In previous blogs I talked about some of the applications of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) and its use with autism. But I also tried to emphasize that ABA is not synonymous with treatment for autism. In fact, ABA can be applied in any situation where a behavior change is desired. And of course, the principles and strategies can be applied in every day parenting. Picky eating is a great example of this. The same systematic techniques combined with positive reinforcement used to teach any skill can be used to address picky eating. If your child has a severe aversion to a food, start with baby steps, breaking down each task into very small reachable goals. For example, you can start by just having the undesired food on the table. Get the child used to having it there next to his other food and seeing other people eat it. Once he accepts the food on the table, you can move on to having him smell it, bringing it closer to his mouth. Remember that every successful step needs to be rewarded with, for example, a bite of a food that the child likes. Possible next steps can be to have the child lick the food, getting him used to the taste. After that, move on to taking a bite. He may not even chew or swallow the food, just take a bite and spit it out. Remember, we are breaking this down into tiny achievable steps. After the child agrees to take a bite, you can move on to swallowing and so on and so forth until the child agrees to eat the new food.
The same principles and strategies can be implemented with problems such as brushing teeth, sleep in own bed, toilet training, etc.
These baby steps may not be necessary with a typically developing child. Most of the smaller steps can be bypassed and the idea is simply to convey to the child that he at least needs to try the food before saying he doesn’t like it. If the child tries and does not like it, he can have a reward of something else to eat, then slowly move up towards eating more than one bite of the food the child refuses to eat. Eventually, you will be able to say to your child “you can’t have your dessert until you eat dinner” and the child will get the point. Most children will usually give in to eating something over going hungry.
Always keep in mind that some food aversions can be related to allergies and should be checked with a doctor. Also, even adults have food preferences so if your child really does not like a certain vegetable there is no reason to ever force a food on a child. Be realistic with your expectations and relax.
Good parenting almost always involves offering choices and a loving approach that focuses on “the good” rather than “the bad”. Love is the most powerful tool of discipline.
Daniel Adatto, BCBA