Does your child get anxious when they eat? Here are some things your child might do when they feel anxious about eating:
- Avoid eating with other people
- Get angry and/or cry during meals
- Try to negotiate ways to avoid eating
- Refuse to eat no matter what you say or do
- Say they feel nauseated at mealtimes
Feeling anxiety is mentally terrifying and physically awful. And you know what people want to do when they feel anxious? They want to avoid doing the thing that makes them anxious. It makes perfect sense that kids who feel anxious about eating want to avoid eating.
But avoiding anxiety makes it worse, not better. In fact, a key symptom and contributor to both anxiety disorders and eating disorders is avoidance. Parents can help by recognizing when kids are feeling anxious and helping their kids get through their anxiety rather than avoid eating.
Why does my child get anxious when they eat?
There are many reasons why a child gets anxious when they eat. The three most common reasons are:
1. Remembering a bad experience
If your child has ever had a bad experience eating, they may feel anxious when it’s time to eat. Bad experiences can range from feeling slightly nauseated or not liking the way a food smells to vomiting or being verbally criticized or harassed while eating. Once a child has had a negative experience when eating, their body may automatically go into an anxious state around food until that memory is processed and resolved.
2. Feeling guilty or ashamed
Food is fraught in our society. Many kids have heard endless messages about which food is healthy, unhealthy, bad or good. These messages come from parents, friends, family members, doctors, teachers, and coaches. Combined, these messages create feelings of shame and guilt when eating. Eating is an essential human activity, and it’s meant to be pleasurable and enjoyable. But when it’s clouded with guilt and shame it becomes scary and even terrifying.
3. Afraid of gaining weight
The fear of getting fat underlies most food anxieties. And almost all kids and adults live in fear of gaining weight and being fat. This fear is a result of weight stigma, which is rampant in our society and affects all people, fat and thin. When a child has heard messages that certain foods cause weight gain, and they have internalized the belief that being fat is bad, they are likely to feel anxious when eating. It makes sense for these kids to believe that eating “too much” is extremely dangerous.
How to help your child who feels anxious when they eat
Anxiety makes kids feel terrible, and parents don’t want their kids to feel terrible. But the only way to help our kids recover from anxiety and eating disorders is to make sure we don’t help them avoid their anxiety. Instead, we need to learn how to help our kids feel their anxiety and do the things that make them feel anxious with us by their side. This takes a lot of effort and practice!
If you want to help your child feel less anxious about food and eating, the solution is not to avoid the food and eating situations that make them anxious. Instead, it’s helping them face their anxiety with you by their side. Here are some simple guidelines to help you do this:
1. Learn to recognize anxiety
The first thing you want to do is recognize your child’s unique signs of anxiety. Anxiety looks a little different for everyone. Some kids cry, others yell, others shut down completely. Lots of kids will argue and try to negotiate to avoid eating when they feel anxious. They’ll make excuses and promise to eat later. Recognizing your child’s signs of anxiety is the key to responding assertively and helping them eat.
2. Name it to tame it
Many parents avoid talking about anxiety. We’re afraid that if we talk about our kids’ negative feelings we’ll make them worse. But the evidence shows that the opposite is true. In fact, avoiding talking about negative emotions like anxiety actually makes them much worse (not better). Use a technique called “name it to tame it” to help your child process their anxiety. Pretend you are a reporter, and try to talk through the fact that anxiety has shown up without judgement or shame. Help your child verbalize their feelings rather than sinking deeper into them.
3. Teach bravery
When your child feels anxiety about eating they will want to avoid eating. But avoidance only makes anxiety worse. Instead, you want to help your child feel their anxiety and be brave. Bravery is doing something even when you’re scared. You can’t do this when your child is at the peak of their anxiety. That’s when you use “name it to tame it.” Once you sense your child is still a little anxious but not too much, it’s time to encourage them to be brave. They’ll need your support and validation. You can say something like “I get it, you don’t feel like eating right now, but I think you can handle it.”
Over time, your child will gradually have less anxiety about eating. The more you recognize your child’s anxiety, practice “name it to tame it” and encourage bravery, the stronger your child will become.
Anxiety is scary. Nobody wants to do the things that make them anxious. And eating is really hard when your body is in a state of fight, flight, or freeze. But processing anxiety rather than avoiding the things that make you anxious is key to feeling less anxiety in the future. It’s harder in the short-term, but far better in the long-term.
Parent support for anxiety when eating
Let me know if you’d like to schedule a coaching session to discuss how you can support your child who has anxiety about food and eating.
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