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June 26, 2024

Supporting Your Child with ARFID: Warning Signs and Effective Strategies

Supporting Your Child with ARFID: Warning Signs and Effective Strategies

Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID) is a newer eating disorder diagnosis that is not as well-known as conditions like anorexia and bulimia. Once classified as Selective Eating Disorder (SED), ARFID most commonly affects children and young adolescents. Parents often find it challenging to support a child with an eating disorder, especially when the disorder is not widely known or discussed.

In this blog, we will provide an overview of ARFID, its risk factors, warning signs, and helpful ways to support your child affected by this type of eating disorder.

What is ARFID?

People with ARFID experience extreme food restriction often related to the sensory characteristics of food or a fear of aversive consequences related to eating. The condition results in significant nutrition and energy deficiencies, and for children, a failure to meet growth trajectories. Those with ARFID may experience anxiety around mealtimes, lack of interest in eating, fear of choking or vomiting, and chronic abdominal pain with seemingly no cause.

ARFID is caused by a complicated mix of genetic, biological, and environmental factors. Families are not to blame for the development of this disorder. Your child’s ARFID is not your fault.

Risk Factors for ARFID

Those at particular risk of developing ARFID include:

  • Individuals who are on the autism spectrum
  • Individuals with ADHD
  • Males
  • Children who exhibit severe picky eating that does not get better over time
  • Individuals who have anxiety disorders or OCD

Signs and Symptoms of ARFID in Children

Because ARFID is a lesser-known eating disorder, the signs also tend to be lesser-known. Knowing what to look for and getting your child the help they need as soon as possible is essential. Below are several signs and symptoms of ARFID:

  • Drastic weight loss
  • Stunted weight gain and height growth
  • Gastrointestinal issues with seemingly no cause
  • Restriction in the amount or type of food eaten
  • Fear of illness, choking, or vomiting
  • Lack of appetite or interest in food
  • Body image concerns not present
  • Menstrual irregularities
  • Anemia, low hormone levels, low potassium, and slow heart rate
  • Dizziness or falling
  • Muscle weakness
  • Fine or brittle nails

Ways to Support Your Child with ARFID

Gradually Introduce New Foods

If your child is experiencing ARFID, malnourishment is a legitimate concern. This fear may lead to pushing new foods on your child too quickly, which could be demotivating for them and ultimately counterproductive. To keep your child engaged with the process, try a small bite of a new food first and continue from there. Making small progress with the support of professionals will encourage a more sustainable recovery.

Stay Patient

Exposing your child with ARFID to new foods is not an easy process. They may have highly emotional reactions to foods they don’t consider “safe,” and this may, in turn, have a big emotional effect on you. Feeling discouraged is understandable. It can be helpful to know that it can take multiple exposures for someone with ARFID to more comfortably tolerate a new food. If you continue trying and believing it’s possible for your child to incorporate a new food, your child is more likely to believe that as well.

Let Your Child Participate in Food Decisions

Your child will most likely be very anxious about the concept of introducing more variety into their diet. One way to help ease this discomfort is by letting them assist in the planning of new food exposures. They will likely feel more curious and engaged with the process if they feel like they played a part in it.

Introduce Coping Skills

Developing healthy coping skills can help maintain a person’s recovery even during their most difficult times. There are many coping methods that can aid in managing your child’s eating disorder-related urges and struggles, so helping them discover the ones that work best for them is invaluable. A couple of examples of healthy ways to cope are reciting positive affirmations or talking to a friend or family member. More distraction-focused coping skills can include going on a walk, watching a funny show, or listening to calming music.

Prioritize Your Own Wellbeing

Parents often feel immense distress when their child is suffering. Taking care of yourself is an essential part of caring for someone with an eating disorder. You can best help those around you if you help yourself first. You will need to find ways to cope with your emotions because ignoring them does not make them go away. Finding loved ones to support you can be extremely helpful, but you may also need professional help; there is no shame in seeking expert care.

Involve Professional Support

Parents of children with ARFID can play an important part in their child’s recovery, but no one can do everything alone. That’s where professional support comes in. A multidisciplinary team of eating disorder experts can lend their knowledge and experience to treat the multifactorial nature of this serious illness. Medical providers and dietitians, for example, can manage medical complications and assess dietary needs, respectively, while therapists can offer both individual and family therapies to address behavioral and psychological symptoms in an age-appropriate way. The Emily Program also understands the importance of a child’s education, which is why we offer educational support for school-age children.

As you and your child navigate through treatment, you will have good days and bad days, wins and setbacks. All of this is worth it because recovery is possible. With proper support, your child can develop the skills necessary to nourish themselves fully and move through their life with the food freedom they deserve.

If you would like to learn more about ARFID or the care we offer for children and adolescents struggling with eating disorders of all types, get in touch with us today.

Key Takeaways

  • Understanding ARFID: ARFID is a serious eating disorder characterized by extreme food restriction, nutritional deficiencies, and anxiety around mealtimes. It is not caused by parental actions and requires professional intervention.
  • Recognizing Risk Factors: Higher risk exists for children with autism, ADHD, severe picky eating, anxiety disorders, or OCD. Awareness of these factors can aid early detection.
  • Identifying Symptoms: Symptoms include drastic weight loss, stunted growth, gastrointestinal issues, lack of appetite, fear of illness or choking, menstrual irregularities, dizziness, and muscle weakness.
  • Supporting Your Child:
    • Introduce Foods Gradually: Avoid overwhelming your child by slowly introducing new foods.
    • Stay Patient: Persistence and patience are crucial as children with ARFID may need multiple exposures to new foods.
    • Involve Your Child: Encourage your child to participate in food decisions to increase their engagement and curiosity.
    • Teach Coping Skills: Help your child develop healthy coping mechanisms to manage their urges and struggles.
  • Parental Wellbeing: Parents must prioritize their own mental health and seek support to effectively care for their child.
  • Seek Professional Help: Engage with a multidisciplinary team of eating disorder experts for comprehensive treatment, including medical, dietary, and therapeutic support.
  • Recovery is Possible: With the right support and treatment, children with ARFID can achieve recovery and enjoy a healthy relationship with food.


Get help. Find hope.