ABA Treats a Problem Your Child Doesn’t Have

ABA is an extremely sensitive topic. You may experience intense emotions as you read this piece. I ask that you read through the post in its entirety before you make a final decision on what your perspective will be. If you need clarification, please ask. If you disagree, I’d appreciate your feedback.

It has taken me months to prepare this post for so many reasons, not the least of which is that I’ve been coming to terms with my own very late autism diagnosis. I’m one of the fortunate people who wasn’t subjected to Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy, but so many Autistic people are not so lucky. I write this post for them and for all the children now and in the future who will undergo this very painful experience.

At the start, I have to make clear that I am not a professional. I’m an Autistic mom of an Autistic child, and I have been in the position of deciding whether or not to put my child into ABA therapy.

I also need my fellow parents to know that I am not condemning you if you’ve chosen ABA therapy. It is the gold standard “treatment” for Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), it’s covered by insurance, and it certainly seems to work. Unless you’ve been exposed to Autistic adults and our position on ABA, there’s little reason for you to be concerned. I hope you will hear what we have to say and consider whether you want to continue down this path.

Autism Isn’t a Behavior Disorder

So, why treat it with compliance-based training? Autism is a completely natural, neurological variant. It is primarily disabling in cultures where Autistic people are not included and embraced.

Autistic brains perceive and process the world differently from allistic brains. But, we are fundamentally human beings, like everyone else, with the same emotions and responses to stimuli. If you hear a loud noise, do you not cover your ears? That’s not considered odd at all, right? So, why would it be odd for an Autistic person to do the same? Sure, it might be accompanied by humming and rocking, because stimming is so comforting to us, but we’re doing the same thing you do to reduce the strain of overstimulation. When allistic children relieve intense stress by cutting, we don’t send them to compliance-based training to try and coerce them to stop. We get them into helpful therapies to give them back control and provide relief that doesn’t harm, thereby addressing the problem rather than the behavior. And, that’s what Autistic kids need: acknowledgement that behavior is communication and relief from the underlying problem.

A History of ABA Therapy

Back in the 1970s, UCLA psychologist, Ole Ivar Lovaas, participated in the development of a therapy that promised to alter “deviant” behavior. His involvement in the Feminine Boy Project offered him an opportunity to engage in a form of behaviorism soon-to-be-called conversion therapy wherein gay men would theoretically be converted to heterosexuality. He also used this new therapy in his work with Autistic children.

Conversion therapy for homosexual people has since fallen out of favor, for obvious and good reason. However, Autistic children are still subjected to the same behaviorism that we’ve deemed unacceptable for use on other human beings. The reason? It was the same back then as it is now. In the words of Lovaas himself, ABA therapy can make Autistic kids “indistinguishable from their normal friends.” Unfortunately, that so-called progress comes at the price of an uptick in PTSD and suicide among Autistic people. I’m sure you can understand how devastating it is to go through life feeling that the person you genuinely are simply isn’t enough for the people who say they love you. Now, before you decide that my criticism is unfounded, let me make it abundantly clear that Lovaas was a pretty despicable fellow:

Modern ABA might look gentler on the surface; however, at its core, it starts with the assumption that Autistic people are broken and wrong, and it seeks to make our behavior more comfortable for allistic people.

Autistic Perspectives on ABA

Amythest Schaber is an Autistic artist, writer, public speaker, and advocate. Her series, Ask an Autistic, tackles a great many topics that have proved helpful to her many allistic followers. In this episode, she explains what ABA is from her perspective.

The following list includes links to other Autistic writers and advocates, as well as allies, who explain why ABA should be avoided:

Finally, this post from the Non-Binary Intersectionalist (and I must give tremendous credit to this page for the wealth of resources I’ve been able to provide in this post!) describes a recent interaction with a young child in ABA therapy:

If you’re interested in reading some personal accounts of ABA therapy, I encourage you to check out this post on Stop ABA, Support Autistics. If you still aren’t convinced that ABA therapy is harmful, read this post.

What’s the Alternative to ABA Therapy?

To answer this question, we have to consider what well-meaning parents intend to happen when they put their children into ABA therapy. Some of the most common reasons I’ve seen are 1) to help the child be more independent, 2) to help the child navigate society more easily, and 3) to protect the child from danger. There are many, many more reasons of course! These are simply the top three as I’ve understood them.

I imagine you won’t be very surprised to learn that the best alternative to ABA therapy, in my experience and in accordance with my values, is Peaceful Parenting.

Peaceful Parenting achieves each of the three aims I mentioned by instilling self-sufficiency, self-assurance, and boundary recognition in children, as well as improving emotional development and self-regulation, one interaction at a time. Peaceful Parenting does not require thousands upon thousands of dollars or 40+ hours a week of therapy. For symptomatic concerns, there are other wonderful therapies like speech therapy, occupational therapy, and physical therapy. These therapies can help discover and meet needs that parents may not fully understand. And, much like taking an ESL class, they help Autistic kids learn a different culture without coercion.

Autistic kids deserve the same gentle treatment as any other child. If you wouldn’t put your neurotypical child into ABA therapy, there’s no need to put your Autistic child into ABA therapy. If you’d consider Dialectical Behavior Therapy (sidenote: DBT and ABA are not the same) to help your neurotypical child handle the stresses of life, offer the same to your Autistic child. Figuring out how best to support a child – any child – can be complicated. But treating our children with the same responsive gentleness, regardless of neurology, need not be the least bit complicated.

