- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 2, 2006

My 8-year-old daughter recently had what we believe was a 24-hour stomach virus. Ever since then, she has been obsessed, worried that what she eats may make her sick. Every night she is concerned that she will become sick again and breaks down in tears.

My wife and I are at our wits’ end and regrettably have lost patience with her a few times and told her just to get over it. This has been going on for almost two months. We are concerned her behavior 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, 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 has happened, which means this is not a psychological problem in the sense of being deeply rooted in your daughter’s psyche. Nor is this likely an indication that something else is amiss in her life. Her illness was upsetting to her, obviously. She didn’t fully understand what was happening to her or why, and she became fearful. You and she are going through what I would term “aftershocks.”

This is not a behavior problem in the usual sense of the term. Nonetheless, 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, which therefore will help her subdue them.

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 are very disruptive. Therefore, you are going to feed her first, and she is going to eat by herself until she feels she once again can join the family without becoming upset and upsetting the two of you.

You also need to tell her that you have said all you have to say about her anxieties and you are not going to talk about them any more. It’s important that you not present this as punishment but simply as 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 she does not have to eat what you have prepared — do not customize dinner for her — 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 find something to do. If she becomes hungry later, she should fix herself a snack. It’s very important that you not fix more than one evening meal for her.

My experience tells me that if you stay the course, this problem should be history within a month.

Family psychologist John Rosemond answers parents’ questions on his Web site (www.rosemond.com).

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