Another Bad Tip for Feeding the Hypersensitive, Orally Defensive or Sensory Processing Disordered Child

Nov 30, 2010 by

HYPERSENSITIVE or Orally Defensive children are not your typical picky eaters. — photo by Anna Migeon

In my last post, we looked at Amy, one of those children generally considered to be on the autism spectrum, with neurological and physiological causes for being a picky eater.   Amy was diagnosed as “hypersensitive to oral input” or “orally defensive.”

Such children should be under the supervision of a doctor to make sure that their nutritional needs are met. But as with all children who resist eating, the family dynamics and relationship around eating can either aggravate the problems, or ease them.

Amy’s parents do their best to get her to eat. Most recommendations they’ve been given for getting their hypersensitive child to eat involve various forms of pressure and urging. The more desperate they are to get her to eat, the more she digs in her heels, saying her throat “feels swollen up.”

If pressuring your child to eat doesn’t work very well, as it doesn’t with Amy, doing more of the same probably won’t work any better. It may be time to try something completely different.

Bad Tip #4: “Praise her for trying or eating things.”

What could be wrong with affirming and approving your child, who has such a troubled relationship with food, when she does manage to eat?

Amy is a child in ongoing distress. She’s hungry yet can hardly get food down her throat. She needs to feel unconditionally accepted as well as to feel capable and in charge of herself and her own eating. We want to increase her level of comfort with the food itself, not take advantage of her desire for acceptance to control her and to increase the pressure on her. Being watched, fussed over, urged, and evaluated only turns eating into an even less pleasant experience.

“I’m so proud of you for trying the beets!” sounds like positive reinforcement— hardly qualifying as “pressure”— but  it actually underlines the idea in the child’s mind that eating beets is an act of self-denial, the disagreeable thing you do to make your mom happy.

Praise or  any other such tactics to control her and pressure her to eat just causes Amy to retreat further. Even more than most of us, she naturally resists a push. She needs, even more than the typical child, to take the lead in her own eating.

Instead of Praise for Eating:

  • Switch the environment of pressure to eat to one of letting her come after food as she is able.  Allow her to pursue food for herself instead of feeling she must defend herself against its onslaught or eat something that disgusts her to gain her parents’ approval. Assume she is hungry and wants to eat if she can. Don’t use the power as the parent to get the child to do what you want, even it is “for her own good.” Make only good choices available, then support and reassure rather than pressure her. Let her be in control of her own eating. Your child shouldn’t be eating to please you or for any other reason than to enjoy it and to feel satisfied by it, in the friendly company of her family or friends. Give her the dignity of as much self-control as possible. Avoid giving her any cause to refuse to eat out of rebellion. Back off and let her take the initiative to touch, sniff, taste.
  • Remain as neutral, casual and calm as possible about her eating.  Denying her feelings and difficulties or expressing anger, as frustrating as it all is, will only make matters worse. It’s not fun for her, either. Your hypersensitive child doesn’t start out refusing to eat to make you crazy or to be bratty, though as with any child, that element tends to develop under pressure.

Getting excited when she does manage to eat something different may increase the pressure on her and detract from her own positive feelings about the eating itself. The flip side of the praise coin is criticism. If we praise, what will stop us from criticizing when it doesn’t go as we want it to? If we act like eating is a behavior, good or bad, and judge her for it, how is she going to feel accepted when she can’t help being an extremely picky eater?

Try to accept her problems as the way things are and move forward with as much cheer and nonchalance as you can muster.

  • Let her take the lead about whether she wants to talk about her eating and how she feels about it. Don’t use your own feelings to pressure her to eat. Accept and acknowledge her negative feelings. Instead of praising, reflect and name her own feelings of satisfaction about eating.


Coming soon:

How to support and encourage a child who has difficulty eating

More Bad Tips for Feeding Hypersensitive, Orally Defensive or Sensory Processing Disordered Children

Related Post:

Three Bad Tips for Feeding Hypersensitive, Orally Defensive or Sensory Processing Disordered Children