In this TED Talk, Dr. Amy Laurent explains why Autistic people need support in developing emotional skills, not behavior management:

Learn about the SCERTS Model by clicking here

ABA therapy is simply incompatible with Peaceful Parenting. The entire concept hinges on the adult therapist’s ability to coerce a child into compliance by withholding beloved objects and activities until the child “earns” them by obeying the therapist. ABA therapy discourages children from saying “no.” It does nothing to meet underlying, unmet needs and, instead, attempts to force children to ignore those needs while behaving as though the needs do not exist.

If you are a Peaceful Parent who is alarmed by what you’ve read, please know you and your child are enough just as you are. Your connection with your child is the key to comfort and growth. All children want to be heard and understood. Your job, then, is to learn how your child communicates and become conversant in their preferred language. Trust yourself. Trust your child. And, when you need help, find people who are willing to do the hard work of figuring out why your child is suffering and then find ways to relieve that suffering by way of accommodations and modifications. For instance, if your child hits himself in the head in the presence of very bright lights, the remedy is simple. Turn the lights down or off. When you start to see remedies everywhere, the rest falls right into place.

No Autistic child is the same and there are going to be things your child can do that mine can’t. Again, all Autistic people are different from one another. The key is learning what exactly that means for your child and filling in every single crevice in your child’s heart that is aching for your love and attention.

That includes Autistic children who exhibit self-destructive and violent behavior. Remember, all behavior is communication. If a child, any child, is lashing out, something is wrong that the child can’t overcome. Our goal as parents has to be to investigate the underlying cause of our children’s challenging behavior and help to relieve any stressors we discover.

You Want Action Steps? We’ve Got Actions Steps.

You’ll find this to be a very short section, because I’m directing you to the single most helpful post I’ve ever read on helping Autistic kids as a parent. For concrete, comprehensive details on what you can do for your Autistic child without the use of any ABA whatsoever, please read If Not ABA, Then What at The Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism. The recommendations there will support what you are already doing as a Peaceful Parent.

Careful! ABA Ideology Can Wriggle Into Other Therapies

If you’ve gotten this far, I want to make sure you know that ABA ideology has infiltrated all aspects of the way professionals care for Autistic people. Plus, because ABA is so profitable, some professionals use ABA codes to bill insurance even while they claim they aren’t practicing “traditional” ABA. However, don’t be fooled! If it’s called ABA, it is ABA. And, even if it’s not called ABA, the professional could be using ABA tactics to pressure your child into making advances. It can all be very confusing. An excellent post by Autistic Mama describes the red flags that should send you running for the door if you see them in any therapy your child undergoes. Please visit her post directly for a full explanation of each red flag.

  1. Observation is Not Allowed
  2. Indefinite Therapy
  3. Extreme Hours
  4. No Stimming Allowed
  5. Requires Eye Contact
  6. Excessive Reliance on Token Systems and Edibles
  7. Rigid Approach or Refusing to Make Basic Accommodations
  8. Focus on Outward Behaviors, Rather than Functional Skills
  9. Expecting Kids to Perform on Command, Regardless of How Difficult Something is or Where the Child is at Emotionally
  10. Moving too Fast or Not Breaking Down Tasks into Manageable Pieces
  11. Learned Skills Don’t Transfer
  12. Focus on Compliance
  13. Focus on Verbal Communication
  14. Punishment of Any Kind
  15. Presumes Incompetence

You Are a Good Parent

Any parent who would go to the ends of the Earth, at any expense, for their child has earned that title. Please know my intention is not to attack you, though I understand why such an impact could result. You may be thinking that your child’s ABA looks nothing like what I’ve described or that your child loves their ABA therapist. I’m not here to argue or to condemn you. I ask only that you carefully consider the history of ABA, its inherent weaknesses, and the voices of Autistic adults urging caution.

A Thank You to All My Fellow Autistic Adults

This post wouldn’t have been possible without the labor of my fellow Autistics. You are so incredibly valuable and I appreciate you more than I can express. Thank you!

And, reader, thank you for listening.

Update (February 10, 2020): After I published this piece, it came to my attention that Alfie Kohn recently published an outstanding piece regarding new research into ABA. It’s well worth a read!

Peaceful Parenting Won’t Work on My Child

Whether you’re having in-person conversations or online, someone somewhere has probably told you that peaceful parenting can’t work for every child. “Every child is different” they say, with the full force of unfortunate implications behind each word.

Every child is different. Some need to be punished.

Every child is different. Some need to be shamed.

Every child is different. Some need to be spanked.

Every child is different. Some need to be arrested.

It’s simply not true. None of it. While peaceful parenting can seem to be an unachievable ideal from the outside, it is an evidence-based approach that takes into account the advances in neuroscience we’ve made over the past century. It is a scientific marvel. And, once you dig into it, you see that it is appropriate for every. single. child.

Well, what about that kid screaming “NO!” in his mother’s face while she sits there unsure of what to do?

An authoritarian parents might lay down the law. “You will NOT treat your mother that way!” Punishment is the answer here!

A permissive parent might allow the behavior to happen and make excuses. “Oh, he just tired. It’s ok.”

A neglectful parent might completely ignore the child.

