"Can we just have a nice meal?" - 4 Steps to a More Peaceful Family Dinner
My husband Dave and I found ourselves at our dinner table the other night, alone after our two teenagers had eaten and then hurried off to whatever it was they were engaged in before being called to the table. As we noted our kids' eat-and-run approach on this particular night, Dave joked, “Well, I guess this is better than what was happening every night several years ago.”
It wasn’t all that long ago that our attempts to have a simple, peaceful family dinner failed miserably most evenings. There was definite frustration and growing resentment at our seeming inability to have this intentional time together go smoothly, despite doing what we thought were all the right preparations. Looking back, it’s amazing really, how quickly things could devolve into chaos on an almost nightly basis.
What I can see clearly now, but did not yet have perspective on then, was that our daughter, who is now a teenager living with a serious brain-based condition (FASD) and challenging behavioral symptoms, did not yet have the skills to participate successfully in our family dinner routine. That was why we were seeing these difficult behaviors nearly every night. We were forcing our expectations upon her, and she didn’t have the skills to meet those expectations.
Maybe you’ve experienced this challenge as well; it’s certainly common among families with whom I work. Sometimes, the disruption is a child — even one of an older age — who progresses from being excessively “silly,” to running around the dining room (or restaurant), and then crawling under the table. Maybe they persistently antagonize the family dog, who is simply minding his own business nearby, all while refusing to eat what’s been prepared. Or maybe it takes the form of a child eating sloppily with their hands, when they are well past the age where that’s socially acceptable. Or maybe they don’t even use their hands at all, and they simply slurp right from the plate or bowl with their mouth, despite being asked repeatedly to stop. And maybe it looks like them spitting their chewed food back out onto their plate and across the table, and then following that with the excessive silliness and laughter mentioned earlier.
Looking back, it’s amazing really, how quickly things could devolve into chaos on an almost nightly basis.
And while all of this is happening, the siblings are becoming increasingly agitated. Maybe an older one storms off to their room, slamming the door on the way, and the younger siblings get pulled into the chaos, mimicking the behaviors exhibited by their sibling who lives with a brain-based condition.
It’s no wonder that it’s such a trying experience for so many families.
And that eventually, some families simply give up on trying to eat “nice meals” together.
Based on what I’ve described, you may imagine this child being of toddler age, certainly not more than 5 or 6 years old. But this isn’t the case. This child I describe might be 10, 11, or even 15, and for many parents, this type of behavior has been happening for years. It’s understandable then, that parents like you and I might find ourselves tearful, frustrated, and anxious every single night.
So, we respond in ways that reveal our humanness in these emotional moments. We reach for our power, doing all we can to just make the child eat, and get through another dinner together as a family. This only serves to escalate everyone’s dysregulation and challenging behaviors, and we’re left feeling even more hopeless, thinking: “Here’s one more thing that other families can do, that we’ll never be able to experience….”
There’s a reason I wanted to write about this topic and share it with you. Recounting with my husband our own experience of family dinners all those years ago made me think of all the families I’ve worked with who have described similar challenges. Eating together as a family most nights is also connected with tradition, where many parents carry deeply-held beliefs related to the value of shared meals as a family. This often means there’s a great deal of reactivity and emotion related to the challenging behaviors disrupting these kinds of family meals. And lastly, a “nice family dinner” is a commitment full of cognitive tasks, requiring complicated brain skills that many kids and teens struggle with, making it difficult for them to navigate the experience successfully.
If this all sounds familiar to you, there are four steps I want to encourage you to take when thinking about your child and your family meal experience. We’ll use an example of “Susan” and her 12 year-old daughter as a reference point.
Step 1: Shift Your Focus to the Tension Points
When I began working with Susan, she described all the behaviors I mentioned earlier. My first suggestion was to step away from the challenging behaviors and instead shift her focus to the point(s) of tension related to expectations for her 12-year-old daughter during the family dinner experience.
She was able to quickly identify three points of escalation.
The first is when she’d ask her daughter to come sit down at a place of her choosing at the table (Susan knew better than to choose the chair for her daughter, wanting her daughter to have some control over where she sat). Her daughter would reluctantly come to the dinner table, usually not without some additional “talking to” and threats of consequences. The daughter would select a chair, sit down for a few moments, and then refuse to sit again the rest of the meal. This was typically where a power struggle began between Susan and her daughter. The more Susan and her partner insisted that she sit down, the more her daughter would get up and move.
The second point of tension involved the eating process itself. Susan’s daughter would often refuse to eat what was on her plate, even when her parents made a dinner full of foods she loved. Again, each side would dig in their heels, power struggles would ensue, and the meal might end with food thrown off the plate or chewed, but then spit back onto the table.
And lastly, Susan’s daughter would constantly interrupt anyone else attempting to talk at the dinner table. If her siblings were trying to share with their parents something that happened in their day, or to answer a question they’d been asked, their sister would talk over them as if no one else was speaking. It felt disrespectful and intentionally rude, and left the siblings so frustrated they would either shut down, refusing to talk with their sister present, or yell at her to stop being so rude and selfish.
As I'm working with parents through these types of tension points, I tend to focus on three main interventions that are part of parenting a child or teen who lives with a brain-based condition accompanied by challenging behavioral symptoms.
