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Anorexia: Why Won’t My Child Eat?

The most painful experience for a parent is to watch your child starve. After all, all you want to do is help your children grow big and strong. Instead with anorexia nervosa you watch your angel waste away. What is perhaps even harder is seeing their personality shift. Someone who is hungry and malnourished is naturally irritable and intolerant. Any parent in this position naturally feels desperate. You will do anything to see your child eat again. Naturally, you try:

  • Threats – “if you don’t eat your dinner you cannot watch TV”
  • Yelling at your child to eat
  • Holding your breath and trying to be patient

And none of this works.

Or at least in the long-term these methods don’t work.

You’re not alone. So many parents battle this battle and it’s known for being a tough one.

So, what to do?

First, it’s important to understand why your child with anorexia nervosa is not eating. Whilst the underlying drive may differ between individuals, essentially most people with anorexia nervosa have a “fat phobia”. By “fat phobia” I mean an intense fear of fat. Think ‘fear of spiders’, ‘fear of heights’ and now you need to think about a ‘fear of fat’. As would be expected a fat phobia goes hand in hand with a food phobia. So when your child with anorexia nervosa is around food or about to eat food, they will feel anxious, or even panicked if the challenge seems too large (likened to bungee jumping for a fear of heights).

Just like anyone who is facing their worst fear, your child will naturally resist and push back, and scream if they feel too pressured.

The good news?

Fears can be overcome.

Next steps…

Get help, depending on how severe your child’s anorexia nervosa is, a hospital admission may be necessary or a dietician, psychologist and/or psychiatrist and GP may support them privately or publically. But start with your GP and ask them what the best next steps are.

If your child does not require a hospital admission, work with a psychologist and dietician to stick to a meal plan agreed to with your child. Like addressing any phobia, the meal plan will need to be challenging, but not too challenging. The latter can cause something called “flooding” where an individual is overwhelmed with anxiety, which will affect future efforts. The meal plan will also need to include foods that are reasonably challenging. As some foods (for example, chocolate) will be too challenging.

The psychologist working with your family will guide you on meal times and how to approach them. The approach will also depend on the severity of your child’s anorexia.

How to start supporting my child with anorexia to eat?

Here are a few helpful tips on how you can start to support your child with anorexia at meal times:

  • When intensely scared, people respond best to gentle and calm encouragement. Showing frustration and anger will increase fear.
  • Distraction helps. Play a game at the table that requires concentration.
  • Role model normal eating. Eat with your child and eat the same or more. Ensure every other family member is also role modelling.
  • Motivate if they struggle to complete the challenge. Remind them of their reasons for recovery (if they at this stage).
  • Be firm with the agreed meal plan. Don’t negotiate. You might feel harsh, but this is better for your child. If they try to negotiate parts of the meal with you, be firm and say “I’ve stuck to the agreement as best I can, any issues can be discussed with our dietician next week”.

How can Peaceful Mind psychology help?

We are a team of warm and empathic psychologists based in Melbourne, who share a special interest in eating disorders and eating difficulties, including anorexia nervosa and bulimia. Our psychologists have experience working with eating disorders in private settings, as well as in hospitals. If you would like some professional assistance contact us at Peaceful Mind Psychology.