Food is frightening for my picky eater
“My child seems frightened of food and is scared to touch certain things”. This is something I hear all the time when working with families.
When parents tell me this it is often with a lot of emotion and concern.
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.
I am in the process of qualifying as a psychologist, and this last week have been reading about phobias and how to treat them effectively. The parallels with what happens for children who are really uncomfortable around foods are really obvious to see.
A really food anxious child is seeing foods and feeling the same about them as many adults do about snakes or heights, for example. The food elicits the same fear response and our body goes into fight or flight 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.
What’s the treatment?
Treating a phobia like spiders is all about finding a new level of comfort around it.
This same methodology is the most popular way to support children who find eating challenging. It is gently building more and more of a comfort level around a food.
I know this sounds simple and sensible, but often seems like it is impossible for us to do as a parent!
How can we help?
If our 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. Then it would be discovering a list of ways to gradually expose us to it.
Always starting, of course, with the least challenging thing, which in this case maybe looking at a picture of a spider in a book.
From there we may work up to seeing one over the other side of the room. As we do this we gradually become more comfortable and are able to challenge our fears as nothing bad happens to us, despite all our worries!
The same methodology is very effective with food.
If our 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.
But, even though we may not be able to speak to them about the food, we can observe. It’s a really good idea to do this.
Spend a week observing carefully what is happening, where the challenges occur and what are triggers for our child. What specifically do they seem to find difficult?
Then we always meet our child where they are at.
If bananas are a big NO food then where does our child’s comfort level sit? :
– Are they able to comfortably walk past them in the supermarket?
– Can they tolerate them in the fruit bowl in the kitchen?
– Are they OK on the table?
– Is it OK to touch them?
– What happens if one is peeled?
– Is it OK to be on our child’s plate?
Working out where our child is at and then looking to gently increase that comfort level is a great way to support progress.
This is very rarely about eating!!
Eating is the final part of the puzzle. Making sure we have done all the other pieces correctly is just as important.
Working with our 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 our 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 our child is going to be OK to sit for a snack and have a banana in front of them.
I worked with a family who had a son with ASD, 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 our 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 our child too. It affects the whole family.
What can we do?
Meet our 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 we have them pass a fruit bowl with a banana in it?
If our child does this for a few weeks you will be amazed at how much less confronting the banana feels.
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 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 the best way to make progress.
If you read one of my blogs and it brings up questions, please feel free to ask.
Judith is mum to two boys, a tween and a teen and is the author of Creating Confident Eaters. My dream is that every child is able to approach food from a place of safety and joy, not fear.
I delight in showing parents how to get picky eaters eating in simple, gentle, practical steps that anyone can master.
I graduated from Cambridge University and have qualifications in nutrition, parent education and am a trained telephone support worker for ParentHelpline. I am currently working towards qualifying as a psychologist. I would love to understand more of the “why” behind fussy eating and to eventually spearhead research in this area.
Learn more about Judith here: https://theconfidenteater.com/about/