Family Mealtimes and Fussy Eaters – Part One
When I was growing up, mealtimes were very conventional. My parents weren’t disciplinarians by any means, but the rules were set in stone and went as follows;
- Mum only cooked one evening meal and everyone ate the same
- We ate what we were served or went hungry
- We weren’t ‘let off’ eating foods we professed to dislike, so…we ate what we were served, or went hungry
- We all sat together at the table to eat at the same time; my mum, dad, two brothers and me, and anyone who ate with us did likewise
- We asked permission to leave the table, and if it wasn’t granted we stayed where we were until it was
I grew up with these rules and they never seemed unreasonable to me. We all had hearty appetites, we were easy to feed because we ate whatever we were given and we grew up with excellent table manners and behaviour.
As with many people when they grow up and have children of their own, I adopted and applied these same mealtime rules at our own family dinner table.
So… what happened??!!
Most ‘Aspie’ children that I know are fussy with their food in some way and get fussier as they get older.
We started well enough. Our first boy, our Aspie, was a very hungry baby, guzzling his milk and moving onto solids with no problems initially. Determined not to have the stereotypical nightmarish ‘fussy eater,’ we spent many hours creating different meals involving different vegetables, spices, meats – you name it we cooked it, and he ate it happily enough (I still say that one of my crowning achievements as a mother is that both my boys love sprouts – yes, the very devil’s food itself, or so I have been told – and will ask for more of them!) When he started nursery, I filled his little lunchbox with lots of healthy lunchtime snacks, and it came home empty at the end of the day.
His younger brother had the same start, his only issue being that he would always spit out his first mouthful of baby food, almost like a taster, before proceeding to finish the lot. He joined us at the table in his highchair and we ate mealtimes together as a family when our shift work allowed it.
I would say that the first cracks with our Aspie started to show when he was about two years old and had just had a nasty bout of Chickenpox. He stopped eating completely for a while. Like most parents would, we tried to tempt him with his favourite foods, and as he began to recover, for a long time he would only eat butter beans and cold pasta!!! Strange choices, we thought, but at least he was eating. This seemed to become a pattern; when he was poorly he always lost his appetite, and butter beans and cold pasta were our go-to foods. Other than that, he continued eating everything we gave him.
With the spotlight of understanding that hindsight brings, and post-diagnosis, I now see that the next development was a classic symptom of Asperger’s Syndrome; a reaction to change, and a need to take control when all else seemed out of control
We went on holiday to West Wales. It was a long journey, and although we had booked a house that had everything we could possibly need in it, our Aspie boy decided to refuse breakfast. We had already noted that his moods deteriorated quite considerably when he was hungry, and he was inclined to terrific tantrums, so this was a big thing. We wanted to enjoy our holiday, so it was important to avoid this major tantrum trigger and get some breakfast inside him. I would never have believed that a young child could be so determined! We tried everything we could to coax, cajole, persuade and make him eat breakfast. We made him sit at the table until he had finished (didn’t happen and just wasted hours!) We tried other foods (knowing full well that he liked his breakfast to be the same thing!) We offered rewards (which made no difference!) We followed him around the house with his food, shovelling a mouthful in when the opportunity presented (he grew wise to this one and turned his head away!) We let him miss breakfast without a fuss one morning in the hope that he would ask for some food when he realised how hungry he was (but as predicted his mood deteriorated and he dug his heels in even more!) It was not a relaxing holiday to say the least!
On our return home, and with it, the return of our usual routine, breakfast resumed as normal.
Mealtimes became increasingly challenging as our youngest became more independent and his ADHD became more evident. ADHD is very much a sensory SEEKING experience whilst Asperger’s Syndrome (even combined with ADHD) is a sensory AVOIDING experience. Our youngest was happy, lively, talkative and energetic; our eldest was more introverted and found his brother’s noise and energy overwhelming and unsettling. When things got too much for him, our Aspie did his best to shut his brother up by whatever means available, and family mealtimes began to descend into arguments, conflict, anger and frustration. His intention was to control his environment to enable him to cope and he didn’t seem to understand that inflicting pain and injury on others would inevitably result in more chaos, noise and repercussions. If anything, removing him from the table to avoid further issues was for him a successful conclusion; he didn’t have to sit at a table being sociable in an environment where he couldn’t cope. How that was achieved didn’t matter; it had been achieved, end of story.
We battled with these mealtimes for a very, very long time. VERY occasionally they passed peacefully, but this was rare. Usually they descended rapidly into angry shouting matches, hitting and shoving and sometimes even throwing food. Most of the time one or other of the boys was asked to leave the table. As parents we wondered what on earth we were doing wrong! We felt we had failed at a normal family function. Everywhere we turned there was advice, information and statistics recommending that sitting together at family mealtimes was essential for normal childhood development and family bonding.
After nearly 14 years, the answer when it came was shocking in its simplicity! The problem it seemed, wasn’t our children, but our perception of ‘normal’ and with that, our expectations. We weren’t to know this pre-diagnosis of course, but post-diagnosis a CAMHS psychologist summed it up in one sentence, ‘throw away your standard parenting books.’ All our children were learning from our family mealtimes was how unpleasant they were for everyone. The psychologist’s advice was simple, if family mealtimes are not working, then don’t force them. The common phrase I believe is ‘pick your battles,’ especially applicable when dealing with a confrontational Asperger’s child!
So that’s what we did! And enforced eating together as a family was no longer one of them!
We still have our meals at more or less the same time, but nobody is made to sit at the table and nobody is forced to sit with another person, be sociable or make conversation while they eat!
And you know what the funny thing is? Several years on our boys will often now choose to sit with us and chat at mealtimes, and because they have the choice, it makes for a very pleasant and special family occasion….
Family Mealtimes and Fussy Eaters – to be continued