Q: Our seven-year-old daughter recently had a short-lived stomach virus. Ever since, she has been fearful that eating may make her sick. Every night at dinner, she becomes concerned that she’s going to be sick and breaks down in tears. My husband and I have regrettably lost our patience with her a few times and told her to just get over it. This has been going on for almost two months now. We are concerned that this may become a pattern. How should we handle this situation?
A: You’re correct in thinking that your daughter’s “petite neurosis” could become not only a pattern but an ever-worsening condition. Your letter would suggest, however, that she is not having this problem at lunchtime at school. If that’s so, then the problem is still in its infancy and should be fairly easy to put behind you.
Children often misinterpret events, especially upsetting ones, and are prone to exaggerated emotions or dramatics. This is what’s happened here, which means this is not a psychological problem in the sense of it being deeply rooted in your daughter’s psyche. Her illness was upsetting to her, obviously. She didn’t fully understand what was happening to her or why, and she became fearful. What you and she are now going through is what I would term “aftershocks.”
To bring this chapter in your family life to a quick close, you are going to have to exert a disciplinary authority that is more potent than her anxieties. You need to tell her, matter-of-factly, that the evening meal is a time for family harmony and that panic and weeping at the dinner table is very disruptive and not allowed. Therefore, you are going to feed her first, and she is going to eat by herself until she feels she can once again join the family without becoming upset and upsetting the two of you. You also need to tell her that you’ve said all you have to say about her anxieties and that you are not going to talk about them anymore. It’s important that you not present this as punishment but as simply what you need to do to enjoy the evening meal.
When you serve her dinner, you need to leave the room and let her eat by herself. Tell her that she does not have to eat what you have prepared, but you are not going to fix her another meal or reheat her food later. If she doesn’t want to eat, she should simply get up from the table and go find something to do. If she becomes hungry later, she should fix herself a snack. It’s very important that you do not fix more for her than one evening meal.
My experience tells me that if you stay the course, this problem should be history within a month.