An authoritative, peaceful parent would address the issue head on. We’ve got a fantastic solution for overwrought children who have lost their ability to regulate: The 3Rs and a limit. As a reminder, the 3Rs are regulate, relate, and reason. This formula was developed by Dr. Bruce Perry, a psychiatrist who specializes in trauma-informed care, and it can be effective for all children.

Regulate

This one is why you should never, ever, ever ignore a child’s undesirable behavior. Children, especially young ones, aren’t very good at self-regulation. The human capacity to self-regulate is a matter of development more than it is a matter of skill. But, we can help our children learn techniques that promote self-regulation. We can be most useful in this educational process by co-regulating with our children. Co-regulation refers to the way a child in a well-attuned relationship with a caregiver can sync physiologically with the adult. The process is different depending on your child’s neurology and personality. Some children need to be hugged. Some just need to be present with the adult. Some children need verbal assurances, such as “I’m right here with you. I’ll be here as long as you need to feel better.” However it works for a particular child, the goal is for the adult to share calmness with the child through physiological accord (think deep breathing), emotional stabilization, and social proximity.

Relate

Relating involves the very human act of empathizing. Once your child’s body and mind have relaxed, the next step is to let your child know he isn’t alone in how he feels. Children’s emotions are human emotions. No matter how trivial their concerns may seem to us, we can understand them. My favorite way to relate is to affirm how my child is feeling. For instance, “You’re angry because I said we’re going to turn off the tv in 5 minutes. You want to watch more tv! I know watching tv is fun.” You could let your child know of an instance from your own childhood when you had a similarly upsetting experience. The goal here is to let your child know you see them. You feel their distress and you understand it.

Reason

Once your child’s body and mind are working in concert with your own, you can explain what’s happened. Using the tv example, I might say, “We need to turn off the tv, because it’s time to take a bath and read our book before bed. Once the tv goes off, we get to play in the bathwater!” The age of your child determines how you will reason. All children, including infants, deserve an explanation for the things that upset them. They understand more than we may give them credit for and, at the very least, they will grow up learning how reason and logic work. If your child begins to get upset again, start back from the first R. Make sure not to skip any of the Rs. They work in sequence. And, a critical note, if your child is dysregulated because of a physical need like sleepiness or hunger, please be sure to address that need in your reasoning.

Limit

Setting a gentle limit may be what upset your child in the first place. You do not need to ignore the limit during the 3Rs. I was recently asked by a friend what she should do in a bookstore where her daughter became dysregulated in an aisle upon being told it was time to go. She told me that her daughter didn’t want a hug and, while she attempted to co-regulate by sitting near the child without touching, her daughter continued to play around in the store. I told my friend, in this case, I would gently take the child’s hands and physically stop her. She said that would set off another meltdown. I told her that’s ok! That’s what the 3Rs are for. Often, we do need to cycle back through until our kids are feeling better.

Our goal can’t be for our child to be happy with our limits, because that’s just not reasonable. I remember being told, as a child, that it was my responsibility to be joyful in the face of admonition. No. Children are just learning how to deal with disappointment. We don’t need to place impossible expectations on them in the process. As an adult I have had to learn how to take criticism without exploding or shutting down, because I didn’t learn how to do it as a child.

Forget all that. Our goal is to ensure that our child feels loved and supported in the midst of their unhappiness and even when they’re expressing that unhappiness in ways we don’t like. So, if you have to scoop up your child and head out the door while she fusses at you because you’ve run out of time, sometimes that’s how it’s gotta be. The work you’re doing by engaging in the 3Rs, giving your child time to process their feelings, and being kind even as you are firm is to establish a pattern of empathy and support that your child can rely on. One that will continue to impact her positively.

One of the criticisms leveled against peaceful parenting is that it just takes so long. It’s true. This approach is a long game and individual interactions can take a while (so build in extra time to make sure your kids get the full benefit of your attention). We are working on fostering the development of genuine human beings who embrace mistakes as learning opportunities, observe the world to see where they can help the most, and find healthy ways to overcome hardships. It’s so much quicker and easier to punish and you could very well do that. But, why? Why would you put off the work of growing up by controlling your kids? Punishment teaches nothing but not to misbehave around people who punish you. It does not teach accountability.

So you have a few choices. One, fall back on punishment and force your kids into compliance; two, let your kids spiral into dysregulation and make excuses for their behavior; three, neglect your kids altogether; or, four, support your child’s psychological and moral development by putting the work in from birth; no punishment required.

A Single Change Makes All the Difference

As you prepare to burst through the gate of a brand new year, your thoughts may center on firm resolutions or even just some loose plans for changes you’d like to see in your life. If being a kinder parent is on your list, I have some comforting news for you. One single change can make all the difference in your efforts to embrace peace and gentleness.

It’s so simple, yet so difficult. It takes intention. It may result in a worldview shift and will likely foster in a positive outlook that can carry you through the toughest parenting challenges. If you have limited time and energy; if you’re overwhelmed at the rigors of peaceful parenting; if you’d hoped you’d have more of a handle on becoming a gentler you but trials and tribulations made your path rockier than you’d ever imagined… if you need help but you don’t know what to help to ask for, I encourage you to do this one, precious, small thing: Reframe.

