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—and of course, the parents caring for them. Navigating how to support a child with an eating disorder can be a challenging journey, one made even more difficult when the eating disorder is not widely known or discussed.
In this blog, we will provide an overview of ARFID, its 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.
Just like other kinds of eating disorders, ARFID is caused by a complicated mix of genetic, biological, and environmental factors. One thing is clear, however: Families are not to blame for the development of this disorder. Your child’s ARFID is not your fault.
Signs and Symptoms of ARFID
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
- Failure to meet nutritional needs
- Lack of appetite or interest in food
- Fear of illness, choking, or vomiting
- Restriction in the amount or type of food eaten
- Body image concerns not present
- Gastrointestinal issues with seemingly no cause
- High anxiety around mealtimes
- Dizziness or falling
Ways to Support Your Child with ARFID
Determining how to best support your child with ARFID can be stressful and intimidating. Here are some helpful places to start:
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.
Exposing your child with AFRID 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. Veritas Collaborative 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, though, 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.