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Dysregulation during Mealtimes

Now that school is in session and schedules are getting busier and busier, sharing a meal with your little ones may be more important than ever. It is so lovely to sit around the table with your family, all sharing a meal that you cooked together, talking about your day, and….oh…wait…this image is right out of a commercial for tupperware and not reflective of an actual mealtime at my or my client’s houses. In reality, it can be so difficult to have everyone seated, able to have a meal together without someone leaving the table, throwing a tantrum, or literally throwing items off the table. With this season marked by an increase in workload for everyone (kids included!) sharing dinner together may be the only time everyone is in the same room for an extended length of time. Therefore, it can be important to make the most of your mealtime, and it can be hard to do if your child tends to become dysregulated with mealtimes. 

So what is dysregulation? Dysregulation occurs when something (a smell from the food, being seated at the table, the taste of the food, extra demands surrounding utensil use, etc.) triggers an increase in sympathetic nervous system activity. This can result in a fight, flight, or freeze reaction making your child liable to flee the table, throw items, or just quit engaging in mealtime activities. This behavior is likely a result of an environmental or internal trigger, rather than just “poor manners”, and should be addressed as such.

How do you address dysregulation during mealtimes? I am so glad you asked…

1. Identify the trigger. This can take some detective work, so channel your inner “Sherlock Holmes”. Think back at what happens just before the behavior erupts. Is your child asked “What did you do at school today”? Were they told to eat all of their vegetables before leaving the table? Were they asked to pass a dish or condiment? Or is it just the cue of “come sit down for dinner”? Once you have identified the trigger or triggers that provoke the behavioral reaction, you can address it head-on. Of course, some things are harder to tell than others. If your child is able, ask them what is upsetting during mealtimes. With a carefully worded question, they will likely be able to answer accurately. If not, it may take a couple days of observation.

2. Schedule heavy work breaks before meals. Proprioception acts to modulate other types of input, and heavy work is a lovely way to frontload that input to assist with self-regulation later on. Whether it’s animal walks to the dinner table, chair push ups before dishing up your food, or pushing a weighted laundry basket to the table to “deliver” plates, napkins, or silverware, heavy work is your go to. 

3. Watch for signs of dysregulation. If you see your child start to become upset or engage in the behavior, ask them to take a break. Walk around the kitchen three times, do wall push ups, or bunny hop to the door and back. This will likely help “reset” their system

4. Positive reinforcement and patience. Handwriting is largely dependent on the eyes and hands working together to copy and form letters. In a typical classroom, the students are asked to look up, read what the teacher has written on the board, look back down at your paper, find the place that you are supposed to write the sentence, then actually write the sentence. If any part of that is difficult, it can negatively impact the end product of handwriting.

5. Consult with an occupational therapist if mealtimes seem to be impacting your child’s everyday routines.

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Kaelyn Green, MA, OTR/L

Kaelyn Green is a licensed occupational therapist at Valued Voices. She is certified by the University of Southern California in Sensory Integration and is an advocate for addressing underlying sensory functioning in order to improve occupational performance.  She is passionate about meeting children and families where they are at and seeks to tailor interventions to the unique needs of her clients. When she is not working, you will find Kaelyn taking care of her two goldendoodles, working in her garden, or taking trips to the Central Coast.

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