When Anxiety or OCD Makes You Afraid to Eat. Coping with ARFID
Anxiety and OCD can make kids afraid to do many things. Afraid to sleep. Afraid of the dark. Afraid to make friends. But when anxiety or OCD makes you afraid to eat it can become a much more serious issue. Anxiety and OCD can ooze into our children’s eating habits. They can be afraid they are going to choke, throw up or get sick. They can be afraid their food is poisoned, disgusting or too chewy. They can worry they might get too full, too sick or get too contaminated. The list can go on and on. So how are you supposed to help a child who is scared to eat?
Educate Kids on Anxiety and OCD
For starters kids need to understand what anxiety or OCD is and how it works. We want kids to understand that the more they avoid, the bigger their anxiety or OCD grows. So, the more we avoid food, the worse the issue gets.
When Kids are Afraid to Eat – Get to the Core Fear
Don’t assume you know why your child is afraid to eat. Find out what their core fear is and tackle it. Are they afraid of germs, throwing up, contamination, texture? What is the core fear triggering their restrictive eating? Once you know their core fear, you want to re-frame their thinking. If they fear they will throw up if they eat too much – you let them know that not eating can cause nausea. If they fear their food is contaminated. You let them know that everything around us is contaminated and that we don’t have control over this. We want to teach kids to accept doubt and uncertainty – because if they do, anxiety and OCD lose their power to control them.
Don’t Get into Food Battles
You don’t want to force a child with anxiety and OCD to eat. That can backfire and make them more anxious to eat anything. You want to encourage and motivate them to fight their fears. This will have much more staying power. What is that saying – Give a person a fish and they’ll eat for a day. Teach them to fish and they’ll eat for a lifetime. Same is true here – only literally!
Once you know your child’s core fears make a list of foods they won’t eat. You can set up structured challenges where they earn a challenge reward for trying a food on their “No Way!” List. Depending on your child’s level of anxiety, you can offer them to just hold, smell, lick or bite the food and move up from there. When you see your child refusing to eat and appears afraid to eat, ask them what their anxiety or OCD told them about the food. I like to personify anxiety and OCD and it is one of the first things I teach parents in my class. Challenge your child to take one more bite or lick of the food their anxiety or OCD is not wanting them to eat. The more we teach our kids to lean into their fears, the less power their anxiety/OCD will have on them. It doesn’t have to be a big lean – any small action towards the fear is helpful.
Offer Food Anyway
It is easy to start accommodating your child’s restrictive eating. You probably know exactly what they’ll eat and how they’ll eat it. That’s great for getting calories in them, but don’t forget to push the envelope a little bit as well. If you never offer your child an opportunity to fight their anxiety or OCD, they never will. Find small ways to get your child slightly out of the comfort zone. One small step at a time can lead to big changes. I have seen way too many kids wind up on liquid diets because their anxiety or OCD was accommodated and so it grew. Anxiety and OCD is greedy. It will never stop. In order to stop it from growing you need to help your child push back.
- ~This might mean offering them food they wouldn’t eat along with food they will eat.
- ~Preparing food in a way that triggers their anxiety or OCD.
- ~Having food they wouldn’t eat near them.
- ~Encouraging them to lick food they won’t eat.
- ~Not washing or re-washing dishes or utensils.
The priority is getting calories into your child, but after that the priority is pushing anxiety or OCD back. This can be a tightrope at times because it is a balancing act to make sure your child has enough sustenance while empowering them to fight their fears that cause them not to eat.
Remember Whose Battle it is
Food struggles are the worst! They scare parents and make them panic. I know, I am one of them! But, we must also remember that this is our child’s battle, not ours. We can only arm them with tools, but we can not fight the battle for them. When we teach our kids what anxiety or OCD is and how to beat it, they are more likely to want to change their eating behaviors.