When a child gets anxious about something, chances are high that they’ve been thinking about it for a while before they talk about it. Hence, when they mention or react to a food worry in front of us they are looking for support or a way to cope with the anxious feeling. There is a knack to assuming a support and facilitation parenting role. Especially when we are time poor and we can accidentally rush into solution mode. Or we can dismiss their concern with a quick “don’t worry about it”.  A support and facilitation role didn’t come that naturally to me around my own babies and it needed a bit of practice. I was hand-up-guilty of helping too quickly. Yet, in therapy I was able to do this so much easier!

So, as a bit of a practical learner, I found remembering and implementing a 3-part tool, known as an emotion program, across the board was ideal for me.

I first heard about using the emotion program during my feeding therapy training with children’s psychologist, Dr Kay Toomey. Once I started using the tool regularly, I realised how powerful it was for helping children with a range of anxieties.

What is the Emotion Program?

The aim with an emotion program is NOT to problem solve for your child. The aim is to understand their concerns, show true empathy and assist them to decide on tools they can work with.

Step One: Start with WHY

What is the true root cause of your child’s anxiety around fruits or vegetables? Here is a list of some ideas for you to mull over (this is not an exhaustive list by any means).  What you will notice is that YOU are not on this list.  You aren’t the reason your child STARTED being fussy or anxious about food. But you can identify the root cause, because you are the best person at feeding your child.

  • Motor planning skills
  • Bite and pull motion, tongue lateralisation (moving food from front teeth over to back molars), chew or swallow (oral motor functionality)
  • Touch (tactile sensitivity), smell (olfactory sensitivity) or another sensory processing concern
  • Reduced concentration impacting on learning about new foods
  • Medical conditions, physical or illnesses (eg. large tonsils/adenoids, weak core muscles, Autism Spectrum Disorder, ADHD, gastro bug – and related experience, chronic constipation, etc.)
  • Painful history associated with eating (reflux, choking incident, allergies, sensitivities etc.)
  • Burn-out after food jagging (AKA dropping foods that they used to love)
  • Cautious Temperament
  • Environmental Stress / Routine Disruption
  • Cognitive Development (phases of food neophobia linked to developmental changes eg. At 2 yrs and then again at 5 yrs)

When you understand your child’s original WHY, it can help you with working out what is going on now. I’ve got some worked examples below of how I can explain to a child that I understand their why. And clarifying back to them the why, will help you have a more meaningful discussion, especially if you weren’t on the same page.

Step Two: Give 2-3 Empathy Statements

When you know WHY there is anxiety in the food situation, it is easier to put yourself in your child’s shoes and show true empathy. Showing empathy is what is needed after you’ve communicated your understanding of what the problem is. To really show this to a child, try to offer more than one empathy statement. Reiterating that you understand in a couple of statements will help them label their feelings. Sometimes, they will correct you or realise that their feelings are different to their reaction. That is OK. Opening a conversation about the feelings leads to more effective problem solving.

An empathy statement needs to be specific to the content and authentic.

An empathy statement will start with phrases like -..  “I am glad you told me about how you feel”, “I can see you are feeling hurt”, “It is frustrating when ….”. An empathy statement never starts with “At least….”  Statements that start with “At least…” exist to make YOU feel better and it only makes the recipient of the sentence feel like their feelings aren’t valid.

Step Three: Open the Door for Them to Enter Problem Solving Mode for Themselves

Facilitating problem solving (especially when you think you *know* the answer) is tormenting as a parent when you are wired to help your child.  Yet, by feeling supported and listened too, a child will be able to problem solve. You can prompt them with some guidelines but the key job here for you as a parent is listening. A problem that you child feels that they solved themselves, is more likely to be a lesson learnt. A worry that will be reduced in magnitude next time.

A worked example of the Emotion Program

Take this scenario for example* (NOTE *example did happen VERY loudly at my house one day, if it resembles something that happened at your house I wasn’t spying on you – I just TOTALLY get it):

After experiencing difficulties opening a banana my daughter subsequently refused to eat it. The opened banana showed signs of significant suffering in my toddlers hands – it ended up with a “squishy top”. For the emotion program, I could empathize with my daughter and deliver a few sentences like these calmly and with eye contact.

“Sometimes I find that bananas are really hard to open and the top can get a bit mushy if I squash too hard while I am trying to open it.  This makes me feel annoyed because I tried hard to open it.  I actually prefer my banana to be firm and I don’t like the squashy banana as much as regular banana.”

Once you have started a timely, empathy-based conversation, confirm that the content of their refusal is the same as what you are empathizing with.  In my above example, there are two “content” areas (green and blue text) that I empathized with – a bit of an error on my part?? Not really, it is also a way to start teasing out the root cause even more.  Was it her unrequited effort or was it the sensory property of the banana that made her upset. The thing is, you can’t always assume you know the root cause.  By having a go at empathizing, I’ve now realized that I’ve got two avenues to explore  – was it the feeling of doing it wrong OR the mushy banana sensory problem that resulted in the refusal. Each root cause would lead to a different tool that could work for my upset daughter.

Hence, to use the emotion plan when it comes to parenting a fussy eater, you are looking for the why. You are helping identify the feelings. You may have to revisit your assumptions. You will help your child grow their problem solving skills. You will facilitate your child’s growth in confidence.

I’m not at all saying that this is easy to do in all situations. We are busy. But perhaps you can try it out next time your child is anxious about a food / mealtime event and see if the result comes with a little less anxiety and little more confidence.


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Can you think of a time when the emotion plan may have helped your family have a happy mealtime?


Link for further experiences / reading with your child:

Shannon from Oh Creative Day has a round up of 6 picture books helping children with their worries.

4 Lessons from an Astronaut on Helping Fussy Eaters

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