Reframing is a psychological technique wherein you mentally stand up and move to a different location to see your situation from another, more positive (or at least neutral) perspective. I urge you to watch this incredible 10-minute TED Talk before moving on:

When I talk about reframing in the context of parenthood, I mean choosing to see difficult situations in a new light. As peaceful parents, we know that children do well when they can and, when they can’t, they need our help. Not our wrath. It’s so incredibly hard to honor our own emotions around frustrating incidents while affirming our children’s emotions at the same time. But, that’s what they need from us. In those moments when it becomes too much to bear, taking a breather is always a good decision. It is not a failure. It is self-consideration. When you’re ready to gain new perspective in those tough moments, prioritize empathy.

A friend of mine recently shared with me a difficult interaction she had with her young teenage daughter. The pair were engaged in a mother-daughter clothing battle over cleanliness with the teen wanting to wear her favorite hoodies over the course of several days and her mother wanting to get those hoodies washed and in good order. As we talked, my friend recognized that her daughter was likely associating comfort and safety with her favorite hoodies, which helped reduce her anxiety. So, there was likely a genuine need for her to keep those items close at hand. My friend mentioned that she was planning to get some more hoodies to give to her daughter for Christmas, and I suggested getting two of each, which would make four as gifts and six hoodies in total including the existing pieces. Six hoodies would easily get her daughter through a school week with plenty of time for washing. Once she stepped beyond the conflict, the solution became clear.

When you’re under stress, reframing can feel impossible. It just takes practice and a little ingenuity. Your goal is to view your child in a positive rather than a negative light. With an open mind, you can peer into your child’s heart and see just what’s needed.

I asked friends to share with me some of the most stressful behaviors their children exhibit. You know, the ones that trigger something deep inside that could explode into rage at any moment? Whew! I know that feeling. Let me pause here to say that no one – not me, not you, not anyone – is a machine. Some triggers simply touch too deep, and we do end up exploding. That’s not a fail. We’re human. No way to get around that. We apologize and keep trying. And, that’s what makes us peaceful parents. With that said, I’ll note some of the behaviors that seem to really set folks off.

Aggression

Children, especially very young ones, seem to be prone to using their bodies to communicate displeasure. They may hit, bite, kick, spit, and scratch, all of which can be extremely upsetting to the adults receiving this inappropriate treatment. It’s especially infuriating when our children hurt each other, especially when it’s an older, larger sibling beating up on a smaller one. Those interactions feel an awful lot like bullying, and that’s something many of us cannot tolerate.

Children use aggression when they don’t have adequate words to express their emotions and when they’ve reached a breaking point. There are certainly cases where some children are violent due to physiological or psychological differences, but most children will lash out at one time or another. This form of communication typically peaks around age 2, but can be present throughout childhood as a child’s (including teens) brain is working primarily off emotion and not logic.

Destruction

It’s rough when “I won’t let you hit the dog” triggers a toypocalypse as your child slams all her toys onto the floor in a rage. As adults, we know the financial costs involved with destruction. Just walking through the doors of an emergency room costs several hundred dollars to start. That nice dollhouse Aunt Beverly gave your kids last Christmas? $150 down the drain as it becomes the object of a Godzilla-scale attack by a very angry little boy.

There are reasons not to get too caught up in the value of things when your child’s emotional health is on the line, but all the reasoning in the world won’t relieve the fire that burns in your gut when you see your child tearing up their belongings.

Defiance

As peaceful parents, we want to be countercultural… to view strong responses from our children as natural and healthy. But, there is just something unsettling about a child blatantly doing something we’ve said not to, refusing to eat, throwing food on the floor, and the like. It hits deep and activates our conditioning to view children as subservient and ourselves as singularly worth of respect. Even the calmest among us have a breaking point where we get so fed up, we lash out.

The Reframe

Here’s how it works. When your child does something that sends you right over the proverbial cliff, stop for a moment and recognize that there is an answer. You CAN find a solution! Breathe. Slow down. Look at your child. What’s really happening? If your child is acting in a way that disconnects them from their social group – which is totally contrary to who we are as humans – recognize that there’s a barrier your child can’t overcome no matter how disciplined they might or might not be. Your task is to figure out what that barrier is and guide your child to the solution.

Give reframing a go! Make this your New Year’s Resolution. Once you start to see through the behavior to the need, gentleness will naturally follow. And, if you need guidance to figure out how to support your child through particularly challenging behaviors, I’ll be here all year to help.

That friend I mentioned earlier graciously previewed this post for me. Coincidentally, at the same time, her young son was experiencing a crisis. He had been playing a video game, when he began crying and saying he hated everything. Initially, his father considered taking video games away altogether, but my friend read this post to him and encouraged him to wait. While their son took a breather, they brainstormed why he was acting that way.

Once they put it all together, they realized he had gotten upset when he couldn’t progress past a certain point in the game. My friend’s husband checked the settings and realized they were at a level that was far too difficult for a little boy. After adjusting the difficulty to a more age-appropriate level, he invited his son back in to enjoy a fun father-son game together. The solution was there all along! There is always an answer. You’ve just got to find it.

Fostering Competent Eating

As someone who has struggled with my weight my entire adult life, this post is really important to me. I tried all sorts of diets and ended up losing 150+ pounds on a paleo/primal diet alongside improved control over my thyroid function. At the time, I thought it was amazing. I mean, who doesn’t want to lose weight?! Since then, I’ve had two children and nursed for a collective total of 4+ years, and it shows. My body is very different than it was before kids. I prayed for years for God to take my appetite away completely. Looking back, wow, what a request! “Dear Lord, please remove one of the basic functions that allows me to live.” It’s incredibly sad, really.

