The Picky Eater, Part 2

by Kelly Dorfman, M.S., Co-founder DDR

The first article on picky eating addressed biomedical and sensory reason for eating problems. Ruling out or treating these oral motor and digestive issues is always the top priority when trying to improve the diet. The next step is devising a workable plan that encourages better eating and downplays resistance.

Accidental Negative Reinforcement

Parenting a child who refuses to eat is distressing. Hours can be wasted on creative dishes that are spit out. Frustration with the child’s rigidity leads to fruitless negotiations and bribes. When inducements fail, yelling is next. Yet this inordinate amount of focused attention "accidentally" reinforces the very conduct that needs changing. Children need attention and they will accept it whether it is positive or negative.

Eating behavior is tricky to address because even a child with severe developmental delays can refuse food. People like to have power over their environment. Children with sensory issues have a stronger need to control their surroundings in order to lessen their anxiety. In the hopes of avoiding angry scenes, sympathetic parents give up. Giving in also reinforces the stuck behavior by enabling poor eating.

Don’t Force, Don’t Give in

To encourage children to eat better, stick to your goals without forcing. Positive change happens when parents take charge of their own behavior. Because the child is closely linked to the parent, he must shift in response. Psychotherapists insist that you cannot change another person but you can affect the dynamics of the relationship by changing yourself.

Encouraging the Picky Eater

By focusing on positive attempts at eating, youngsters learn to get attention by cooperating. With consistent application of this principle, even the most finicky eater can expand his palate.

[Initially published in New Developments: Volume 8, Number 1 - Fall, 2002]

All material in this web site is given for information purposes only and is not to be substituted for advice from your health care provider.


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