her coach has mentioned something about loading up on carbohydrates before the next meet, and she’s taken it to the extreme thinking more is better.
Growth spurts can also affect appetite. Most girls experience a lot of growth between the ages of 10 and 12, and will consume an extra 200 calories a day to fuel that growth. Of course, other factors can influence these numbers. When a child is out playing soccer after school, she’ll naturally need more to eat than on the days she is chair-bound doing homework for 2-3 hours.
The pre-teen years can be busy and difficult but it comes down to what can we, as parents, do?
In general, a parent’s job is to put a healthy variety of foods in front of their child. It is the child’s job to decide what and how much to eat. Some kids simply don’t have the adventurous streak that trying new foods requires. As frustrating as this stage is, if your doctor is satisfied with your child’s growth rate, stop worrying.
Experts caution parents against falling into the trap of staving off starvation by allowing children to have junk food, or offering rewards, leaving the impression that the food in question is so bad it needs a bribe to get someone to eat it.
Your child’s eating preferences may very well be typical and harmless, but it’s important to be aware of the possibility that their poor eating habits could be an indication of bigger problems.
Signs of a possible Eating Disorder
Some fussiness about food is natural during the pre-teen years. If you feel your child isn’t thriving or that her issues with food are extreme here are some signs to watch for:
* Has she had a sudden drop in weight? This is rarely the sign of a healthy pre-teen. Kids should be gaining weight at this age.
* Does she have an excessive preoccupation with her appearance?
* Does she make disparaging, judgmental, or critical comments about her body?
* Is she experiencing unexplained headaches, stomach pain, dizziness, or the feeling of being overly tired when she has been getting her usual sleep?
* Does she have dark circles under her eyes, or pale and unhealthy looking skin?
If you are at all concerned, consult your family doctor or pediatrician. Although not as common, boys can also suffer with eating disorders and the possibility should not be overlooked based solely on gender.
Kids’ food preferences will continue to change even into adulthood. I’m sure there are some foods you love, and some you could live without indefinitely. When you set a good example, and provide nutritious options for your kids, you’ve done your job. Some kids eat too much, some eat too little, and others are just plain picky. If you’reconfident that your son or daughter is achieving a balanced diet with their current menu choices, and is growing at an acceptable rate, continue to be vigilant, but stop worrying.