At the end of last year, I stumbled upon an answer I wasn’t expecting: Intuitive Eating (IE). If you haven’t heard of it, we’ll be going over it in this post. IE has changed my life. I’m happier and healthier without losing a single pound.

If you’re ready learn the secrets of raising children who have a great relationship with food, healthy bodies, and happy minds, read on!

Navigation

Why Post About Nutrition
Fatphobia
An Alternative to Traditional Food Rules
Ellyn Satter Institute
What is Normal Eating?
Division of Responsibility
The Key to Getting Your Kids to Try New Foods
Mealtime Basics
Nutrients and Forbidden Foods
In Our House
Bonus: Simple Sweet Snack Recipe

Why Post About Nutrition?

Not only am I not a nutritionist, but I’m also a superfat woman who dieted my way up to this point and has no intention of trying ever again to force my body to lose weight. I spent years losing and gaining the same weight and wrecking my metabolism as a result. I even had to have emergency gallbladder surgery due to my wild weight loss efforts. So, why listen to me at all?

Well, I’m posting about nutrition with the goals of interrupting fatphobia in the lives of children, eliminating excessive rules around food, quieting food moralizing, and allowing kids’ bodies to become the natural size they’re meant to be without adult intervention. And, I’m pointing to the collective work of thousands of nutritionists and nutrition scientists in the process. As a peaceful parent, I believe children must have autonomy over their bodies, including when they engage in the most basic act of eating.

Fatphobia

Fatphobia is fear and/or disgust toward fatness and fat people. Both thin and fat people experience harmful shaming. We can’t seem to get away from shame as a culture. However, the entire system is stacked against fat people in a way that thin people typically don’t experience.

So, why should you care about any of this as a peaceful parent? Well…

  1. Fatphobia starts as early as 3-years-old.
  2. Fatphobia is racist.
  3. Fatphobia is deadly.
  4. Fear of weight gain fuels eating disorders.
  5. Weight stigma reduces motivation to move and exercise and increases motivation to eat more.
  6. Fatphobia is so extreme and pervasive that people would rather be normal weight with heart disease or one leg amputated than be fat. It’s an actual study.
  7. Fatphobia leads to extreme discrimination such as prejudice on the job.
  8. Fat people receive poor medical care.
  9. If not for fatphobia, more people would understand that health is so much broader than weight.
  10. Obesity may not be as big a deal as you’ve been led to believe.

Oh, by the way, the Body Mass Index (BMI) was never intended to be individually diagnostic. The person who developed what would come to be known as the BMI was a social science statistician who was curious about what the “average” person looked like weight-wise in his day, so he measured a bunch of white people and created average weight/height ranges. BMI is descriptive of a population. It was not, and cannot be, prescriptive. It can’t tell you if you’re healthy. Applied accurately, BMI should be reassessed to see what the average person looks like today instead of trying to cram us all into arbitrary weight ranges.

It’s ok to be fat. It’s ok to be slim. It’s ok to be everything in between. What’s not ok is to dictate to children what size their bodies should be. Doing so hurts kids. Particularly when it comes to children of size, weight stigma at home combined with systemic fatphobia leads to things like binge eating, social isolation, refusal of medical care, and other barriers to health. Bottom line, stop worrying about your kids’ weight and, instead, make non-weight related changes to your family’s lifestyle.

Rather than stressing over weight, try encouraging fun movement every day (and you should join in too!), adding in plant foods, going easy on alcohol, and avoiding tobacco products entirely. Doing just these four things will drastically increase your family’s lifespan and quality of life without weight loss or gain. More time with my kids? Yes please!

An Alternative to Traditional Food Rules

Intuitive Eating (IE) is an approach to human-centered nutrition that heals the physical and psychological impacts of dieting and diet culture. It is the ultimate anti-diet that guides our bodies back to the natural responses to hunger and satiety that we were born with. Substantial research informs this approach, so many Registered Dieticians are now working toward (or are already practicing with) IE certification. You may be able to find support in your area through the official IE website or here.

IE embraces the following ten principles:

  1. Reject the Diet Mentality
  2. Honor Your Hunger
  3. Make Peace with Food
  4. Challenge the Food Police
  5. Respect Your Fullness
  6. Discover the Satisfaction Factor
  7. Honor Your Feelings Without Using Food
  8. Respect Your Body
  9. Exercise – Feel the Difference
  10. Honor Your Health

Ultimately, IE can reacquaint adults with our internal systems of food management, and improve our mental health as we disengage from diet culture. For an in-depth beginner’s guide, I highly recommend Rachael Hartley’s Intuitive Eating 101. If you’re interested in a deeper dive, the Facebook group, Intuitive Eating for Beginners, may be just what you need.

Intuitive Eating is a huge topic with lots of blogs devoted strictly to its practice. For my purposes, I’m looking to key in on childhood nutrition to help parents and caregivers make the switch to an approach to nutrition that also strengthens the relationship between child and adult.

Ellyn Satter Institute

The fact of the matter is that children cannot truly practice Intuitive Eating, at least not in the sense that adults can. Children do not manage food purchases, meals, or schedules. As such, the adults in their lives are responsible for guiding them toward Intuitive Eating by fostering their natural inclinations. That’s where Ellyn Satter comes in.

