Picky Kids and the Codependent Mom: Three Tips to Break the Cycle

Oct 10, 2010 by

It’s taken me awhile to figure out what “codependent” means.  What I’ve learned makes me think that codependency is actually pretty common among us parents.  If we aren’t living with an alcoholic or an addict or an abuser (yet), we may think, “That’s not me.”  But parents of picky eaters may be just inches away from falling into the role of a codependent.

Codependency is more complicated than the joke I’ve seen about you and your cat falling into those roles: he likes being petted and you like petting him. In its classic form, it’s rather that your daughter is an addict and you bail her out, cover for her, fail to hold her responsible for anything, maybe even give her money for her fixes so she doesn’t suffer, making it easy for her to continue her habit, all with the goal of changing her. It may also be rather that your son likes to eat junk food and you like to feed it to him, though you might be complaining the whole while.

Codependency is perpetuating your child’s problems by trying to over-control, all while enabling those problems and taking them on as your own. It’s being overly tied up with another person’s problems in a way that makes the problems worse for both parties. Being codependent is anything but fun, yet it can be hard to see clearly to breaking free. The boundaries of where we need to back off and where we need to hold the line can be impossibly blurry.

Parents of picky eaters are perfect candidates for codependency.

If, for example, your child, Josh, a little overweight, refuses to eat but a few things: bean-and-cheese tacos, sausage pizza and chicken nuggets, you offer bribes, get emotional, beg, threaten and yell at him to eat the healthy meals you fix. But he won’t eat them, so he cries for what he wants to eat, and you give it to him. You always keep those foods on hand, so he won’t go hungry.

Mom is the one being controlled by little Josh while the problem continues. She makes it possible for him keep doing the destructive thing. Meanwhile, emotionally, his problem is more Mom’s problem than his.

“When we attempt to control people and things that we have no business controlling, we are controlled,” writes Melody Beattie, in Codependent No More: How to Stop Controlling Others and Start Caring for Yourself.

Beattie gives a few pointers that can be applied to codependents in the feeding relationship to breaking free from the cycle of codependency:

1. Take care of yourself. Making dinner is normal. Making two dinners every night, including a special one to please the picky, is not. Getting up to feed a three-week-old in the middle of the night is normal. Doing it for a three-year-old or a 13-year-old is not.  If your eight-year-old wakes you up in the night because he’s hungry, he needs to find himself sorry he did so, not rewarded for doing so.

Just because you’re suffering doesn’t mean you’re doing the best thing for your child. Taking care of yourself is not selfishness, or mutually exclusive of taking care of your child. Kids benefit by learning to respect others’ rights and needs. They also are likelier to learn normal eating habits.

2. Detach and minimize your reactions. “Sometimes people behave in certain ways to provoke us to react in a certain way,” Beattie explains. “If we stop reacting in these certain ways, we take all the fun out of it for them. We remove ourselves from their control and take away their power over us.”

3. Let kids be more responsible for their own actions and own problems. Providing healthy, tasty meals is normal. Making sure kids eat it is not. Picky eating is a direct reaction to being pressured to eat. Have faith in children’s ability to know how much they need to eat and what they need to eat, from among your healthy choices.

Kids making choices about what they eat–when all the options are good–is normal. Kids making choices about what parents offer them to eat is less so. If they want a certain food or want it a certain way, and seem to be jerking you around, engage their efforts to make it happen.  If little Josh wants something complicated, give him the job. Don’t work twice as hard in the name of giving them “choices” (see number one above) or just to get them to eat. It doesn’t work. Parents should provide the best foods possible, and then they need to back off.

When we over-control, writes Beattie, “People will either resist our efforts or redouble their efforts to prove we can’t control them.” They also tend to punish us somehow when we try to make them do something they don’t want to do, she notes. We parents gotta make kids do some things, but we don’t ever need to feel responsible for making them eat. Their appetites equip them perfectly to take care of themselves from day one.

Beattie examines why the codependent parent works so hard, to everyone’s detriment:

“We control in the name of love.

We do it because we’re ‘only trying to help.’

We do it because we know best.

We control because we’re afraid not to.

We do it because we don’t know what else to do.

We control be cause we think we have to.”

Related posts:

Eating Power Struggles with Kids: Why they’re Useless and How to End Them

The False Dilemma of Controlling What Kids Eat


I love this article. My 3 (almost 4) yr. old son is a cautious eater for this very reason. I have devoured all of your articles and wish you would write a book including examples of meals and recipes you provided for your family along the way. I get so caught up in offering him choices to the point that he doesn't want anything but what he wants when he wants it. He's gradually narrowed his food preferences to an embarrassingly short list. I am "snapping" out of this fog I've been in and taking back the reigns but it's not easy. He is defiant, skipping meals, and snacks and trying to wear me down to get the things he wants. I am not a "sit there and eat", or "just one bite" parent, but I am guilty of preparing or getting take out meals that I know he'll be comfortable with because I don't want to face the tantrums. You are so right about hunger being the best motivator, it's just the tantrums in between snacks and meals that are not fun to deal with. I would love more specific info on what and how to offer snacks and breakfast/lunch meals too. Thank you for providing such valuable insight and information.


