What Does Food and Eating Anxiety Look Like in Children?

Photo of young Caucasian girl with brown hair sitting behind a wooden island with plates of food on top of it in a white kitchen with her head resting in her hand. Her mom has her hand on top of the girl's head while the girl looks unhappily straight ahead. Photo could represent a girl with a food and eating anxiety disorder needing online solution focused brief therapy in Illinois.

Food and eating anxiety is a real issue for both kids and teens.

A recent survey of school counselors in the United States found that 35% of children aged 5-12 are struggling with this type of anxiety with the highest prevalence among 8 to 10 year olds.

Food and eating anxiety can manifest itself in a variety of ways including fear of specific foods, an excessive focus on food and nutrition, or an obsession with body weight and shape.

In this article, we’ll look at the definition of food and eating anxiety, identify the most common symptoms, and explore what you can do as parents to help your child cope.

What is Food and Eating Anxiety in Kids and Teens?

Food and eating anxiety is an anxiety or emotional disorder that can severely affect the way your child interacts with food. Signs include refusing to eat, eating in an unhealthy fashion, or avoiding certain foods. Eating anxiety can also lead to distorted body image, overeating, or a fear of gaining weight.

This type of anxiety in kids and teens can range from picky eating to more serious eating disorders. Common fears include fear of food texture, fear of certain foods, fear of choking, fear of vomiting, fear of being judged, fear of the unknown, fear of eating in public, and fear of eating too much. Kids and teens may also experience anxiety related to other issues such as peer pressure, or dieting.

Food and eating anxiety can be very damaging, both physically and mentally. Physically, it can lead to long-term health problems, such as malnutrition, as well as increase the risk for developing an eating disorder.

Mentally, it can lead to depression, feelings of guilt and shame, and low self-esteem. It can also affect your child’s social life, as they may feel like they don’t fit in with their peers or be embarrassed to eat in public.

Symptoms of food and eating anxiety in kids and teens:

Here are the most common symptoms of food and eating anxiety:

  1. Frequent vomiting or gagging
  2. Extreme fear of certain foods or food groups
  3. Refusal to eat, even when hungry
  4. Extreme anxiety when eating in public
  5. Persistent worries about eating, food, or body size
  6. Obsessive behavior related to food or eating (counting calories, excessive chewing, etc.)
  7. Extreme pickiness with food
  8. Avoidance of social situations involving food
  9. Extreme weight fluctuations
  10. Cutting out entire food groups or refusing to eat certain textures or colors of food

Why Do Kids and Teens Develop Food and Eating Anxiety?

Food and eating anxiety in kids and teens can be caused by a variety of factors, including biological, psychological, and environmental.

Biological factors of food and eating anxiety:

Biological factors can include genetic predispositions or underlying medical conditions, such as celiac disease or an eating disorder. They may also be a function of:

  • Genetics: Certain genetic or psychological predispositions can make kids and teens more vulnerable to food and eating anxiety.
  • Brain chemistry: Neurotransmitters, such as serotonin, can impact eating behavior and can even cause food cravings.
  • Hormones: Hormonal imbalances, such as those associated with puberty, can lead to food and eating anxiety.
  • Dieting: Restrictive dieting or fad diets can lead to disordered eating behaviors, such as skipping meals or purging.

Psychological factors of food and eating anxiety:

Psychological factors often include anxiety, depression, or stress, as well as:

  • Fear of gaining weight or being perceived as overweight.
  • Perfectionism or concerns about eating the “right” foods or following a strict diet.
  • Teasing about food choices or weight.
  • Sensitivity to food textures, smells, or flavors.
  • Feeling overwhelmed or confused by nutrition information.
  • Feeling forced to eat certain foods.
  • Feeling judged for food choices or eating habits.