Satter is a Registered Dietitian and therapist specializing in eating disorders with more than 40 years of experience in her field. Her work has provided us a complete picture of how to take children from birth to adulthood without smothering their natural ability to regulate food intake, which is something many adults in the U.S. have lost to dieting.

The Ellyn Satter Institute was established to advance eating competence via theoretically grounded, evidence based, and clinically effective practices. The Institute publishes nutrition guidance, trains professionals, and connects mentors with families.

What is Normal Eating?

According to Satter,

  • Normal eating is eating competence. It is going to the table hungry and eating until you are satisfied.
  • It is being able to choose food you enjoy and eat it and truly get enough of it – not just stop eating because you think you should.
  • Normal eating is being able to give some thought to your food selection so you get nutritious food, but not being so wary and restrictive that you miss out on enjoyable food.
  • Normal eating is giving yourself permission to eat sometimes because you are happy, sad or bored, or just because it feels good.
  • Normal eating is mostly three meals a day, or four or five, or it can be choosing to munch along the way.
  • It is leaving some cookies on the plate because you know you can have some again tomorrow, or it is eating more now because they taste so wonderful.
  • Normal eating is overeating at times, feeling stuffed and uncomfortable. And it can be undereating at times and wishing you had more.
  • Normal eating is trusting your body to make up for your mistakes in eating. Normal eating takes up some of your time and attention, but keeps its place as only one important area of your life.
  • In short, normal eating is flexible. It varies in response to your hunger, your schedule, your proximity to food and your feelings.

Division of Responsibility

The key to Satter’s methods with children is Division of Responsibility, which refers to which family member is responsibility for which choices around food. This is where it all begins.

Traditionally, parents have made all the choices. We choose what’s going to be prepared, and when and where we’re going to eat. We also tend to hound our kids to eat.

“Try a few bites and you don’t have to eat anymore.”

“Finish your vegetables and you’ll get a treat.”

“Think of all the starving children who would love to have what you have!”

None of these statements honors the autonomy of the child. What I see is coercion in the first, bribing/rewards in the second, and shaming in the third. What’s a peaceful parent to do?? Here’s what!

So, you choose when and where to eat, you put the food on the plate, and then you trust your child to eat the items they want in the amounts they want. If they don’t try it all, that’s ok.

The Key to Getting Your Kids to Try New Foods

Exposure. That’s it. A 2016 study found that exposure alone drastically increases the likelihood that infants will eat a variety of vegetables for the greater part of their childhood. The same is true no matter the age of the child. The more often you introduce a food, the more likely your child will be to eat it.

I always try to make sure to include at least one item in each meal that I know my children will eat, and sometimes, that’s all they eat. It may be a piece of bread or a bowl of beans or miso soup. I don’t stress it, because I know they nibble on lots of nutrient-dense foods throughout the week, and I keep exposing them to common foods that they won’t yet eat. This hands-off approach paired with the obvious enjoyment they see in my husband and me while we eat means we will have adventurous foodies in time.

The less you intervene, the more likely kids are to try new foods in the future. You can even make a game of it between mealtimes by offering small amounts of new foods for them to taste and critique. You can also improve the likelihood your child will try a new food by inviting them to participate in the process of preparing and cooking the food. Many nights, I bring my kids into the kitchen with me to help cut food, stir pots, taste raw vegetables, and season our food.

Mealtime Basics

Satter recommends structured meals and sit-down snacks. It’s important to prepare what you enjoy and include foods you know your children will like. You need not prepare separate meals for different family members. One meal eaten together is the best way to encourage eating competence in children. Families meals are crucial to the long-term physical and mental health of kids. Check out the research behind the value of family meals here. When you eat together, try to minimize distractions by creating a food only zone. No homework. No electronics. No pets. Just people, the food in front of them, and the full-bodied conversations that can happen in an intimate social space.

Consistent, expected meals plus scheduled snacks help children better manage their hunger and satiety. Plan three meals a day, making sure not to skip any. If your child isn’t particularly hungry at a given meal, that’s ok. Accept whatever form of “no thank you” your child can communicate, if they aren’t ready to eat. A snack time will come along shortly and provide the energy your child needs. Remember, your child is the only person who knows how much or how little their body needs to eat. This is not information you are privy to.

Snacks are meals too, just smaller. Snacks should be available at planned times and include protein, fat, and carbohydrate to provide sustained satisfaction. Encourage your child to eat until they feel good and then head off to do another activity. Snacks should be timed to ensure that your child has a chance to get hungry for the next regular meal.

Nutrients and Forbidden Foods

One of the hardest ideas to release as a new Intuitive Eater is the idea that some foods are “better” than others. Go ahead and put that out of your mind. Food has no morality. On microscopic level, foods have varying levels of macro and micronutrients. Some foods are more nutrient dense than others. No single food has all the nutrients we need to thrive though. We need variety. That variety can include brussels sprouts, french fries, breakfast cereal, steak, oatmeal, apples, cabbage, cookies, quinoa, eggs, almond butter, cheese, candy, or any combination of any foods you enjoy.

