What if your other child is following your fussy eater?
Siblings are always going to copy each other to some extent, and it is usually the behaviours you like the least that they follow the most 😊
If your child who is a fussy eater is the oldest it can make the situation even more tricky as they are modelling behaviour for the younger ones. Young children often look up to big brother or sister and want to copy what they are doing.
Why is your other child following your fussy eater?
If we have a picky eater they are often being inadvertently rewarded. We are obviously not meaning to reward them for their fussy eating, but it often ends up like that. There may be one or more of the following that apply in your family:
1. Their food is cool. Everyone else maybe wading through a stew, but the fussy eater has a plate of ‘high reward food’ in terms of crunchy, salty, sweet, moreish.
2. They can leave it. If the food is not to their liking, they get to leave it. Meanwhile the rest of the family is eating things that are okay, but not favourites every time.
3. Attention. They get a LOT of attention. Yes, much of this is negative, but attention is attention, and it becomes self-replicating.
i) You may be constantly talking to the fussy eater to encourage them to eat.
ii) They may get special food or have foods cooked to their exact specifications.
iii) You may stay at the table with them while they eat the broccoli or struggle through enough food, so they are not hungry in the night.
iv) Meals may revolve around what they can and can’t manage.
4. We pander to them. Where we may get frustrated and have little patience for another child whinging about food, often when we have a fussy eater we do bend over backwards to make sure we have their nuggets or the ‘right’ crackers.
When there are other siblings, they are watching all of this on a daily basis. There are a lot of messages being given out, and not all of them work in a parent’s favour.
If the fussy eater is the older one, then it’s natural they are following your fussy eater. However, even if they are younger a sense of ‘fairness’ can create conflict if there are different rules.
Am you likely to have 2 picky eaters?
Having two children who are extremely selective from the outset, or who have extreme anxiety around food is not at all common.
In my experience most families have ‘the’ fussy eater, and other siblings have a far easier relationship with food.
However, having a brother or sister who is extremely fussy can often cause other siblings to develop a disordered approach to food over time and so become less confident and competent.
It’s also interesting that siblings can become gradually fussy without parents even noticing. In comparison to the picky eater, they are still amazing.
What can you do if your child is following your fussy eater?
As parents it’s normal to feel powerless in the face of fussy eating. This can tip over into a fussy child gaining more and more ‘power’ over time.
When I interview parents I often ask, “who is in charge when it comes to food?”. Their answer – even if they have a two-year-old, is usually, “my child”.
Taking back charge of food and feeding is one of the key priorities when beginning to resolve fussy eating. Change is almost impossible if a child is calling the shots. It also makes it more difficult to stop a second child following your fussy eater.
There are some steps that help both take back control and help prevent picky eating in stereo!:
1. Serve only one meal. I speak to many families where the poor parent is making two or even three different meals every night (it should be illegal).
Does that mean serving a lasagne and everyone eats it or starves? No.
It’s having a family meal that everyone is expected to participate in. If you have a picky eater then this can be managed by serving part of that meal that ticks boxes for them, for example, the pasta.
This makes everything simpler for siblings too. They are not eating a meal that they don’t really enjoy while watching their brother or sister get to eat completely different or more favoured foods.
2. Role model. What parents eat and how they behave around food does have a big influence long term on the eating habits that children develop. Vegetable eating parents are more likely to have children who do the same.
It is part of the way that we show all our children how to eat and what that looks like. If the parent is eating vegetables, for example, with pleasure, they are demonstrating for both the fussy eater and the other siblings what to do.
This is different from a child sitting with an older sibling who is tucking into nuggets every night and that is their role model.
3. Positivity. Ensuring there are positive words and actions only at the table. There is enormous power in words and facial expressions. Think how crushing the words and actions of a bully can be for a young child.
If a fussy eater is saying “ew, disgusting” to the food on the table, it is far more challenging for other children to see it as delicious.
Similarly, if siblings are making faces and saying negative things about a food, it makes eating that, doubly hard for the picky eater.
Changing the way that everyone talks about food is critically important.
4. Labels. These can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Calling a child fussy or picky, tells them they are different, that they are not able to eat like the other family members.
It can also give a child a ‘get out of gaol-free card’ too. “I don’t need to try this as I’m a fussy eater.”
Siblings often take up the baton and talk about their brother or sister in these terms. It reinforces the message and makes it more challenging for progress. It can also become a title that has merits for a sibling!
5. Create chances. What is said and done at the table can have an enormous influence on what happens long-term.
“Oh, she won’t eat that” will probably make sure that she won’t.
If a child says “I don’t like that” it is also important to reframe. Any time anyone tells themselves over and over again that they can’t eat something, it tells the brain that it’s impossible. It’s the same reason we don’t want a child to say, “I’m bad at maths”.
Enabling everyone at the table to have some of everything on their plate supports eating variety. If we are just looking at nuggets, we are more likely to just eat nuggets.
For siblings having a plate that does have a selection of different foods, helps them to continue to eat variety.
6. Behaviour v fussy eating. If we have a picky eater there are often blurred lines between what is discomfort around food and what is “I only want to eat my favourites”.
Figuring out what is behavioural – and addressing it appropriately – is important. Siblings watching a fussy eater get special treatment at the table can be a source of conflict.
7. Assess. Look critically at what is happening at the table. Are siblings egging each other on at the table? Is your child grossed out by the way his younger sister eats? Does little brother follow everything that big brother does?
Can we separate them? Can we put something in between, to prevent the eye contact? What about changing seating arrangements?
8. Create family rules. Have easy and specific rules for behaviour at the table. Let everyone know what you expect and have everyone stick to those.
The family table is exactly that, a place to come together and reconnect in the middle of busy lives. What happens there can produce long term positives if we set out to create a place of enjoyment and pleasure.
Perfection is overrated and unobtainable, but when we set out to make the table a great place to be for everyone things tend to drop into place more easily.
Focus on the positives and play down the undesirable!
Having the fussy eater want to follow everyone else, rather than be the beacon to follow can absolutely be managed.
If you have topics you would like us to cover, please let us know!
Judith, MA Cantab (Cambridge University), Post Grad Dip Psychology (Massey University), is an AOTA accredited picky eating advisor and internationally certified nutritional therapist. She works with 100+ families every year resolving fussy eating and returning pleasure and joy to the meal table.
She is also mum to two boys and the author of Creating Confident Eaters and Winner Winner I Eat Dinner. Her dream is that every child is able to approach food from a place of safety and joy, not fear.
Learn more about Judith here: https://theconfidenteater.com/about/