menu icon
Search updated

Food for Thought

By Dr. Rosemary Helyar D Psychotherapy MSc Counselling

Most people welcoming a much wanted baby into the world can still remember the thrill of holding their child in their arms for the first time, and gazing at the tiny face of their incredibly precious newborn. Their baby is completely helpless, and totally dependent on them - the mother or main caregiver provides the vital link for survival. Feeding is very much part of that, and for optimum emotional health and wellbeing, this is ideally done in the context of a secure and peaceful environment. If all goes well it is a process bringing loving enjoyment to both mother and baby.

This is the ideal, but sometimes there are difficult circumstances which prevent this atmosphere, such as the baby needing to recover from a traumatic birth – in which case, that little one will need to be held lovingly and allowed to cry and cry in order to discharge all the feelings of shock and terror which were experienced during the birth process. In addition, the mother herself may need to recover, or she may suffer post natal depression. Should the latter be the case, treatment at the earliest opportunity is vital, because babies gaze into their mother’s eyes, especially whilst feeding, and need to receive a positive and loving reflection of themselves in return so that they feel valued and confident about themselves as human beings.

This bonding process is important for the child growing up to feel secure in life, and to have good body image. It may help later on to avoid the negative habit of comparing oneself adversely to ultra-thin fashion models, possibly becoming anorexic or bulimic in the attempt to imitate them.


When Children Refuse Food

Mums typically feel very anxious if their baby refuses to feed, and the strong link between food and love means that when food is refused it can feel to the mother that she herself is being rejected. When food is refused by a toddler, it is very easy for this to become a power-struggle between parent and child, but it is essential that a parent stay relaxed and calm – such a struggle could pave the way for an eating disorder when the child becomes a teenager. It can be a very familiar way of rebelling against parental wishes and authority.

A two-year old I know of had always been a very poor eater, and seemed to survive on biscuits and cakes. In talking with her mother, I discovered that what little she did eat took place seated at a small table whilst watching television, with her mother sitting beside her, scrutinizing what she ate and encouraging her to eat more. We thought about how the little girl might need a role-model for food enjoyment, so her mum began to bring items of food for herself which she ate with great relish. She noticed her daughter watching her, and sure enough, after a couple of days, the child asked for the same food as her mother and began to eat it, thus extending her range of food considerably. It seems possible that the mother’s anxiety and close attention to her daughter’s eating, or rather lack of it, had caused an overwhelming anxiety for the child and caused her to rebel against food.


As Much Choice as Possible, to Make up for Times when There is No Choice

So the moral is, stay cool, as they say! The process of digestion works best when we are calm and relaxed, and mealtimes can provide an important opportunity for parents and children to share thoughts and experiences, as well as for parents to model true enjoyment of food. Little ones have the same feelings as we do, and maybe it’s helpful to think about how we might feel if we were being ordered around for most of our day! Of course there are many times when children have to have decisions made for them, and a certain number of rules and boundaries help them feel secure, but in order to avoid provoking rebellious feelings, maybe give them as much choice as possible, especially around food, to make up for the times when there is no choice.


Lend a Listening Ear

In our pressurised society, there is often little opportunity for families to spend quality time together, with relaxation and enjoyment. Yet these are the times when young ones often open up to adults about things that are bothering them. Doing food preparation together such as podding broad beans or peeling potatoes, can provide an optimum moment for important conversations. It’s probably quicker to do these things yourself, but by taking the time to listen, you are giving your child much more than training in household chores. In addition, for the child to be involved in the preparation of the food can add to the enjoyment of eating it.


You, Not Your Grades!

All parents want their youngsters to do well and have a good start in life, but the pressure of achievement can be a daunting experience, and can lead to anorexia as a way of opting out of the whole rat-race and process of growing up. It’s great to receive approval for something we have done well, but the affirmation we really need is of ourselves as people. So, taking an interest in what matters to your child, and showing that you enjoy them and appreciate their personality is hugely important. Saying things like ‘One thing I love about you is your sense of humour’ or ‘I really like the way you are sensitive to other people’s feelings’ can go a long way to helping young people feel valued for who they are, not just what they achieve.


Life is Certain to Contain Change

Eating disorders can sometimes occur at times of transition, e.g. moving house, or going to a new school. This may be because change has become something to be afraid of, so it’s important to prepare children for changes, however small, from an early age. Even babies, from the reassuring tone of your voice, can understand that something different is about to happen, but that they will be perfectly safe. Most people find themselves in a rush sometimes, but if toddlers, for instance, are frequently being put in new situations without any warning, they may perhaps begin to view anything different with suspicion and dread.


A Good-Enough Parent

If, after reading this, you feel you have failed in some way, please don’t! You have always done your very best for your child – you would never have deliberately done less than that. No parent is perfect – you only have to be good enough!

This content remains the copyright of the author and may not be reproduced without their prior permission in writing.

Other Articles by Dr. Rosemary Helyar:

Some Myths about Food
The human body is a complex and intricate system which is easily disrupted when...

Looking for a Therapist?

Browse for therapists by topics related to this article:
Issue area(s): Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa
Therapy Type(s): Counselling, Psychotherapy