Last week, we discussed one type of picky eater, The Kid Who Doesn’t Like The Food. This week, we are going to discuss a more serious type of picky eater that can’t be fixed with discipline alone, because the root of the behavior looks more like a disorder than a behavior.
The Kid with a Sensory Aversion
This type of picky eater is the one who has a sensory aversion to many of the foods served to him. These kids typically avoid foods that fall into a specific category.
I’ve seen kids who won’t eat things that are white, or refuse foods that are sticky or chewy, or even too soft or too hard. These kids have an aversion to this food for a reason that’s more than just stubbornness. Their body actually reacts differently to different sensory experiences than most people’s bodies.
These kids are the easiest kids to get into a battle with. The reason is that these kids get so worked up over the foods that are served to them. As soon as that dreaded food is placed on their plate, their heart beat starts to increase, they might feel hot, sweaty, and even scared. These kids aren’t making these symptoms up. There is something within their body and brains that causes them to overreact to the stress of this hated food.
Kids with sensory aversions to foods may need the support of a mental health professional or occupational therapist to learn how to calm their fears of these foods and manage their bodies before they try to eat these foods.
Some of the solutions that I mentioned may help the kid who doesn’t like the food may also help the kid with a sensory aversion.
For example, I suggested that parents serve liked foods during meal time at least some of the time. If you avoid introducing foods that the child hates because of a sensory aversion, then of course the child is going to eat what you give him and won’t throw a fit. But, if you introduce some foods that you know the child hates (like I suggested with the other type of picky eater) you may actually be causing more harm than good if you don’t do it correctly.
Forcing a child to try a food he has a sensory aversion to—without preparing him for this task—may lead to meltdowns, tears, aggression, and possibly even anxiety and depression.
Now as adults, we want to say, “What’s the big deal?” As I mentioned before, I hate carrots. But I’m not going to throw a fit if someone passes me the bowl of carrots at the dinner table.
We have to remember that kids aren’t adults…they’re kids. And they haven’t developed the skills they need to function like adults. If we teach them today how to handle their sensory aversions, they’ll figure it out. They’ll learn how to pass that bowl of carrots without throwing a fit.
But, at four-years-old, when that bowl of carrots gets into their vicinity, they’re gonna lose it. So, we have to help them learn how to calm themselves. That’s the first step in helping a child with a sensory aversion to foods.
So how do you teach a child to calm down before eating a hated food? Well, in some ways it’s the same as calming your child for nap time or bedtime. You know what calms your child. Some kids like to sit down with a blanky, others may like to listen to music, and others have their own habits.
Once you’ve identified how to calm the child, then you need to establish a time in which you are going to attempt to introduce, or re-introduce these foods that cause him so much stress.
Pick a time that you want to try to introduce the foods. Make sure that it’s a time when he is well rested and only somewhat hungry. You don’t want him to be starving, otherwise he will more easily get worked up by the whole process.
Next, start with your calming exercises. Show him how to get calm and help him to get to a calm state.
Then, introduce that hated food in such a small quantity that it seems like nothing. Dr. Keith E. Williams, the director of the feeding program at Penn State Hershey Medical Center says that the reason that kids have such an aversion to trying foods that they hate is because parents place them in front of the child in such an unrealistic quantity. He says that if kids are given one pea, instead of a bowl full of peas, then it’s not so threatening and the child isn’t going to get so worked up.
And of course, your goal is to get the child to try the food, not eat an entire serving of the food. That will come later.
So, if he hates mashed potatoes, place less than a spoonful on his plate. Stand there with him and encourage, without pressuring too much. Set the expectation that he will try the new food, but don’t be so strict as to set a time limit. Motivate him by saying something like, “Once you start, it’ll only last a second.” If he starts to get worked up, coach him on how to remain calm. You may need to help rub his hands or shoulders to get back to that calm state and then try again.
As soon as he eats the food—that teeny tiny minuscule amount of food—offer a follow up food that he likes to help get the taste out of his mouth. Keep doing this on a regular basis and as time passes, give more of the dreaded food and less of the follow up food.
If he still avoids the food and refuses to try it, or spits it up immediately, Dr. Peter Girolami with the Kennedy Krieger Institute feeding disorders program, suggests putting new foods into textures that are acceptable to the child. He suggests that sometimes, five-year-olds with sensory aversions may need their food to be ground up or blended, because it at least allows the child to try a new food or flavor. Then, as the child becomes comfortable with the blended or pureed food, you can make it gradually chunkier to gradually get the child used to eating foods that aren’t blended.
The most important thing to remember about this type of picky eater is that it’s a biological cause, not necessarily an oppositional behavior. Please don’t view your child’s avoidance of certain foods as a direct attack on you as a parent and please don’t punish the child for refusing to try new foods or throwing those foods up. Punishing this type of child for his eating habits may only make his habits worse. It can also cause kids to view food in a negative way.
If you are looking for assistance for dealing with a child who is using food in an attempt to be oppositional or controlling, you’ll find your answers in next week’s article when I discuss the last type of picky eater, The Kid Who Uses Food For Power and Control.