By Guest Blogger, Virginia Cunningham
The science of parenting has reached dizzying heights of understanding, but even in the 21st century we are still butting heads with children who refuse to eat their broccoli. Getting children acclimated to various foods and basic eating etiquette will probably always be one of the most demanding arenas of raising kids, but in the case of special needs children, there may be deeper issues at stake. Here are the major hurdles you may face when introducing your son or daughter to the dinner table, as well as some hints to ameliorate the situation.
Food Attachment and Aversion
Parents of every stripe may be familiar with this stumbling block to ensuring your children consume the full range of nutrients needed for healthy development: stubbornly finicky taste. However, what might simply be old-fashioned childish obstinacy can take on an all but obsessive quality among special needs children.
Even adults can get stuck in a rut of eating comforting, familiar foods, but a special needs child may develop attachments to particular items based on their texture, color, or even temperature.
To expand your child’s monolithic diet, experiment with what behavioral psychologists call shaping and chaining. The method is simple enough. First, try to identify the particular quality of the food that has your child in its spell. A child might like a pasta dish for its bright orange color or for its squiggly shape. Identify what it is by the process of elimination, and then gradually mix in portions of another, potentially more desirable food. If a child only has eyes for cheddar cheese, for example, lead him or her toward similarly hued steamed squash.
“Purely Psychological” Factors
While food aversion is rooted in children’s relationship to the physicality of what they put into their mouths (or refuse to), children can also veto meals as a way of sending a message when they feel unable to communicate any other way. When a child is feeling particularly vulnerable, he or she may go on a mini hunger strike to vie for attention.
The worst thing to do in such a situation is the threat of punishment. Instead, use positive reinforcement in incremental steps (so as to avoid over indulging the child and enabling continued problem behavior). For instance, promise an additional few minutes of story time for every bite of spinach, peas, or whatever the target dish may be.
So far we’ve looked at eating problems that amount to a child’s not wanting to eat. Among children with various physical impediments, the issue may be that they are simply unable to. When a young person’s jaws, tongue, and labial muscles are weak, uncoordinated, or both, the act of eating is itself difficult. (The attendant emotional frustration threatens to make matters even worse, so be sure not to register your frustration.
Here, good intentions alone will not set things right, as your child most likely needs a consultation with a specialist and a regimen of exercises to bolster the muscle groups involved in biting, chewing, and swallowing.
On top of physical impediments linked to muscle control and coordination, children with some afflictions may have other innate problems with ingesting and even digesting foods. Certain birth defects can lead to chronic gastrointestinal woes, for example; children with visual impairment may not trust foods they can’t see.
The most widely reported medically-related eating problem is gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD. Affecting a ring of muscle between the stomach and esophagus, this condition can manifest a variety of symptoms, but the most frequent is spasmodic vomiting. After the child grows to associate eating with unpleasantness, he or she may begin to be wary of food in general, sometimes making it difficult to discern whether the issue is behavioral. If parents have strong suspicions that the problem is a medical one, a specialist should be consulted immediately.
Given that “special needs” is hardly a unified category, not all of these difficulties will apply to all children included within it. Some concerns are consistent, however. Always take great care to discover whether the issue is a physical or psychological one, as the symptoms can often be similar. And whatever the corrective path, be sure to take a course that is positive, calming, and paced with your child’s comfort level.
About the Writer
Virginia Cunningham is a freelance writer. Her work with Northwest Pharmacy helps all individuals get the care that they need. As a mother of a special needs child, she has written extensively on nutrition, alternative therapy, and inclusion of special needs children.