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Dinner with kids who fidget can be frustrating. When a child has ADHD, is on the autism spectrum, or has another learning or developmental delay, behavior at meals may be challenging. Parents often express frustration that their child doesn’t sit still, or disrupts family dinners with fidgeting and wiggling. But for the child, the behavior is most likely to be a form of communication. It’s not that a neurodivergent child wants to be disruptive at dinner; it’s more likely that the child isn’t able to behave in a way that matches the parents’ expectations.
“You’re not going to take the autism out of the child,” says Bob Cunningham, Executive Director of Learning Development for Understood. “Some of the challenges (with mealtime behavior) are due to the particular idiosyncrasies of the child, some are based on the parents’ upbringing or particular experiences with meals and manners, what’s acceptable and what’s not. When parents raise it as an issue, it’s often a conflict of expectation.”
Does that mean that parents have to simply accept disruptions to dinner, without any recourse? Certainly not – but it does mean that families need to work on adjusting their ideas about what’s truly “disruptive.” Naureen Hunani, RD., a pediatric and family dietitian who specializes in neurodiversity, encourages parents to think carefully about their beliefs regarding acceptable behavior. “As parents, we need to ask why a child being fidgety is so upsetting,” she says. “That is internalized ableism. Maybe that parent had to comply in their own family growing up, and maybe now that parent expects compliance from their own child.” Understanding where our own reactions come from, as parents, can decrease the stress of feeling that we absolutely must correct certain behaviors – especially when doing so might add more pressure and anxiety to meals.
We asked Cunningham, Hunani, and a group of other experts to help us understand how to manage the fidgeting, wiggling, and craving for movement that parents often view as “disruptive.” Here are their takes on how – and whether – to tackle these challenges.
What if my child can’t sit still at the dinner table?
“It depends on their age, their tolerance for waiting, their tolerance for corrective feedback, sensory issues, etc,” says Megan Mayo, MA, BCBA, LBA and doctoral candidate in clinical psychology at Antioch University New England. “Ask yourself, is this developmentally expected? And remember, neurodiverse individuals may take a little longer to move through typical stages.”
Hunani agrees. “Sometimes the ask isn’t developmentally appropriate,” she points out. “Stillness isn’t really something we can expect of all children.”
If you’ve considered these perspectives, and believe that sitting at the table for a longer period of time is an appropriate goal for your child, here are some tips to help kids sit during meals:
- Decide how much energy you can give to the challenge. “As a parent, do you have the bandwidth to provide a consistent response to change his behavior?” Mayo asks. “It’s okay if you don’t.” Dr. Martha Straus, psychologist, professor, and author of Cool, Calm, and Connected, agrees. “It’s hard to come to the table relaxed. You rush home from work…if the environment is calm and cheerful, it’s easier for the kids, but it’s the parents who need to work on this end of things, and that’s challenging.” Since consistency is key to all parenting, but especially crucial for a child with a learning or developmental difference, be honest with yourself. If you can’t commit to intervening consistently, this may be an issue that can wait.
- Set fidgety kids up for success. One way to start working on fidgeting at meals, without adding tension or stress to the experience by correcting the behavior when it happens, is to respect the child’s need for movement and plan to help them transition into dinnertime. Both Mayo and Straus recommend pre-meal activities for the whole family, like what Straus terms a “Shake, Rattle, and Roll” (which could be as simple as a family dance party!) followed by cooling down with deep breathing exercises. Jennifer Stornelli, Pediatric Occupational Therapist and head of the Pediatric Feeding Program at Spaulding Outpatient Center for Children in Lexington, encourages parents to set up regular physical activity sessions before dinner. “They might need to do 15 minutes of outdoor play,” she says. “Jump on a trampoline, blow bubbles, try an indoor obstacle course.”
- Provide sensory input at their seat. Stornelli also tells parents to be curious about what types of sensory support kids might need to successfully sit at meals. She, Hunani, and Dr. Nora Friedman, Clinician at the Lurie Center at MGH, all point to common sensory support tools like inflatable wiggle cushions, stretchy bands for the legs of the chair, and weighted lap blankets to help provide calming sensory input. Melanie Potock, MA, CCC-SLP, adds that many kids need the firm support provided by having their feet planted on the floor; if your child isn’t tall enough to reach, a sturdy footstool might be helpful. And if all else fails, you might decide that allowing your child to stand at the table (with some boundaries) is a workable solution for now.
- Let them stim. Friedman points out that often, what family members might think of as disruptive fidgeting is actually helpful to the child. “Let them spin and fidget,” she says. “Rocking, slapping, etc. are ways that kids are managing stress and anxiety. Stimming is a release for them, so don’t rush to intervene.” Instead, she says, parents should consider providing fidget objects at the table to help direct the stimming behaviors.
Hunani also recommends respecting a child’s need to stim and offering squeeze balls or other fidget objects, but she adds that it may be helpful to allow breaks as well, so the child can spin, fidget, and engage in regulating behaviors with less restriction, and then return to the table. “It may look dysfunctional to you,” she says, “but that’s just ableism.” You may be able to try building in structured break times with a game like Waiter, Waiter.
- Set slow goals. Understand that a child who has trouble sitting still will need lots of practice and patience to build that skill. Mayo says parents can “think incrementally, slowly shaping behavior rather than expecting an all-or-nothing response.” For example, if the child currently sits well for about 2 minutes, you might work together on a goal of 2.5 minutes. Friedman agrees. “If you get 5 minutes together, that’s fine,” she says.
- Redefine “family dinner.” Ultimately, “the meaning of eating together is likely to be different for your child than it is for you,” Cunningham says. Both he and Straus offer parents the opportunity to shake up the mealtime structure for everyone’s benefit. Cunningham suggests that the child might be allowed to start eating alone, then come to the table to spend time with the family for a few minutes. Straus suggests finding a mealtime structure that allows parents to spend quality time one-on-one with each child, but having the whole family “overlap” their time for a shared dessert. Both agree that the intention should always be to keep mealtimes low-pressure and positive.
In the end, parents may want to keep in mind that a child who fidgets at dinner probably needs help working with their body’s craving for physical activity. Setting realistic expectations for what “dinner behavior” can look like is the first step towards helping the whole family have a more positive mealtime experience. Take it slowly, support the child’s sensory and motor needs, and remember: The amount of love, support, and connection your child feels from you is more important than the number of minutes they sit still at the dinner table.