Sensory issues that impact self regulation at the dinner table.
Most of us love dinner time and look forward to enjoying the different textures, tastes and smells of eating.
For a kid with sensory issues though, being at the dinner table can be an incredibly hard time of their day.
How can you make it more manageable for your young person?
What strategies can you use to help your child?
Impact of sensory issues on self regulation
When your child has sensory issues, it makes it much harder for them to self regulate and also to explain to you what is going on and causing them a problem.
We are passionate at LifeSkills4Kids in helping young people to find strategies which they can use to make their lives manageable and rewarding.
As parents, the ways in which we interact with our children has the broadest influence on a child’s behaviour because it creates the emotional climate within which a child makes decisions about his or her actions.
Our parenting style influences the development of self-regulation, the ability of a child to govern him/herself, in very specific ways. There are some key factors which can influence this:
- Show positive versus negative emotion.
- Are accepting (not dismissing) of their children's emotional expression.
- Are not overly controlling of their children's behaviour.
Providing consistent messaging and following through with promises also helps children establish self-discipline and a willingness to delay gratification.
This all sound great in theory. But if your child has sensory issues too, your parenting style may need to be changed to accommodate these extra needs.
The following are some strategies and ideas to help you to promote self regulation at the dinner table with your young person who has sensory issues.
Strategies for making dinner time a success
Play with food
- Your child will be able to become accustomed to different textures and consistencies through play and exploration of their food
- This is a vital step in enabling sensory kids to make some sense of the sensory issues that they may encounter with food before they ever think about having to try to put the food into their mouth
- You don't have to do this at the dinner table – it could be that you build in some ‘fun' sessions with food and allow your child to explore the food first in a safe, ‘play' environment
- I have found that this can work really well if you give your child plenty of warning and do some play sessions with the same food over a few days and then introduce it into a ‘dinner' scenario
- My favourite food to begin with is mashed potato. And we have had endless hours of fun making things with mashed potato (I personally love making a mashed potato mountain and then adding a ski run all the way from top to bottom!)
- You can also experiment with temperature as kids with sensory issues can be very sensitive to their food being just the right temperature
Break eating down into steps
- Once you have explored certain types of food together, then it is time to introduce them at the dinner table
- Your child might benefit from adding a ‘new' food to an existing plateful of food which they are already used to
- It is important to make sure that if you do this, the ‘new' food is NOT touching any of the familiar food. It very definitely has a ‘space' on your child's plate all of its own.
- The first time you introduce this new food, you can make it clear that you don't expect your child to try it
- The second time this new food makes an appearance, suggest that your child takes a small bite out of it and holds it in their mouth
- Each time you do this, be clear that each step forward is a very small one. Accept that it may take your child several attempts to allow the food into their mouth, to chew it and eventually to swallow it
Use distractions at the dinner table
- Make your dinner table time a fun and relaxed environment for both you and your child
- You can play favourite games, allow your child to bring favourite toys to dinner, use fidget toys or provide your child with a dinner table sensory kit.
- The key here is to ensure that your child sees dinner time and being at the dinner table as a fun, safe and non-threatening place to be
Using Visuals to help you and your child
- Ask school if they use visuals to help your child and, if possible, use the same ones at the dinner table
- Kids with sensory issues often struggle to communicate if they are having problems – if you can provide them with visuals, this often helps them to open up to you
- We have some great articles about how to use visuals to help your young person self regulate:
o check out our Just Right Kids Technique
o Look here to get free Sensory Processing Tip Sheets
o And here for help with fussy eaters
Strengthen Muscle Tone
As an occupational therapist, I come across many kids with sensory issues who struggle to eat because of their muscle tone. Eating can seem as daunting as climbing a mountain if your child’s muscles aren’t strong enough to eat their food without tiring quickly.
Strengthening your child's muscle tone can all be part of the game of ‘dinner time'. There are some great activities which will increase facial muscle tone and make eating easier for your child. For example, blowing bubbles, whistles and balloons will all help, as well as giving the lungs a good work out.
You could also suggest that your child learns to play a wind instrument or you could practice mindfulness together and do breathing exercises as part of that.
Change of scenery
- Kids love to have adventures and making the ‘dinner table' experience into one is great for the whole family!
- You can take your dinner table outside and provide an alternative sensory experience to help your child to cope with eating – it's all about taking the pressure of having to eat away.
- Similarly you could go on a picnic together, visit a friend's or family member's house or go to a restaurant
- Wherever you decide to go, make sure that the emphasis is on fun, no pressure and a positive experience for both you, your child and all the family
- The change of scenery is NOT about eating, it’s about helping your child to feel relaxed, have fun and …. Eventually to enjoy their eating experience. Be patient and allow your child to dictate the pace