Check out this fantastic talk by Tracy Brown, RD regarding food choice:

Offering your child a variety of foods at each meal that cover proteins, fats, and carbohydrates without judging them on what they actually eat is healthy. Since children have limited room in their stomachs for food, it makes sense to try to pack in nutrients, which is why things like whole, plant-based foods work so well. They pack a punch in less space. Win-win for little tummies.

BUT, no food can be off limits. If you restrict your kids’ food options, you risk creating a situation where your child will be compelled to lose control when a forbidden food becomes available. Your goal here is to encourage a relaxed relationship between your child and their food. Satter recommends:

  • Regularly including fatty, salty foods like chips and fries at meals, so your child will learn how to eat their fill without going wild.
  • Often, putting a single portion of sweets/desserts at each person’s place and giving your child the option of eating their treat before, during, or after the meal.
  • And, occasionally giving your child unlimited access to sweets during snack time. For instance, set a plate of cookies on the table and let your child go to town. These opportunities help children exercise their hunger and satiety cues in the presence of highly desirable food (something adults seriously struggle to do). An excellent example of this practice is the wise management of Halloween candy.

Break free from diet culture and guard your mind against fatphobia, so you and your family can experience the freedom and fun of Intuitive Eating! It’s so much easier and more fulfilling to raise a child to eat competently through self-regulation than it is to constantly hound kids about their food choices and their appearance. And, what is a peaceful parent but a guide who helps children find their own way in this world?

In Our House

It’s pretty wild around here. We recently switched to booster pads instead of booster seats/high chairs with straps, so the kids have freedom of movement. We’re practicing good table manners by modeling and coaching, but no one gets in trouble for getting up if they feel they can’t comfortably sit still. We just wait a moment and encourage the child back into their seat.

We follow Satter’s model as closely as we can, but we have to be flexible to accomodate eventualities… including children who don’t know or care about Satter at all. Beyond the food, the most important aspect of our approach, for me, is that we have banned moralizing at the table. We don’t comment on what our kids are (or aren’t) eating. We simply remind them to eat if they become distracted. When it seems they’re slowing down and starting to play with the food, we’ll ask “all done?” We don’t compare one child to the other either. Each child has complete authority over their own plates.

When they ask for food that’s either not on the menu or we don’t have at all, we don’t tell them they can’t have it because it’s bad for them. We say we’ll add it to the menu for the following week. We look for ways to say yes to their blossoming culinary palates while working to establish consistent routines and schedules that help them get in touch with their hunger and satiety.

Our practice of non-judgment around nutrition has resulted in young children who eat a wide variety of food and will try new foods without any prompting. Sometimes, I marvel at them and am surprised by the things they enjoy, but I remain calm and positive during mealtimes. Nothing to see here. We’re just enjoying our food!

Bonus: Simple Sweet Snack Recipe

Check out this low fuss recipe for homemade granola!

Ingredients

  • 8 cups of rolled (old fashioned) oats
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 3/4 cup sliced almonds
  • 1/2 cup Just Foods Hemp Protein
  • 1/4 cup Badia Health Seeds, Trilogy, Whole
  • 1 tbsp cinnamon
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 3 whole eggs, whisked (or flax eggs for a vegan option)
  • 1 cup canola oil
  • 2 tsp vanilla extract

Directions

Mix together dry ingredients in a large bowl, using clean hands to break everything down together.

Pour wet ingredients into the bowl and mix well. Again, I like to use my hands to make sure the dry ingredients get completely saturated. It’s messy but hands are your best tool here.

Smooth into a large baking pan lined with parchment paper and bake at 250F for about an hour or until the mixture browns and starts smelling a bit like oatmeal cookies.

Allow the granola to cool completely before storing. I store mine in a large rubbermaid cereal container. This recipe makes pretty chunky granola, so you may need to break large chunks up a bit.

I make a batch most weekends and we nibble on it throughout the week.

Would You Devastate Your Child for $100?

How about $50? Less? I’m a numbers person and money motivates me. Not that I seek to hoard it, but that I’m careful to value it appropriately so that my family can stay afloat. I handle the family finances, so money is always on my mind.

This afternoon, my kids were having popcorn as a snack. It’s a choking hazard, but they love it, so I try to make sure they remain seated and calm so they can focus on chewing and swallowing. LL asked me for a treat that we didn’t have, and I tried to explain that to her. She flew into a rage (she’s so my child!) and knocked both her popcorn and her juice onto the floor. I ran into our adjoining kitchen to get cleaning supplies, all the way speaking empathetically to her. She really wanted that treat. She was tired. She lashed out.

In the 20 seconds I was gone, she managed to get onto the table, scurry across it, and toss her brother’s popcorn on the floor too. I came back and he looked shocked. I could see how far gone she was. She needed help. But, to be honest, I was irritated. My instinct was to snatch her up a little too hard and growl through gritted teeth. Something about wasting the food I prepared in this way seemed to touch something deep in me.

I angrily began cleaning up – normally, I’d have her help, but I was upset and I didn’t want to accidentally hurt her in my frustration. As I wiped up the juice on my hands and knees, I thought to myself, we have such a small food budget! This is such a waste. All for what exactly?? A little voice in my mind piped up, how much waste are we really talking here?