 Environmental factors of food and eating anxiety:

Environmental factors can also play a significant role in food and eating anxiety such as:

  • Poor Nutrition: A lack of proper nutrition can lead to feelings of insecurity and anxiety around food.
  • Body Image Issues: Seeing images of thin, idealized bodies in the media and on social media can increase the risk of developing food and eating anxiety.
  • Peer Pressure: Peer pressure to eat certain foods or avoid certain foods can cause anxiety and confusion for kids and teens.
  • Stress: Stress from academic and social pressures can lead to emotional eating or avoidance of certain foods.
  • Limited Access to Food: Limited access to healthy, affordable food can lead to anxiety about what to eat and when.

What Can Be Done to Help Kids and Teens with Food and Eating Anxiety?

The first step in helping kids and teens with food and eating anxiety is to make sure they’re getting the proper nutrition. If a child or teen refuses to eat certain foods, it’s important to try to encourage them to eat a variety of healthy foods.

Help your child learn ways to manage their anxiety. This can involve teaching them relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and mindfulness. It can also involve teaching them how to identify and challenge their irrational thoughts and beliefs about food.

Create an environment of acceptance and understanding when it comes to food and eating. This means avoiding criticism or judgment and allowing them to express their feelings about food without fear of being judged.

Things parents can do:

There are a number of things you can do in your daily routine to help alleviate your child’s food and eating anxiety, such as:

  • Model healthy eating habits. It’s important for you to be mindful of your own eating habits, as kids learn by example.
  • Avoid using food as a reward or punishment for good or bad behavior.
  • Avoid labeling foods as “good” or “bad” which can lead to disordered eating. Moderation is key.
  • Encourage mindful eating. Teach your kids to pay attention to their hunger and fullness cues, and to listen to their bodies when they’re eating.
  • Avoid pressuring your child or teen to eat or finish their food. Give them options and let them know where in the kitchen they can access healthy snacks.
  • Talk to them about how media images can affect body image and how important it is to think critically about these images.

Other helpful suggestions:

  • Family Therapy: This type of therapy addresses the family dynamics that may be contributing to the anxiety.
  • Nutritional Education: Teaching kids and teens about nutrition, portion sizes, and balanced meals can help to reduce food-related anxiety.
  • Mindful Eating: Practicing mindful eating helps to reduce anxiety around food and eating.
  • Relaxation Techniques: Teaching relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and guided imagery can help to reduce anxiety.
  • Positive Reinforcement: Praising and rewarding healthy behaviors can help to encourage positive eating habits.
  • Exercise: Regular exercise can help to reduce stress and anxiety around food and eating.

In conclusion, food and eating anxiety is a real issue that needs to be addressed. It’s important to make sure kids and teens get the proper nutrition, learn how to manage their anxiety, and create an environment of acceptance and understanding.

Depending on the severity of the anxiety, or if it persists, seek professional help from a mental health provider or registered dietitian. They can help to identify the underlying causes of anxiety and develop a treatment plan to significantly reduce the symptoms and effects of anxiety.

Begin Online Therapy for Kids and Teens with Anxiety in Illinois

If your child or teen is struggling with anxiety, there is hope! Anxiety is highly treatable and online anxiety treatment at Briefly Counseling can help.

Using Solution-Focused Brief Therapy, I help kids and teens reduce their anxiety and build resilience so they can become a happier, more confident version of themselves.

And kids love being able to receive counseling from the comfort and privacy of their own home. Studies have consistently proven that online therapy delivers equal results to in-office counseling.

As an experienced and caring therapist, I love providing counseling for anxiety. To start your child’s counseling journey, call me at 224-236-2296 or email Helena@BrieflyCounseling.com to schedule a FREE 20-minute consultation.

 Helena Madsen, MA, LCPC is the founder of Briefly Counseling. I specialize in providing online short-term anxiety treatment for kids and teens ages 7 – 18 as well as Christian counseling.

Whether you’re on the North Shore, in Naperville, Chicago, Champaign, Barrington, Libertyville, Glenview, or downstate Illinois, I can help.

 Schedule your appointment or consultation today. I look forward to working with your child to quickly and effectively help them in activating their strengths, resources, and resilience, in order to live with confidence and hope.