Changing Colors: The Blog of Spectrum Pediatrics

August 22, 2014

The Pressure of Praise

By: Heidi Liefer Moreland, MS, CCC-SLP, BRS-S, CLC
As a feeding therapist, I always thought that I was being helpful when I “coached” children through their bites, cheered, and “whoo hoo-ed!” for all their eating attempts.   Sometimes it helped, but not always.  I observed the same behavior with families.   Well-meaning parents, grandparents and caregivers watched closely, then cheered, clapped, and praised any attempts at eating, but we often didn’t see a consistent increase in eating as a result.
I learned a valuable lesson about the double-edged sword of encouragement when teaching my niece to parallel park.  As a new driver, she had little experience and was clearly anxious.  Sensing her hesitation, her father began to give suggestions and encouragement from the curb as she neared the parking spot.  This caused her to became even more flustered, and she drove off to an easier spot in a lot and refused to try again.  Echoes of learning tennis from a high school boyfriend sounded in my head.  I haven’t played tennis in years.  I can still feel my humiliation as he encouraged my lame serves, while I fumbled and stalled. Sound familiar?  Can you feel the nerves of being asked to perform an uncertain new skill with an audience?
For kids that have limited or negative experiences with food, this is even more important to keep in mind.  They have limited experience with the smells, tastes, and textures of foods, and any new sensation or movement can make them even more anxious.  Attempts to “help,” can actually bring so much pressure to the situation that they can’t even participate.   What adults may view as positive reinforcement, may actually sound like noise to a child in an already challenging situation.  It may be helpful for parents and caregivers to remember that the natural reinforcers for eating are satiation of hunger, enjoyment of tastes and textures, and socializing in a relaxed and supportive environment.   Mealtimes are naturally meant to be social.  Nevertheless, the social interaction during mealtimes in families with a child with feeding challenges often becomes unnatural, scripted, and clinical.
Due the anxiety and pressure that parents feel around meals, they often don’t know what else to do in place of praise, which creates unnatural mealtime interactions.  Here are some suggestions of what to do instead:
  1. Remember to talk about things other than food and feeding at meal times.  Talk about your day, what’s happening in the room or outside the window, or other pleasant and no-pressure topics.
  2. Reduce the number of questions you are asking your child.  Mealtimes should not feel like an interrogation.  Imagine a waiter standing over your table asking a bunch of happy questions as you are trying to eat.  No matter how good the food is, the questioning would likely ruin your appetite.
  3. It’s OK to be quiet sometimes.  Don’t be tempted to fill every moment with conversation or activity.
  4. When chatting with your child at mealtimes use a speech pattern, talking volume, and rhythm of speech that is more “Mommy”or “Daddy” and less “Cheerleader” or “Therapist.” Be yourself, and think about how you interact with your child when it isn’t a mealtime.
  5. Read your child’s cues.  If they are telling you they don’t want the spoon, honor it.  Take a pause and set it down nearby.  This gives the child the sense of security that comes with feeling understood and the space to initiate when the child is ready.
  6. Enjoyment is the name of the game.  Children that feel safe and relaxed at the table are more likely to develop healthy eating skills and try again at future sittings.  Quality leads to quantity.
  7. Sometimes, when safe, it is helpful to have a midday “snack” period where your little one is allowed to play with foods without obviously being watched.  Consider eating outdoors or on the floor so there is less intervention required by the adults. You can provide “remote” supervision for safety purposes but stay invisible on the sidelines.
  8. Praise is a good thing…in moderation.  Be sure that you are not giving extra attention or praise to food, but also remember to praise the non-feeding accomplishments of your child. Meals should receive praise that is proportional to other daily routines (i.e. bedtime, playtime, etc.).

Best of luck on your journey to happy and healthy mealtimes for your child and your whole family!

If you enjoyed this article, you may also like – Feeding Aversions: Skill vs. Dysfunction.

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