Staying the Course: Tackling Feeding Difficulties
Whenever a fellow SLP asks me about the hardest part of Feeding Therapy, I tend to land on the same answer: getting the parent to “buy in.” If you are a caregiver who has dealt with a “picky eater,” I first want to say, I see you and I know your struggle. Feeling like you are fighting your child to have him/her do something that’s supposed to come naturally–like the desire to eat a variety of food–is exhausting and defeating. However, the reality is that it’s more common than most parents think. Many of the parents I get to work with at FTC share complex emotions in relation to their child’s eating, like guilt and self-blame. We work together to process some of these feelings because, in order to move forward, it is important that parents are compassionate towards themselves. When parents are at a point where they want to change how they deal with their children in relation to food, my response is to congratulate them for being strong enough and vulnerable enough to take on new ideas and address the problem head-on. If you were approaching feeding in a way that you now feel was ‘wrong’, remember that you were doing the best you could with the information you had at the time.
If you are experiencing stress at mealtimes, you can be sure your child is too. Your emotions and theirs are most likely amplifying one another. It is easy to see how mealtime stress can give rise to both a parent’s and a child’s need to control. If you are finding meals stressful because your child is not accepting the food you prepare, this can easily turn into a show of authority, such as trying to make them eat the food that is in front of them. Likewise, when children are feeling stressed, they often react by attempting to control what they have some power over, which is most likely what they eat and don’t eat. If this sounds all too familiar, there are some things you can do to improve the situation.
1. Create and establish mealtime routines at home: It is the parent’s responsibility to provide structured mealtimes where the child can be exposed to a variety of foods in an environment where they can learn healthy eating habits from their family members. It is important to expose your child to new foods during meal and snack times, but keep in mind it is up to your child to eat what they want from what is presented to them. No need to fret! You are still in control of this, since you are choosing what will be offered during all mealtimes throughout the day. In short: be clear about the roles in the feeding relationship, set up regular routines and snacks, and be a positive role model: show that you enjoy foods!
2. Create a safe and positive food environment: Try your best to make mealtimes a time to sit as a family and enjoy each other’s company, rather than focusing the experience on your child eating the foods served. I know that with today’s fast-paced lifestyle, we tend to think this is a luxury we can’t always afford. However, family mealtime doesn’t have to entail every member sitting together at the same time; just you and your child at the table is still a valuable communal eating experience.
3. Ask for help: Be clear about whether you have genuine cause for concern. Get your child’s weight, growth and nutritional status checked. Worrying about something that may or may not actually be a problem is a poor use of energy. If there is, in fact, a need for intervention with your child’s nutrition intake, there are sources of support out there, such as Speech-Language Pathologists and feeding professionals who can offer your child a thorough assessment and guidance during the feeding therapy process.
4. Stay the course: Remember that your child isn’t rejecting unfamiliar or disliked foods to make your life difficult. Just as your child needs to be encouraged to create a better relationship with food and eating, you must remind yourself to also be compassionate towards yourself. Try to focus on keeping a positive attitude and recognizing what you are doing well, rather than dwelling on what isn’t working or hasn’t worked. The process can be a long road, but even if it is, you must stay the course. It’s easy to get discouraged by slow progress or lack thereof, rather than seeing daily success. Focusing on small improvements can help reinforce that you’re on the right track. Whether it’s setting up short term goals, such as your child trying one new food, allowing one change per week to a preferred food, or having a child sit at the table for 10 minutes during a mealtime with no distractions, remember that these are small steps to a larger goal. Change takes time for everyone, including your child. Remember, feeding children is an imperfect journey. Be kind to yourself and be kind to your child.