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Picky Eaters, Tantrums, Thumb-Sucking, Oh My!


When Debbie Koenig’s son started to refuse foods he had previously loved, she realized that his picky eating was a power issue. “The more I pushed, the worse it got,” says Koenig.
Picky eating, thumb-sucking, tantrums—there is no shortage of challenges that parents of toddlers deal with on a daily basis. What’s the best way to handle them? Or, is there a way to prevent them?

Picky eaters
Despite Koenig’s experience, her son is now a healthy, growing seven year old. While she did have to struggle with her son’s picky eating, she learned how to deal with it.

“It’s my job as the parent to provide a variety of healthy foods. It’s my son’s job to decide whether and how much to eat of each thing,” she says. That might mean that she prepares vegetable lo mein for the family and her son only eats the noodles. Problem? Nope. She trusts that as he watches his parents enjoy the meal, eventually he will come around.

Koenig has found a good balance of control for her family: She chooses what’s for dinner, making sure that there’s at least one thing that she knows her son likes. But, she doesn’t cook just for him.

Interestingly, research supports an evolutionary theory behind picky eating that we often have an innate fear of trying new foods because of the danger that they might be poisonous. This is more common in children who haven’t learned as they grow older what is okay to eat and what is not. 

Dr. Ashley Albarado, a child and adolescent psychiatrist with Psychiatry Associates of Baton Rouge, points out that most children overcome picky eating with parent modeling and encouragement to try new foods, but notes, “Some children may remain picky eaters as an expression of their cautious and inhibited personalities. It’s best to start early and introduce a wide range of tastes and textures to your child. Set an example for your child with your own diet, and praise him for trying new foods. Most importantly, make sure your child has a well-balanced diet and is growing appropriately.” 

Tantrums
We’ve all witnessed toddler tantrums, often emotionally charged and way too often, very public. What to do?

First, understand what they are and why they happen. According to Dr. Albarado, “Around two years old, children are forming their own identities and exploring their environments. Tantrums can be a bid to establish dominance, control internal anxiety, or gain attention.” Research shows that tantrums really are a part of a child’s natural development, but parents need to know how to handle them. 

So, how to deal? “Remain calm and in control of the situation,” says Dr. Albarado. “Establish firm boundaries about which behaviors are not okay and what the consequences are for those behaviors.” Parents can also assess factors such as a child being hungry, tired, or overwhelmed by stimuli that contributed to the tantrum. For example, don’t overwhelm a child with too many choices. Offering whether he wants to wear the blue shirt or the red one is far likely to meet with success than laying out every shirt he owns for selection. He still has a sense of control when given a choice without having to select among every color of the rainbow. 

Try talking through things that are going to happen and offer your child countdowns for transitions. However, if tantrums truly are becoming uncontrollable, disruptive to the family, or escalating, Dr. Albarado recommends that a parent see the child’s pediatrician or a mental health professional. 

Biting
Just as tantrums can surface when a child won’t bend to an adult’s requests, biting can also come from a toddler’s frustration. Dr. Albarado explains, “Although childhood biting is very distressing to all involved, it actually is common in toddlerhood, especially when they cannot express their frustration verbally. Helping a child identify his feelings and appropriate ways to express feelings can help decrease biting.”

What if the child continues the behavior? Dr. Albarado stresses that, “Frequent biting, self-injurious biting, or other acts of aggression may indicate it’s time to see a mental health professional or your pediatrician about the problem.” 

Thumb-sucking
For some babies, it’s the pacifier. For others, it’s the thumb. And for some, the practice goes on much longer than the parent would like.

Is this really a cause for concern? “Most toddlers outgrow thumb or pacifier sucking, but some continue it as a self-soothing behavior,” says Dr. Albarado. “Anxiety is one reason a child may continue to suck his thumb. Teaching your child new ways to calm fears may diminish this behavior. Often, changes in a child’s environment may trigger new anxieties, which will diminish as the child adjusts. See your pediatric dentists if you are concerned about the effect of thumb sucking on your child’s permanent teeth or palate. If your child continues to have excessive anxiety, consider seeking professional help.” ■

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01 Nov 2018


By Daytona Strong

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