The family is at the table, dinner is served and only Anxiety is being Fed! “Oh don’t be ridiculous, it’s only peas!”. Now dad is getting tired, “just eat your food, it is not going to kill you”. “Come on just one bite and then off you go!”
Of course peas are inoffensive, they are cute and round and green. They taste sweet, if only he would try…The kid’s face says it all: scared, stressed and somewhat humiliated.
Anxiety is at epidemic levels
I have seen this look of utter panic on my nephews’ faces some 20 odd years ago! Many years have gone past, I have become a Fussy Eater Specialist and I see this look on so many children. Anxiety is, according to author Graham Davey, at epidemic levels[i].
“Genetic inheritance”, he says “is not an overwhelming contributor to the variance in our anxiety”. “This strongly suggests that anxiety may somehow be socially ‘transmitted’ within the family”[ii]. There is also some interest in looking at how one’s gut flora (microbiota) may impact one’s levels of anxiety and you can read about this here.
Fussy Eaters are often anxious
According to a study Duke University fussy eaters are more likely to have symptoms of anxiety. A study published in 2015, compared groups of children with moderate Selective Eating and severe Selecting Eating. They showed that both moderate and severe levels of SE were associated with symptoms such as anxiety, depression, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. As SE became more severe, the severity of Anxiety and ADHD also worsened[iii].
Let’s see if we can help alleviate some of it:
- Remove pressure in feeding your child, using theDOR will help you do just that.
- Avoid commenting on nutrition, size, junk or healthy food.
- Avoid berating or mocking, your child.
- If you must talk about food at dinner, talk about texture, taste or colour for e.g.
- Have a routine that helps children make sense of their day.
- Use transitions that predict that routine.
- Think about the skills your children are learning at the dinner table, such as socialising, being polite, sitting down for about 20 min.
- Praise the skills not the eating.
- Have a relaxed fun conversation, crack the odd joke.
- Use music, scents, breathing, movement whatever calms everyone down before meals.
- Avoid expressing your fears (about growth or development or else) in front of your child. A study found that children whose mothers always reported expressing fears, had children with the highest levels of self-reported fears.
- Model some level of risk-taking rather than avoidance. If avoidance is a coping strategy when confronted with threats and challenges, then it is likely to transmit social anxiety. Obviously if you have your own difficulties with food, helping yourself before you can help your child may be beneficial.
- Adopt a relaxed face, at mealtimes, as children as young as 10 months have been shown to respond with fear to fearful gestures and expressions.
- Avoid being a helicopter parent in feeding. You know the type who removes any food the child is reacting to etc. Give your child the opportunity to sort himself out with your food offerings.
- If your child is anxious in many other areas of his/her life, and anxiety is debilitating, talk to your GP will be able to direct you therapy and sometimes medication can help.
In the meantime and back to the dinner table, there is a lot you can do to help your child. If you are stuck, if the feeding relationship between your child and yourself is damaged you can contact the Fussy Eater Specialist here.
[i] The anxiety epidemic Graham Davey, ISBN, 978-1-47214-096-8
[ii] Fliek, L., Roelofs, J., van Breukelen, G. et al. A Longitudinal Study on the Relations Among Fear-Enhancing Parenting, Cognitive Biases, and Anxiety Symptoms in Non-clinical Children.Child Psychiatry Hum Dev 50, 631–646 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10578-019-00868-7
Feinman, S. (Ed.). (1992). Social referencing and the social construction of reality in infancy. Plenum Press. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4899-2462-9
[iii] Zucker N, Copeland W, Franz L, et al. “Psychological and psychosocial impairment in preschoolers with selective eating.”Pediatrics 2015 Sep; 136(3):e582–e590. doi: 10.1542/peds.2014-2386. Epub 2015 Aug 3.
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