“I am a superhero”: Joecel and his mom work to address feeding challenges

joecel eats a cupcake
Today, Joecel is enjoying a wider variety of foods.

Joecel Castillo loves Spiderman, Batman, He-Man — and pancakes. They’re the sorts of favorites that might show up on any 5-year-old’s list, but Joecel isn’t just any 5-year-old. In fact, until recently, pancakes wouldn’t have been among his favorite things. Very few foods would have been. “He wouldn’t even eat his own birthday cake,” says his mom, Sharycel.

Frustration and blame

Joecel’s feeding difficulties began before he was even a year old. When Sharycel started to introduce him to solid foods, he wasn’t interested, and she had to blend his meals to the consistency of baby food to get him to try them. As time went on, she noticed that Joecel wasn’t gaining weight as he should — and the list of things he would eat was extremely limited. “It was painful to go to parties or restaurants and tell people that he didn’t eat when they offered him food,” she says. “I blamed myself.”

Then Joecel’s nutritionist referred them to the Growth and Nutrition Program at Boston Children’s Hospital. There, psychologist Ryan Davidson, PhD, and the rest of the team worked with Sharycel and her son to gradually expand his palate. Sharycel learned that many kids have behavioral and sensory difficulties around food, often for no clear reason.

Taking the pressure off

After discovering that it might take years for Joecel to start eating more solid foods, Sharycel realized that she had to be patient. “I had to put myself in his shoes,” she explains. “We all have foods we don’t enjoy. I know I wouldn’t want to feel pressured to eat things I don’t like.” The shift in thinking was an “a-ha” moment for Sharycel. “I always respect how he feels about a certain food, even if I think it tastes good — I know he’ll get there eventually.”

Sharycel also uses tactics like giving Joecel samples of new foods without pressuring him to eat them. She encourages him to feel and taste it, though, and they talk about what flavors like sweet and salty mean. Her friends and family now understand that they can’t force food on Joecel or judge him, either. And she’s taught Joecel affirmations to help address his stress around food: “I am brave. I am smart. I am a superhero.”

Making progress

Today, Joecel is enjoying a wider variety of foods. Although pancakes are still his current favorite, he also likes cereal, waffles, eggs, and chicken nuggets. And when he turned 5, he finally got a taste of birthday cake. Once shy, he’s now a confident and outgoing little boy.

His mom is both grateful for his care team and proud of the progress she and Joecel have made. “We have the best clinical team, but I do a lot as a parent, too — I have to put their recommendations into action for them to work,” says Sharycel. And she’s willing to stay patient and go at her son’s pace. “Joecel is healthy; he’s running and playing — and that’s the most important part.”

Request an appointment with the Growth and Nutrition Program.

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