Step 2: Identify Lagging Skills Getting in the Way
After finding the tension points, the next step is to become crystal clear on the lagging cognitive skills a child experiences due to their brain difference. As I listened to Susan describe her daughter’s behavior, we identified several possibilities:
Ability to disengage and transition. I was curious about what Susan’s daughter was typically engaged with right before being called to the dinner table, and her subsequent ability to transition away from that activity and calmly enter into a situation that has historically been, based on the intensity of her behavioral symptoms, stressful for her daughter.
Inability to sit for any amount of time, especially through an “event” (like a family dinner), due to sensory system overwhelm. When Susan’s daughter is in an environment where there is a lot for her system to manage — multiple people talking, different food smells, the visual stimulation of a full plate of food, the need to focus on the mechanics of eating (fine motor skills) — a simple “eating at the table with the family” can quickly become a distressing experience for a child who struggles with sensory processing and integration.
Lack of impulse control. I was curious about her daughter’s level of impulse control, especially when under stress, and how this impacts her ability to “wait” her turn to share her thoughts in a dinner conversation.
Processing pace. I was interested to hear Susan’s experience with her daughter's processing pace, and the ability to follow and contribute to a group conversation where the back and forth is bouncing from one person to another, rapidly around the table.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of the cognitive skills essential for participating successfully in a family dinner, skills that we (those society would consider neurotypical) might do automatically, seemingly without any effort at all. It was simply a starting point for Susan to initiate the shift from reactivity to curiosity, about why this nearly daily occurrence was resulting in an escalation of behavioral symptoms for her daughter. If any of these cognitive skills were difficult for Susan’s daughter, and there were no accommodations in place for support, it makes sense that Susan would see behavioral symptoms emerge.
Step 3: Assessing Nervous System Stability for Both Susan and Her Daughter
The third step was to consider nervous system stability for both Susan and her child. As Susan described her feelings leading into the dinner, and then throughout the meal, we talked about her own nervous system stability and the importance of recognizing the first subtle signs that she was becoming dysregulated. Realizing that the tension began with the mere anticipation of calling her daughter to the table, and only intensified from there, we brainstormed ways Susan might consciously focus on her own regulated state before engaging with her daughter.
We also identified ways Susan and her partner could help their daughter regulate through this complex and stressful (for her) experience, which began with providing focused co-regulation. This meant taking turns, each night, being their daughter’s “person.” They would alternate sitting in the seat next to her, and providing her with the gentle and regulated support she needed. We discussed how, if they were stepping into this role, they then needed to mindfully prepare for what this would require of them, so that they could remain soft, open and regulated as they supported their fragile child. It also meant that they might need to eat before or after the dinner, so they could truly focus all their energy and attention on her.
Through this reflection, Susan was able to clearly see the pattern of escalation that occurred within herself, and also within her daughter. She could see that the excessive silliness, the antagonizing of the dog and siblings, the running around and “eating like a toddler” — all of it was a symptom of her daughter being overwhelmed. Her daughter needed adjusted expectations and accommodations to be successful.
Step 4: Brainstorm Accommodations
The last piece with Susan was to brainstorm accommodations based on her daughter’s lagging cognitive skills. Here are a few ideas we generated initially, knowing that these accommodations would likely need adjusting and refinement over time.
The parent in the role of support for that night would begin with helping their daughter transition from what she was doing into the family dinner experience. This was a thoughtful and intentional plan, versus what was happening before, which was to simply call up the stairs, “Dinner’s ready, let’s go!” as they would with their two other children.
The proactive plan for Susan and her partner to take turns being their daughter’s “person” also gave their daughter someone in close proximity who could help her “wait” in conversation, with gentle and quiet redirection, curbing the impulse to interrupt constantly. The other parent was then able to fully attend to their other kids, instead of both parents trying to get “control” of their daughter and only further escalating the situation.
Susan also suggested ideas to help with the sensory overwhelm, which included placing a napkin over the plate of food when served, so her daughter wasn’t overwhelmed by the visual stimulation of all the colors and textures on the plate, allowing Susan’s daughter to explore it on her own timeline. She also provided her daughter with a small side plate — a “No thank you plate”— where her daughter could discard anything that was unpleasant, an alternative to impulsively spitting out the food or throwing it to get distance from it.
And lastly, Susan agreed to adjust her expectations about her daughter needing to sit at the table throughout dinner. Instead, she gave her daughter the choice to sit, stand, and move around the room as needed, without any redirection to sit down. Although this was a hard adjustment for Susan to make, she could see that her daughter’s need to move was essential for her being able to regulate through the experience. Even though her daughter wasn’t “sitting” through dinner, she was able to be in the room and join the experience in a way that did not disrupt the evening for everyone else present.
These four, overarching steps to the Brain First Parenting approach can be applied to any situation where there is a pattern of conflict, dysregulation, and stress: get clear on the tension points, identify the lagging cognitive skills, assess for nervous system stability, and brainstorm accommodations (refining and adjusting these over time).
To learn more about the Brain First Parenting approach, you can visit eileendevine.com to read about one-to-one parent coaching opportunities, the Brain First Parenting self-guided course, and The Resilience Room membership community.
Eileen Devine works in Portland, OR as a therapist and coach supporting parents of children with special needs. She is also a consultant for families impacted by FASD, PANS/PANDAS and other neurobehavioral conditions through her private practice, working with families nationally and internationally. She lives with her husband and two amazing kids, one of whom happens to live with FASD. For more information, visit eileendevine.com.