My Child Isn’t a ‘Picky Eater.’ He’s a Highly Sensitive Person.

a highly sensitive child being a picky eater

When it comes to food, my highly sensitive child knows what his body needs.

Growing up as a highly sensitive person (HSP), I was lucky to have an HSP mother. Even though neither of us had the words to describe it at the time, we bonded over our similarities: how we needed to quietly unwind after stimulating experiences, our bent toward comfortable clothes, and the importance of snacks to avoid getting “hangry” (hungry + angry).

Having this understanding between us allowed my mom to go against the traditional parenting wisdom that would have labeled me as a “picky eater.” Now that I’m a parent of my own highly sensitive child, I’ve followed her example. 

You can thrive as an introvert or a sensitive person in a loud world. Subscribe to our email newsletter. Once a week, you’ll get empowering tips and insights. Click here to subscribe.

What High Sensitivity Looks Like With Food

Instead of embracing a mantra like, “You get what you get and don’t throw a fit,” my mom would set aside plain chicken for me whenever she made a certain casserole I could never bring myself to eat as a kid (and honestly, even as an adult). I couldn’t get past the texture of cream-of-something soup at the bottom and crushed up crackers on top. My gag reflex didn’t care how hungry I was.  

If I have a bad experience with a food, even if it’s only once, that food is off-limits forevermore. Because of that, I have a tendency to fixate on one meal for weeks at a time because I know exactly what to expect from the taste to the smell to even the feel of it.  

But sensitive people are different when it comes to how our trait manifests itself. For me, it’s all about texture, especially with food: I hate the squish of ripe blueberries and need my oatmeal to have the exact right amount of liquid. For my HSP child, it’s whether a food is spicy (which includes most spices, like garlic powder) or if it has a strong smell. (Chemical sensitivity is real!)

While I learned to quietly forego a food so I wouldn’t bring attention to my sensitivity, my nine-year-old (thankfully) has not. He lets me and my husband know when a meal doesn’t work for him, and we problem-solve together to find an alternative, even if that means a fruit-only dinner some nights. 

As we talk it through, he explains as much as he can, but that’s often not much since he’s still figuring out the words to describe his experience — especially when he’s already overstimulated

Discussions easily slide into unintelligible protests that, to others, might look like a tantrum. But since I’m an HSP, as well, I understand his discomfort on a deep level. What he does on the outside reflects how I feel on the inside. 

Is the chaos of life overwhelming you as a highly sensitive person?

Sensitive people have certain brain differences that make them more susceptible to stress and anxiety. Thankfully, there is a way to train your brain so you can navigate the challenges of sensitivity, access your gifts, and thrive in life. Psychotherapist and sensitivity expert Julie Bjelland will show you how in her popular online course, HSP Brain Training. As an Introvert, Dear reader, you can take 50% off the registration fee using the code INTROVERTDEARClick here to learn more.

Standing Up for My Child’s Sensitivity

Not everyone understands my sensitive child like I do. Even my husband, who is regularly empathetic to all of our kids, has a hard time. He’ll say — not unkindly — things like, “Well, if you’re hungry enough, you’ll eat, right?” 

But that’s not always the case for an HSP having sensitivity issues with food. There are many times I’ve gone hungry rather than cause “problems” — and that’s not what I want for my child. 

The first step in standing up for him was to normalize a full range of needs and boundaries within our home, with a particular focus on what we put in or on our bodies. Everyone doesn’t have to have the same boundaries for those boundaries to be legitimate. “Don’t yuck someone’s yum” is an often-repeated phrase in our family, especially when someone is tempted to comment on my HSP child’s plain spaghetti noodles. 

Parallel to discussions on boundaries, we also talk about striving for equity instead of equality. In the basic terms we use, equality is everyone receiving the same thing regardless, while equity is everyone receiving what they need — even and especially when those needs are different. So my other kids understand when my HSP child gets a modified meal. It’s not because we’re giving him “special treatment.” It’s because we’re treating all of them with equity. 

Sometimes standing up for my HSP child means literally speaking for him. When he feels safe, we practice finding, and using, words that clearly communicate how he feels, what his needs are, and what some possible solutions are. But in unfamiliar environments, or with pushy adults, I don’t hesitate to run interference when he lets me know he needs it. 

I become an example for him of how he can handle difficult situations in the future while validating that his feelings are important. I do the same for all of my kids when it comes to physical affection they don’t want (or any other overwhelming boundary-pushing). If an adult tells them they have to put something they don’t want on their plate, a quick and simple, “They know what their body needs” from me speaks volumes — to both the adult and my child. 

I Trust My HSP Child So He Keeps on Trusting Himself

One of the biggest worries parents have when it comes to food issues with our kids is whether they’re getting the nutrition they need. The balance between our kids’ autonomy, and our duty of care, is always a difficult one. What helped me the most was a shift in perspective from daily nutrition to overall nutrition. Rather than worrying over every meal or every day, I think about the nutritional balance of what my child has had that week, that month, or even that year. 

If my sensitive child lands on a fixation meal he wants to have over and over (like me) or doesn’t have a full dinner one night, I keep the long-game in mind. I trust him to — ultimately — know what is good for his body, even if that requires some trial and error. Because health is about more than the physical, and I want his mind and heart taken care of just as much. 

Trusting my HSP child not only saves him from being labeled a “picky eater,” but it reminds me to trust myself and my high sensitivity, too.

You might like:

This article contains affiliate links. We only recommend products we truly believe in.