What is interesting to learn is that many people who become codependent adults learn the behavior at a young age. I did from my mother and I am fighting to prevent my children from learning it from me. I'm stretching to think of how a picky eater could grow up to become the codependent, but it might be something like this... 'My mom never forced me to eat my vegetables and now I have children who won't do it either. I will give them what they want (or my spouse or whomever) because that is how you show someone you love them.' It is that 'loving' behavior, a.k.a. enabling, that translates into a lack of accountability or justice that drives the future abuse cycle. Right is right and wrong is wrong and when a parent tries to make a situation that even a kid knows is wrong and unjust into a right - the message is 'I, your mom, don't deserve to be treated fairly'. The flip side danger is that the child could become too self-important in the relationship and that can translate over to all sorts of bad behaviors in adult relationships. All this may be a bit of a stretch in regards to 'just' picky eating, but on a broader scale it is true. Kudos to you for calling a bad relationship what it is. I'm just starting to get into the roots of my own codependent behavior at codepenentme.wordpress.com but I know that a lot of the roots go back to experiences when I was 8 years old and possibly even younger. Good luck with the picky eaters!

Anna Migeon
Anna Migeon

Miss Manners is shocked and dismayed that grown adults would come to your house and express their preferences like that on the spot. Miss Manners would think twice about inviting those people over again. I don't know which is worse: those who won't touch a single bite of vegetables or whatever of my home cooked, healthy food (this happens frequently), or those who turn their noses up frivolously because it's not healthy enough (those are far rarer, I find). I don't see such behavior as you describe as an extension of childhood rebellion unless their parents were junk food junkies, maybe. Though it may indicate a general attitude of fussiness and hard-to-pleasedness and disagreeableness that Miss Manners finds rather unappealing in a person, to say the least. Such attitudes should be extinguished well before adulthood. I see the phenomenon you describe rather as the extreme logical conclusion of cold culture thinking (I have a story to tell here: http://sacredappetite.wordpress.com/2010/06/21/cold-culture-eating-why-eating-at-the-table-together-isn’t-happening-for-some-american-kids-and-seven-tips-to-warming-up-the-culture-at-your-table/), the view that eating is an individual, please-yourself and merely physical act. Instead of seeing food as something to be shared and a meal with others as something we do to be sociable, agreeable and human, we see it as something we do to please ourselves. Liking the food or getting what we want is the main issue. Being personally pleased is key. I think your "friends" would do well to respond to dinner invitations like this: "We have such a restricted diet that why don't you come over to our house and we'll feed you." Or they should find some graceful way to get out of it. Or they should only talk to people that eat the same way they do. My policy is to ask people before they come over for the first time if there are things they won't or can't eat, or swell up and die if they eat. Usually I forget and let the chips fall where they may. If I know ahead of time someone is fussy, I try to have somethings they will eat but I don't usually try very hard to please them. Since we can't change those people, that might be one way to weed them out before you endure another awkward evening such as you describe. For me, there's a natural selection process; people who don't like my food, well, I don't feel very motivated to invite them back. People that are enthusiastic and appreciative naturally inspire me to cook for them again. That way everyone is happy. Here is a blog post by another blogger that I read some time back and thought was good on this subject: http://www.passionatehomemaking.com/2010/01/can-natural-living-become-an-idol.html I think what you would say to your quests is quite nice, nonjudgmental, and polite and may work to get rid of them at that point. You can go out into the highways and byways and compel more appreciative friends to come in and share that meal. I don't think I would start cooking different food on the spot if such guests showed up and informed me they wouldn't eat my food, unless I had something super easy and quick on hand that met their standards, like some lettuce. How uncomfortable such a situation must have been. However, if someone has cancer, for example, and is doing an extreme diet in hopes of surviving, obviously they have a good excuse to say, "I only eat organic, vegan, or whatever, because it might save my life." Or people who suffer from problems like Celiac disease or allergies should feel free to tell you upon being invited. If I know someone is in delicate health, I make sure to ask if they have restrictions. Those in normal health should realize that eating one meal that's not perfect isn't going to kill them if they eat mostly perfect meals. The body can process a certain amount of toxins. Even the Bible says somewhere to eat whatever is put before us. But here I am, probably preaching to the choir.

Rhonda Dickson
Rhonda Dickson

So how do you feel about grownups who come to your house and state that they will not eat any food that is not organic, vegetarian, free range, or fair trade? This happens to be the night you are cooking steaks and nonorganic baked potatoes. Is this any different than the rebellious child, or just an extension of what happens as the rebellious child grows up? Would you cook a special meal for this person, in addition to the food you had already prepared, or would you simply say, "I was not aware that you had food preferences. Had I known, I would have prepared accordingly. However, I am not offended if you decline to join us." The column is coming along nicely. I am proud of you.

Jamie Janosz
Jamie Janosz

Very helpful! Good suggestions... I also think we tend to think that kids can't grow and change their tastes. I remember the day Sabrina finally discovered salad. Now she loves loves loves it and eats salad every day. It happened without any prodding. I also think choosing adventurous restaurants is good for kids. While they might not try new foods at Applebee's, they might just surprise you at a Middle Eastern of Japanese restaurant.... I love your writing!!!!

Lisa Melton Cadora
Lisa Melton Cadora

Brava, Anna! Melodie Beattie (and the Holy Spirit) set me free some ten years ago. Smart of you to enlist her in this.


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