Has your child been engulfed by a fear that food can harm her and, therefore, refuse to eat? Well, your child may be suffering from food phobia.
By Smitha Suresh
According to the 20th century American author, H P Lovecraft, “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear.” This fear manifests in various forms. The worst form is labelled ‘phobia’, which according to the Oxford Dictionary, is ‘a strong unreasonable fear of something’.
Phobias can be present in children from very mild degrees to extreme forms, and can severely impact the quality of life both for themselves as well as for people around them. “A phobia is a confused state,” says B Mallika, a counsellor based in Chennai. Children who suffer from phobias are unable to communicate and express what they are going through. More importantly, parents don’t teach them how to do so and often react in frustration. This is especially the case with Cibophobia – the fear of food. “There is no love sincerer than the love of food,” said George Bernard Shaw. Well, when it comes to parents, there can be nothing scarier than their child’s fear of food. Did you know that there is a long list of food-related phobias? It’s too long a list, so we shall restrict ourselves to two of the most common food phobias to get an insight into the symptoms and treatment.
These two types of phobia mean, quite literally, the fear of food. It is not linked to body image and is thus distinct from anorexia and bulimia. As in all other phobias, the extent of this fear is revealed in the severity of symptoms.
A child suffering from this disorder will exhibit the following behavioural pattern:
The physical symptoms of this condition are:
The psychological symptoms of this condition are:
Sufferers often don’t drink and eat enough and may, as a result, have nutritional deficiencies and health problems. They will, then, need nutritional supplements to maintain health. Some children and even teens refuse to eat solid foods. Their condition can disrupt family harmony and such children can even experience isolation by their peers. Bed-wetting, nightmares, refusal to sleep alone and other behavioural issues start cropping up, as a result.
Drugs and medication may tackle only the symptoms, but they are sure to have side effects. So, medication should be administered judiciously. A recent study in the US concluded that 90% of children on medication for behavioural problems didn’t require them at all! Even in cases where medication is necessary, it will not address the patterns of thinking that are actually related to the core of the problem. Remember, every case is different because the patterns of thought and triggers of fear are different for every individual. Therefore, only a mental health professional can assist a child exhibiting symptoms of cibophobia.
Neophobia is the fear of anything new. Sufferers of food neophobia reject new and unfamiliar foods. This phobia first appears in infants between the ages of 12 and 24 months and is thought to be an evolutionary trait to protect babies from eating poisonous or harmful foods. Acceptance of new foods until the age of 5 years may often require at least 5 to 10 exposures to a particular food. Older children and adults are mostly capable of overcoming it.
The food groups most often disliked are dairy, cereals, pulses, meat, fish, vegetables and fruits. As with cibophobia, neophobia restricts food choices and can lead to nutritional deficiencies if not intervened at the right juncture.
Neophobia in children can be lessened in degree or even overcome through role models (parents, teachers, superheroes or peers). If these models create a positive impression, children may be positively influenced to be open to new nutritious foods. Studies have shown that children who are allowed to touch and play with their food are much less likely to develop food neophobia.
Food phobias (for that matter, any type of phobia) not only impact the sufferers and their quality of life, but they also affect family members. A harried mother, trying desperately to feed her child, will soon despair and vent her frustration on other family members.
Mealtimes become a battleground and the family’s focus will be on the child who is suffering, relegating the needs of siblings to the background. Individual stress levels increase, affecting short-term and long-term health. Parents, whose children are fussy eaters, tend to be frustrated and this affects how they view, love and parent that child.
First of all, you must sit down for a family meal as often as possible. Teach your children that they eat food to nourish their bodies. Allow them to eat how much they choose because they can recognise when they are full.
You should ensure that children are not under stress because of their phobia as it can be harmful to their physical and emotional health.
You should also remember that fear usually thrives in negative, disempowering, suppressive environments. If you make negative statements about children’s eating habits, they will eat less and end up having poor health. On the other hand, if you appreciate and encourage your children about their eating habits, they will eat well and enjoy good health.
According to Mallika, the first reaction to anything new is that our body rejects it. It might take some time, maybe even a fraction of a second, before both the body and brain learn to accept the new experience. It is, therefore, important for you to teach your children to differentiate between positive and negative experiences and old and new experiences. You must also teach them to transform what they can and learn to accept what they can’t. Learning to accept the new – both comfortable and uncomfortable is a valuable life skill that needs to be instilled in children very early by parents and teachers.
Movement and exercise are just as critical for young bodies and minds. The more they move, climb, jump, commune with nature and laugh, the clearer their head and heart will be. As Mallika says, “Fear is darkness, clarity is light.” Let us lead our children from this darkness to light.
Megha, who has a young daughter, says, “Keeping strict family mealtimes helps my daughter follow good eating habits... Thanks to the mealtime rules that we have come up with, there is no difference of opinion at the table.”
Shruti found mealtimes stressful because her 6-year-old son refused to try new healthy foods, especially vegetables, cereals and pulses until recently. “This stress was not only restricted to meal times, it would also reflect on all other aspects of our relationship. Realising its impact changed my approach. I’m now trying to do what works for me - to be gentle and loving towards my son.”
Smitha Suresh is a renowned nutritionist and child specialist from Chennai
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