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New food anxiety by Clinical Psychologist Jess McCallum

I often see kids with type 1 diabetes struggling with anxiety around trying new foods, wanting to stay with ‘safe’ foods that they know and feel comfortable with. While there is nothing wrong with having favourite foods and go-to snacks, we also don’t want kids developing a fear around new food that then interferes with their lives. Being picky becomes an anxiety problem when:

  • The idea of trying new foods causes anxiety or even panic symptoms (hard breathing, tears, shaky, sweating, tummy aches, headaches)

  • When given the task of trying new food, anxiety turns to anger (tantrums, yelling, sulking)

  • Refusal to even try any new foods, even when at parties/friends' houses/restaurants

  • The child needs excessive reassurance about new foods “Are you sure it’s ok?” and repeats this frequently to the parent

  • The fear of trying new food becomes an obsession, which takes up a lot of the child’s thoughts and time

If you notice a few of the above signs that your child’s food pickiness is developing into anxiety, here are a few things you can do to help. Help your child understand what is happening to them and know they are not alone Teaching your child that the worries and physical feelings they are experiencing have a name – anxiety - and that lots of other people also feel anxiety, can be a great relief. Explain to your child that most kids, especially kids with type 1, worry occasionally about their food. While occasional worry is fine, let your child know that once it interferes with their happiness and home routine, it is something that needs fixing. Explain to your child that anxiety is like a bully Anxiety tries to push you around, tell lies, and make you feel bad about things you shouldn’t feel bad about. But we stand up to bullies! Get them to label their ‘bully’, and refer to it in the third person – for example, ‘Is the food meanie making you feel worried again?’ Teach your child calming skills when they feel worried about food There are lots of amazing child-friendly deep breathing, muscle relaxation, and mindfulness videos on the internet, and apps too. Practise these skills together, so you can fight the bully as a team. Face fears bravely, together Explain to your child that when we are worried about something, it just gets more and more scary if we avoid it. Create a ‘stepladder’ plan to try new foods one by one and make sure to reward as you go (not with food though!). For young children, a sticker reward chart can work. Go as slowly as your child needs, reminding them that by moving up the stepladder and trying more and more foods, they are fighting the bully and becoming brave. Identify and challenge unhelpful thoughts Help your child realise that anxiety is causing unhelpful thoughts. Most of the time, children are aware of what they are feeling, but are not so sure of what they are thinking. You can help by asking ‘What are you saying to yourself in your head’?’ or ‘What’s the Food Bully telling you right now? Once you identify the anxious thoughts, help your child come up with healthier alternatives by asking ‘What could you say back to the Food Bully?’ or ‘I wonder if there is a braver way of saying that?’ Anxiety around food is common in children with type 1 diabetes, but they don’t need to suffer through it. I work with children all the time to help them and their parents learn the skills to reduce anxiety, and feel more confident with their eating patterns.

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