The Role of Anxiety in Feeding Challenges
There is so much to worry about when it comes to feeding kids! Are they getting the right nutrition? Are they eating enough? Am I doing a good job? Will my child be able to manage socially? Will they ever grow out of this “phase”? The list of potential worries is endless.
Of course, when faced with a feeding challenge, it is natural to worry! But can all of this worrying actually make the situation worse?
What happens when parents worry about their child’s eating?
When parents are worried or concerned about their child’s eating, they are more likely to try to control their child’s eating (1) - for instance by trying to get them to eat a few more bites, or by trying to get them to eat new foods. Lots of research points to the fact that when kids feel under pressure to eat, it actually makes eating worse (2-4).
This cycle of Feeding Challenge -> Parent Worries -> Parent pressures child to eat -> Child resists eating -> More Pressure -> More Resistance... and so on, is depicted so well in Dr Katja Rowell’s “Worry Cycle” (5), which you can read more about here: http://thefeedingdoctor.com/the-worry-cycle-of-feeding-part-i-for-adoption-month/
Kids are super in tune with those around them. When parents worry, it’s easy for kids to feel worried too.
What happens when kids worry about eating?
When we feel worried or anxious - we experience physiological changes in our body. This is part of the fight-flight response that our body goes into in order to keep ourselves safe and remove ourselves from a perceived threat. Our body gets prepared to run or fight for survival. When kids are in this state, increasing their list of accepted foods is not high on their agenda! Anxiety can be associated with:
- Lower appetite: We all know the feeling of not being able to eat before a nerve wracking date or interview!
- Lower curiosity: When feeling anxious or worried it feels much safer to cling to the few options we are comfortable with.
- Higher sensory sensitivity: Research shows a link between anxiety, sensory sensitivity, and feeding challenges (6, 7). Lots of kids with eating challenges get easily overwhelmed by different tastes, textures, smells and sounds. When feeling anxious, this sensory information can be even more difficult to tolerate!
When kids feel calm, relaxed and safe at mealtimes it is easier for them to tune into their feelings of hunger, to be more open and curious about food, and to more easily tolerate difficult tastes, textures and smells.
How do you know if your child feels anxious about eating?
There may also be other reasons for these behaviours, but here are some signs that your child may be feeling worried about food or mealtimes:
- Withdrawing and becoming very quiet at mealtimes
- Physically moving away from food or trying to hide under the table
- Frequently leaving the table during mealtimes
- Becoming aggressive, angry or having tantrums at mealtimes
- Becoming irritable and defensive
- Trying to sneak or hoard foods between snacks and mealtimes
- Taking a huge amount of one food onto their plates
- Clinging very rigidly to a limited list of foods
- Constantly asking about what or when they can eat
- Having hunched shoulders and tense body language at mealtimes
- Being very adamant about preferences - “I am NOT eating that”
- Pursing lips and turning head away from food
- Becoming very sleepy or disengaged at mealtimes
- Feeling the need to control the situation “You have to sit there” or “I won’t eat until you start reading a story”
- A lot of messing and talking as a distraction
As we can see, both parent and child anxiety can be a big block in the way of overcoming feeding challenges. This is why reducing mealtime stress and anxiety for both parents and kids is always one of my first priorities when helping families with eating challenges!
Are you feeling worried? Stay tuned for a future blog post on what you can do next!
(1) Harris, H. A., Jansen, E., Mallan, K. M., Daniels, L., & Thorpe, K. (2018). Concern explaining nonresponsive feeding: a study of mothers’ and fathers’ response to their Child's fussy eating. Journal of nutrition education and behavior, 50(8), 757-764.
(2) Galloway, A. T., Fiorito, L. M., Francis, L. A., & Birch, L. L. (2006). ‘Finish your soup’: counterproductive effects of pressuring children to eat on intake and affect. Appetite, 46(3), 318-323.
(3) Jansen, P. W., de Barse, L. M., Jaddoe, V. W., Verhulst, F. C., Franco, O. H., & Tiemeier, H. (2017). Bi-directional associations between child fussy eating and parents' pressure to eat: Who influences whom?. Physiology & behavior, 176, 101-106.
(4) Loth, K. A. (2016). Associations between food restriction and pressure-to-eat parenting practices and dietary intake in children: a selective review of the recent literature. Current Nutrition Reports, 5(1), 61-67.
(5) Rowell, K. (2012). Love Me, Feed Me: The Adoptive Parent's Guide to Ending the Worry about Weight, Picky Eating, Power Struggles, and More. Family Feeding Dynamics.
(6) Farrow, C. V., & Coulthard, H. (2012). Relationships between sensory sensitivity, anxiety and selective eating in children. Appetite, 58(3), 842-846.
(7) Zickgraf, H. F., & Elkins, A. (2018). Sensory sensitivity mediates the relationship between anxiety and picky eating in children/adolescents ages 8–17, and in college undergraduates: A replication and age-upward extension. Appetite, 128, 333-339.