Food is frightening for my fussy eater
“My child seems genuinely frightened of food”.
“My child recoils, they are scared to touch certain things”.
These are common things to hear when I am working with families. It is understandably really difficult for parents when this happens.
Thinking that our child is scared of something so basic and critical for life is really confronting. It also erodes our confidence in being able to help them to overcome their picky eating challenges.
Why food is frightening for a child
As a psychology postgraduate I am privileged to be able to listen to psychologists from all around the world speaking about their specialty subjects to other psychologists. One of the workshops I attended recently was with a renowned expert on fears and phobias and how to treat them effectively.
The parallels with what happens for children who are really uncomfortable around foods is really obvious to see.
A really food anxious child is seeing foods and feeling the same about them as many adults do about snakes, mice or heights, for example. The food elicits the same fear response, and their body goes into fight, flight or freeze mode.
Think of something you find scary and the way that it raises your heart rate, makes you breathe differently, maybe sweat a little and get all jittery.
That’s the normal response to something that triggers us.
It just does not feel ‘normal’ to us when it is over a new nugget or a lasagne.
What we can do to treat fears
Treating a phobia like spiders is all about finding a new level of comfort around it.
This same methodology is the most common way to support children who find eating challenging. It is all focused on gently building more and more of a comfort level around a food.
I know this sounds simple and sensible, and it is. However, putting it into practice can seem impossible for us to do as a parent. How can we help a child who seems so scared of something so innocuous?
What we can do if food is frightening
If a child is fearful around food, or even if they aren’t but find new foods too difficult to eat, then stepping right back is often the best way to start.
If we are frightened of spiders, for example, then the first step would be to find out what is scary, what makes us feel the way we do. From there it is looking for gentle ways to gradually expose us to spiders in a way that is manageable.
It would start with the least challenging thing, perhaps that is looking at a picture of a spider in a book, or on the TV screen.
From there it may be working up to seeing a real spider over on the other side of the room. The theory is that as we do this we gradually become more comfortable with the spider and can challenge the irrational fears that hold us captive.
Yes, it’s a spider but it actually is not going to hurt us and over time we can convince the instinctive, stay safe part of our brain that nothing bad will happen to us, despite all our worries!
The same methodology is very effective with food.
If a child is younger, they probably cannot articulate what makes them feel uncomfortable about a food. Even older children may find this really difficult to begin with as they can ‘shut down’ around new foods.
However, even though we may not be able to speak to them about the food, we can observe. In fact, this is always the first step:
1. Observe. Spend a week looking carefully at what is happening, where the challenges occur and what are triggers for our child.
2. Meet a child where they are at. It doesn’t matter where you are starting but it’s always important to make sure that you begin at a level that is comfortable for your child.
3. Establish the comfort level. For example, if bananas are a big NO food then what is okay for a child?
i) Can your child comfortably walk past bananas in the supermarket?
ii) Can your child tolerate them in the fruit bowl in the kitchen?
iii) Are the bananas okay to be on the table?
iv) Is your child comfortable if a banana is next to them?
v) Are they able to touch a banana in its peel?
vi) What happens if one is peeled?
vii) Can they have a banana on their plate?
Using degrees of comfort like this you can work out where a child is at. From there it is planning how to gently increase that comfort level. Each time they are able to progress to a new level of comfort, that is progress.
Building comfort for children who genuinely find food is frightening is rarely about eating to begin with and so progress is also not about whether they eat or not.
Eating is the final part of the puzzle. The journey there and ensuring all the other pieces are placed correctly is just as important.
Working with a child around the banana if they are scared is not going to be focused on eating. It is going to be about the gradual exposure, like the spider.
The spider therapy would be gently increasing the comfort level. It would also about being able to cope with an encounter, whether that is in the bathroom or on the garden chair.
The banana is no different.
If being on the table is a challenge, there is a lot of work to be done before a child is going to be okay to sit for a snack and have a banana in front of them.
I worked with a family who had a son with autism, and he was really, really phobic about fruit, and especially bananas.
His mother bought wooden versions of the fruit in the right shapes and colours and spent a few months playing with these.
One day she swapped the yellow, banana-shaped block for a real banana. Her son happily accepted it.
This all sounds like a LOT of work and energy. And it can be. But I always relate it back to reading. If a child struggles to read, we know that it could be a lot of work to help them to improve. We also know that the better our child reads the easier many things will be for them.
Eating is just the same. Not being able to eat a variety of foods can be very isolating and limiting and not just for a child too. It affects the whole family.
Practical things to do if food is frightening
Meet a child where they are at and look for ways to support them to move forwards.
For example, if they are not able to touch the banana, can they pass a fruit bowl with a banana in it? If a child does this for a few weeks you will be amazed at how much less confronting the banana may feel.
From there what is the next step? Perhaps it is bringing you a bunch of bananas in the supermarket or helping unpack them from the shopping bag when you get home.
Every time our child interacts with a food, they are gradually reducing their fear.
No, this does not get them eating it – right now – but there is no way anyone will happily eat something they are not even comfortable touching, so that is where we start.
Even if your child is not as uncomfortable around foods, the consistent exposure and moving in gentle ever so slightly more challenging steps towards the end goal of eating, will be a lovely, gentle way to make progress.
If you have questions about why food is frightening or you read one of my other articles and it brings up questions, please feel free to ask. I respond personally to all queries.
Judith, MA Cantab (Cambridge University), Post Grad Dip Psychology (Massey University), is an AOTA accredited picky eating advisor and internationally certified nutritional therapist. She works with 100+ families every year resolving fussy eating and returning pleasure and joy to the meal table.
She is also mum to two boys and the author of Creating Confident Eaters and Winner Winner I Eat Dinner. Her dream is that every child is able to approach food from a place of safety and joy, not fear.
Learn more about Judith here: