Childhood Fears: Food or Fluffy, the Fear is Real

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!” (Throw some 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 with behind the wheel sometimes).

Of course it made me think of kids learning to eat. Imagine the child with extreme picky eating 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.” We shouldn’t have to make signs. I can dream about a world where the reaction to a tantrum at the grocery store, a child refusing to eat an offered food, or a child reluctant to swim at the beach, was patience, openness and kindness instead of judgment and interference.

To the parents of children with extreme picky eating: 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?



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 meals and snacks with one loving adult and at least one safe or accepted food
    2. no pressure, shaming, bullying or efforts to make the child eat
    3. offer foods every 2-3 hours for younger kids, every 3-4 for older children
    4. if needed, get support with anxiety
    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 my attendance, 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.

For more, check out our book, Helping Your Child with Extreme Picky Eating

Adapted from Katja’s blog at

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