Changing Colors: The Blog of Spectrum Pediatrics

October 4, 2017

How does Responsive Parenting Apply to Feeding?

By: Heidi Moreland, MS, CCC-SLP, BCS-S, CLC

The mealtime relationship is extremely dynamic and should evolve over time. In the beginning, the parent’s role is more permissive and supportive with food. Children are allowed to explore and branch out. This allows their tentative interests to develop and stabilize. However, we have found that being too permissive can actually lead to pickier eating and more mealtime “stand-offs,” and even impact weight gain. We also know that being too authoritative or involved can also lead to refusals and difficulty with self-regulation.

We realize this is a hard line to walk. Here are a few thoughts to help with this process.

• The child should be comfortable with saying “no” to foods if they aren’t hungry or don’t feel safe, without fear of reprisal.

  • Learning that they are loved despite the fact that they said “no” is extremely important. However, it doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t experience the consequences of “no,” such as being hungry.
  • They may show interest or refusal in a variety of ways that will change over time. You will need to pay attention now and as they mature.
  • If the child is consistently refusing, the adult may need to re-consider the environment or expectations, so that they are both appropriate and achievable.

• The adult should also be comfortable with saying “no” to behaviors and requests

  • If the situation isn’t safe, it is always appropriate for you to set limits. Playing with knives, standing on the table, or eating non-food are clear examples of appropriate limits. There are others that are less clear, but still important. Eating only at the table is a tricky one, but if that is the rule, it is important to reinforce it.
  • As hunger and trust are more established, mealtime expectations should begin to line up with expectations outside of meals. Ask yourself, “what would I do if this wasn’t food?”
  • There are very valuable lessons that children learn from consequences. Protecting them from consequences of “no” by always setting up the situation so the answer is “yes” deprives the children of learning important lessons. ▪ For example, getting the child to eat every day by only serving highly preferred foods deprives the child of learning the feeling of hunger, as well as the possibility that some new foods are good.

• Just as you wouldn’t expect an infant to drive a car or read a book, you would be disappointed if your teenager waited for you to change their clothes or put food in their mouths. It is appropriate to change your expectations as children mature.

  • If your child is a new or hesitant eater, their abilities with food may look different than their abilities in other areas.
  • Until their trust of food and eating becomes more stable, you may have different sets of expectations for food and for other areas, but it helps to be aware of the discrepancy and make very small steps to make them more similar.
  • If a behavior is new and fragile, it needs more support. Taste, variety, volume, texture, situation, etc., may time to stabilize.
  • Once a behavior is more established, parents and caregivers can begin to shape it or incorporate it into an expectation. For example, in the beginning, the “eating only at the table” rule, may be suspended, but once that behavior is more stable, eating at the table should be consistent and not open to negotiation except for special circumstances.
  • Patterns of interest and response will help you make future choices and determine when your child is ready for the next step.

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Darling, N., & Steinberg, L. (1993). Parenting style as context: An integrative model. Psychological bulletin, 113(3), 487.

Hughes, S. O., Power, T. G., Fisher, J. O., Mueller, S., & Nicklas, T. A. (2005). Revisiting a neglected construct: parenting styles in a child-feeding context.Appetite, 44(1), 83-92.

Landry, S. H., Smith, K. E., & Swank, P. R. (2006). Responsive parenting: establishing early foundations for social, communication, and independent problem-solving skills. Developmental psychology, 42(4), 627.

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