Well, let’s see:

  • Vegan Butter: $.14
  • Juice: $.15
  • Popcorn: $.10
  • Paper Towel: $.01
  • Salt: $.004
  • Cleaning Solution: $.003

Forty-one cents. For $.41, I had to hold myself back from yelling or being physically rough with a little one-year-old toddler who is less than 1/10 my size. It’s toxic. Plain and simple. A result of my culture, my upbringing, my inability to use the same logic center in my own mind that some part of me expects my kids to be able to use flawlessly.

This isn’t the first time I’ve sat down and worked out how much something cost that my kids wasted or broke, and whenever I find that number, it’s always heartbreaking. Earlier this year, my son accidentally broke a $200 TV when he was releasing after-school energy. I was in a great mental space that day, and I wasn’t angry with him at all.

I’ve been thinking about the difference between these two incidents. Why was I angrier over $.41 cents of popcorn, juice, and cleaning supplies than I was over a $200 TV? This is why.

Deep down, it felt like she was disrespecting the effort I had put into getting them cleaned up to eat, preparing their snack, serving it to them, treating them gently, and empathetically letting LL know why she couldn’t have the treat she wanted. Even though my logic tells me she’s not old enough to have any concept of what I was going through, those primal reactions still welled up in my chest.

In the end, I recovered without incident and sat down to cuddle with her. She was having a hard time and she needed me to help her regulate herself. It didn’t take long before she was ready to run off and play as though nothing had happened. Meanwhile, I was still reeling and working through what had just washed over me.

Maybe this technique will help you as it’s helped me in the past. When your child’s actions end up in a loss and you’re out some money, calculate the amount. Then, ask yourself, is the value of this thing worth devastating my child by yelling or hitting. I’d say 10/10 times, the answer is no.

If you need help figuring out what to do instead, please check out the two-part series, Punishments, Consequences, and Limits. Or, just have a cuddle with your little love.

Dysregulation and Grounding

No, not that kind of grounding! We don’t do punishments around here. By special request, I am dropping a note to provide some definitions in my own words for those who are wondering. I use the terms dysregulation and grounding, in a variety of forms, to describe some of the important steps in the process of developing self-regulation.

Definitions

  • Self-regulation: the state of being in physiological and psychological balance without external influence. Please note that self-regulation does not mean self-control. Self-regulation develops as a child builds skills to become more able to manage stress in healthy ways. Self-control means arbitrary self-inhibition whether or not the child is handling stressors in a healthy way.
  • Dysregulation: an inability to sustain physiological or psychological balance due to unmanageable stressors.
  • Meltdown: a vigorous, externalized, emotional eruption.
  • Shutdown: self-protective, internalized isolation.
  • Grounding: the process of bringing oneself back into self-regulation.

Explanation

Many of you may already be familiar with the concepts of meltdowns and shutdowns as they apply to neurodivergent children. Autistic kids are at an especially heightened risk of experiencing these very upsetting, very natural responses to living in a world in which they have to work every waking hour to operate within the confines of what neurotypical people consider “normal.” Anecdotally, I’ve found that autistic kids are more able to operate in neurotypical cultures when they have autistic adults guiding them. They’re less likely to meltdown or shutdown, probably because the autistic adults can better predict stressors and teach the kids how to avoid or work through them.

But, it’s not just neurodivergent kids who respond to stress by melting down or shutting down. Neurotypical kids do it too because, well, they are kids. Up to around age 25, we humans are pretty unskilled in the process of understanding ourselves and negotiating appropriate behavior. Meltdowns and shutdowns occur when children reach a point at which they are overloaded and unable to cope. The source could be overstimulation, hunger, exhaustion, or any number of major crises that a child cannot overcome alone.

Signs

Learning the signs of dysregulation isn’t an exact science. Caregivers should have a sense of what’s typical for a child in a given situation and, when things start to escalate, that’s when you know it’s time to act. Unfortunately, because of the way many of us view childlike behavior, it can be easy to brush off signs of dysregulation as a child just being obnoxious. However, behavior is always communication. A child may not be able to explain what’s happening, but their behavior can reveal the truth. Understand that dysregulation is never a choice. If you see any of these signs, or any suggestion that something is up with your child, take action.

Possible Signs of Impending Dysregulation
This list is not exhaustive.

  • Increasing hyperactivity
  • Increasing vocalizations (talking, humming, other sounds, etc.)
  • Increasing destructiveness
  • Whimpering/crying/whining
  • Aggressiveness/anger
  • Unusually avoidant behavior
  • Unexplained mood swings

Intervention

When a child begins to dysregulate, we adults can help. We can guide our child toward grounding by gently offering techniques that soothe at a time when our kids can no longer reason through to a solution. We become their calm. Be sure to choose interventions you know your child enjoys and ask first. Consent is crucial to ensure your child feels as calm and peaceful as possible.

Possible Grounding Interventions
This list is not exhaustive.

It’s easiest to decide what might work best for an individual child if we can figure out what’s wrong to begin with. If my child is just completely overwhelmed and unresponsive to conversation, my go to is always a hug, and then we might move onto other things. If I can see that my child is getting very sleepy, I try to create a calming environment and a place to rest (usually a nap on the couch if it’s during the day). If I can see that my child is starting to physically push people around, I look for ways to introduce heavy work. My response depends on putting together all the other observations I’ve already made leading up to the crisis.

Dysregulation isn’t bad. It’s a natural response that children have no control over. It’s our job as the reasonable adults we are to show our kids how best to cope and get back to a balanced position.