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Cut Kids Some Slack: Musings on Food Fears and “Helpful” Others

Posted by on Dec 3, 2013 in Blog Posts | 5 comments

Scared of dogs

When M was little she had a dog phobia. I’m talking screaming, climbing on me, uncontrollable fear of even a toy poodle.  I can’t count how many people tried to talk her out of her fear, usually with a dog thrust into her personal space, and often against my explicit requests for them to stop. Take the German Shepherd owner whose dog was off-leash, jumping on me while M clawed at my hair shrieking, and the owner kept smiling, “Oh, she won’t hurt you! She’s very gentle.” Well-intentioned dog owners (including friends and family) would bring dogs closer, insisting the dog wasn’t scary and everyone loved the dog, and, “Stop being so silly!” (super helpful)  or, “Look, Timmy is younger than you, and he’s petting the doggie!” (Nice, throw some more shame in while you’re at it! Works every time!)  I wish we could have had a sign at those times that said, “Seriously afraid of dogs. Back off. It’s not your job to get my kid over her fears…”


It is this sticker that I saw on my walk home that led to this post. If I was behind a car on a hill and it started rolling, I might get mad or honk. But with this sign (Kid Driver   Manual), I know it’s a young person who is learning and I’ll be  more patient. This sign reminds us to cut this kid driver some slack; have a little patience and understanding (something I struggle for behind the wheel sometimes).

Of course it made me think of kids learning to eat. Imagine the selective child who only takes crackers at a party, and how us adults could all do well to remember to cut him some slack, that it’s not our job as outsiders (or parents) to make him get over his fears on our time-table, and we don’t know his history. Wouldn’t a sign make it simpler? “Kid Learning to Eat. Back Off. It’s Not Your Job to Make Me Eat.” Of course we would never do that, but it might be nice to remind adults and outsiders to MYOB. We shouldn’t have to make signs. I can dream about a world where instead of judgment and interference, the reaction to a tantrum at the grocery store, a child refusing to eat the offered food, or a child reluctant to swim at the beach, was patience, openness and kindness.

Parents of picky, selective or food avoidant kids, does the dog fear scenario sound familiar? Do others try to convince you and your child that her food fears are ‘silly,’ or she would ‘like carrots if she just tried them?’ Does it help? Does it make you mad? How does your child react?

Food fears and phobias are not something you can talk, rationalize, cajole or shame away.

Supporting children with their eating allows them to tune in to internal motivation (I want to do it) and get over their fears when they are ready. This includes (but is not limited to):

    1. pleasant family meals with at least one safe or accepted food at every meal
    2. no pressure, shaming, bullying or efforts to make the child eat (Division of Responsibility)
    3. offer foods every 2-3 hours for younger kids, every 3-4 for older children
    4. if needed, get support with anxiety from a professional away from meals and food issues
    5. address any underlying medical problems, and consider oral-motor or sensory factors

As a sixteen year-old selective eater I interviewed for my first book, Love Me, Feed Me said, “It shouldn’t be, ‘How can I make my child eat this,’ but ‘How can I support her so she can try foods at her own pace.'” (Here is another post about  a ten year-old’s A-ha moment with food.)

You never know when or what might happen that helps your child get over her fears or resistance.


Dog fear update. At about age 6, we were at a local mall and there were some very old therapy dogs laying on the ground as part of a fundraiser. Other kids were petting the dogs. M walked up to them, holding my hand and watched for awhile. Then she squatted down and started petting one grizzled, three-legged dog. From then on, I noted an increasing willingness to approach dogs, which gradually turned into petting them, at first with me asked to come with and then on her own. I made few comments, and let her run the show. Now at age 8, we own a dog, and I was amazed the other day at a local dog park when a Great Dane bounded up to us and she laughed and petted his head (almost at the same level as hers). How far we have come.

If you are struggling with a picky or selective eater, check out a book I coauthored with a speech pathologist who runs a feeding clinic, Helping Your Child with Extreme Picky Eating


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  1. Sarah

    This is all so familiar – both the dog scenario and the eating one. My daughter is both a very selective eater and in the process of overcoming her fear of dogs. She has made so much progress recently with her dog phobia that I hope it bodes well for her eating in future.

    • katja

      I hope so too! In terms of anxiety and eating, I am seeing more and more children who were doing classic phobia techniques with their eating fears, as in bringing in challenging foods and eating them during therapy while trying to do biofeedback etc. I hear that this often increases the anxiety, with children panicking in therapy, or vomiting in the car on the way there. My sense is that working on anxiety- AWAY FROM FOOD- may be the most helpful approach. I’m so glad she is moving past her fear with dogs, and I believe that children can do that with food aversions if supported, and importantly without pressure. Hang in there!

  2. Erika

    Such a great analogy. My older daughter is afraid of dogs and I hate when people keep insisting how nice their dogs are as they’re jumping and barking around her. I was also bummed this Thanksgiving when my younger daughter asked for a bagel for dinner and her uncle was giving her crap about it. Her grandmother also asked her about her favorite foods, and she replied “chocolate.” Then she asked her about her favorite fruits and vegetables. When my daughter said “none” her grandmother really started to grill her until we had to tell her to lay off. What the heck! It really shows a lot about people’s own hangups when they bug your kids so much.

    Either way, this morning she asked for and was going nuts over a whole apple with the skin on (I was giving one to her sister for a snack and she wanted to try it). That’s a big step for us! And as per your advice I tried not to make a big deal about it, but was very happy inside.

    • katja

      Woo-hoo! I’m happy for you both about the apple! Isn’t it funny? I love stories parents share about those breakthroughs when the curiosity and internal motivation wins out! Thanks for sharing! Glad you were able to stand up to your family. It is tough. Glad the analogy helped!

  3. Jennifer Gardner, M.D.

    Love this post because it gives parents a great visual for supporting children with their feeding. Next time I see “student driver” it will remind me that children are always learning and should be supported with patience, respect and love (for all learning, not just feeding).

    Jennifer A. Gardner, MD, FAAP, Founder, Healthy Kids Company