Transforming mealtimes for your neurodivergent child

Discover a practical approach to overcome “picky eating” challenges in neurodivergent children. Break free from the overwhelming and conflicting advice found online by focusing on building trust and using encouragement instead of praise to support your child's relationship with food.

Parents find themselves bargaining or feeling like they’re giving in to just ending the madness. The idea of trying new foods is forgotten or you continue to turn to the internet for information.

You constantly Google “picky eating” in the hope of finally getting an answer. What you find is either overwhelming or conflicting, or you feel like it just doesn’t apply to your child.

One of my clients, parents of quite a restrictive eater, had attempted every method possible - distract, bribe, use an iPad. Nothing was working. They referred to that period spent getting their daughter to eat as “the dark times.”

Once we established a foundation of trust by working with their child’s unique profile, the pieces fell into place. Instead of trying to change everything at once, we focused on what the family could handle as a unit and moved steadily toward success, like a desire to take a chance on something new.

The fine line between praise and encouragement.

We’ve also heard about “positive reinforcement” and the idea of praise. So, isn't praise a good thing?

Praising leads to the idea of perfection. And, if you focus on mealtimes being perfect, you are losing sight of the process.

Praising your neurodivergent child with “good job eating” connects the meal to their self-worth. And, “good job” one day will be interpreted as “bad job” another day.

This is where encouragement enters. 

Encouragement is quite different from praise... Encouragement is what values the process rather than being tied to an outcome. Encouragement offers observation centered around what your child does well and what works for them. You can then connect those strengths to the hard stuff, building confidence and self-efficacy.

Remember that the more you push and persist, the more your child will push back, creating a cycle of worry and mistrust.

As stated by Marsha Dunn Klein, "Encouragement needs to support the journey...whereas praise waits for the end result to be perfect."

Setting realistic expectations.

This brings us to the expectations that you set for your neurodivergent kids.

When there is a mismatch between current skills - this is what your child can do right now, at this moment - and what you believe your child can do, you are unintentionally creating a huge expectation gap.

Imagine a physical divide, like two sides of a river connected by a bridge. You are essentially asking your child to jump across that river because you (or someone else) think your child "should."

The problem with the should is this - if your child could, they would. And if they can't, it's NOT because they're lazy, noncompliant, self-directed, or oppositional.

It IS because they may not have the skills to accomplish that goal you set.

It IS because they may not be able to access the skills exactly when you need them to.

The result becomes "I'm not good enough," and follows your neurodivergent child everywhere they go. It's no wonder that mealtimes are so overwhelming and constantly feel like a failure. They're set up that way! When you don't know what it's like to BE successful, why bother trying?

Building trust in the environment.

Let’s focus on mealtimes as a gathering while acknowledging your child’s sensory profile.

It’s about integrating your child’s needs when it comes to food to create the mealtime environment that helps them drop their guard and trust you again.

Let’s also close that expectation gap so that mealtimes and ALL gatherings consider yours and your child’s emotional needs leading to higher degrees of confidence, self-esteem, and a pure belief in themselves.

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