I am growing very worried about my 10 year old daughter who seems to have a real issue about the texture of food. Last week I cooked chicken which she normally likes but she refused to eat it because she said it had a funny texture. She actually gags and retches at some textures – it seems to be mostly vegetables. I thought she was just being fussy to begin with but I can see that she is actually very distressed about the retching. Does this sound like a physical issue or is it more of a mental/emotional issue and what do you suggest I do to help her?
Dr Elizabeth Shea says:
It sounds as though your daughter is sensory ‘hypersensitive’ or more sensitive than usual to the textures of certain foods. Sensory sensitivity refers to the way we react to information in the world around us. We take in information, or ‘stimuli’ via our senses such as sight, smell, taste, touch and hearing. This is then processed by the brain and leads to a physical response.
In children with hypersensitivity a typical response is to try to reduce or avoid the stimulation from the sense that is too strong. For your daughter this means retching, gagging and refusing foods of a certain texture. In addition, her dislike of vegetables, which can have strong bitter tastes, may indicate she is also hypersensitive to certain smells and tastes.
Our sensory sensitivities are innate (inborn). Very often we first notice such sensitivities when we start weaning a baby onto solids, particularly textured or lumpy foods. A hypersensitive baby will gag or vomit on the lumps and may then refuse textured foods. In older children hypersensitivity can develop into a strong disgust response and retching or gagging at the sight of a food that is disliked or unfamiliar.
It is interesting that you are noticing this behaviour more in your daughter recently. Hypersensitivity can become worse when we are stressed or anxious. This is because we become ‘hyper-aware’ of particular stimuli and notice them much more than usual. I wonder whether there maybe something else going on at the moment which might be increasing your daughter’s anxiety and making her hypersensitivity worse?
The good news is there are simple ways for you to help her. Gathering as much information as you can about what sensory stimuli she finds difficult will help identify which foods are ‘safe’ and ok for her to eat. An assessment by an Occupational Therapist can help with this.
It is possible to overcome specific hypersensitivities by a process called ‘desensitisation’. This uses a series of steps to gradually expose a child to a difficult stimuli. Messy play is an example of this.
Professionals such as Occupational Therapists, Speech and Language Therapists or Psychologists can design a programme for you to use at home.
Lastly it is important to help manage your daughter’s distress. Make sure she is allowed her ‘safe’ foods and don’t push her to eat those foods she finds difficult. Relaxation can also help lower her anxiety and when used alongside desensitisation can help children try foods they have previously found difficult.
Dr Elizabeth Shea (BA, BSc, CPsychol, AFBPsS) is a Clinical Psychologist who works with children and young people who have problems with refusing and avoiding foods. Dr Shea runs workshops and therapy for children who are food averse and have very restrictive diets, alongside Dr Gillian Harris, at the Birmingham Food Refusal Service. Read more about Dr Shea.