Sound familiar? Do you blame yourself?
Do you hear your mother's voice in your head telling you not to waste food? Are you tempted to put a lock on the refrigerator
Please don't. Don't lock the child out of the bedroom or put
locks on the kitchen cabinets. Don't yell, threaten, punish or cajole. Don't try to shame a child or make them feel guilty
for what they are doing. Food hoarding behaviors will not diminish under threat of consequence.
Children communicate needs through behavior. On a deeper level, this issue is not about food but about control.
The child is not yet ready to trust the adults in his or her life to provide a secure, safe environment. That trust cannot
be won by threats, punishments or shaming behaviors.
This behavior does
not come out of a vacuum. Rather, it is an adaptive response to deprivation. It often stems from years of food insecurity.
This behavior is telling you a story: "Once upon a time, my biological
parents traded food stamps for drugs and I didn't have enough to eat... Once there was a time when I lived on the streets
and had to beg for food from strangers... When my younger brothers and sisters were hungry it was up to me to feed them...
In the orphanage, I had to fight for food..."
Listen carefully and
be patient. Try to hear the story of your child. You know why you made this decision, to take a child into your heart, into
your life. It hurts sometimes -- you wonder why this child cannot trust you.
But, the larger truth is that you are the adult -- and you made the decision to make this child a permanent part
of your life. Please have faith that you possess mental and emotional resources to handle this challenge. Patience
is a virtue that nobody really wants to learn, but life has a way of teaching it to us.
Steps you can take:
Convey, in your daily actions, that you love the child. You are not disappointed in them. You have not lost patience with
them. You are not so frustrated with their behavior that you are about to trade them in for a better model. These are their
fears: That you won't love them anymore. That no one will take care of them. That deep down, they aren't worthy, aren't
loveable, and that's why they ended up in unhealthy situations in the first place.
Empowerment: Consider giving the child his or her own "food cabinet" in the kitchen,
to store goodies that are theirs and theirs alone. Allow them to keep an air-tight plastic container of food in their room
at night when they sleep, in case they wake up hungry. Let them carry a plastic bag of munchies in their backpack -- it will
give them security just to know it's there.
Confer with other adoptive/foster parents. Encourage one another to be patient. Share ideas that help -- and don't be afraid
to gently confront another parent if you feel that their approach might be more harmful than healing to their child.
Sometimes being a friend means being honest with one another.
If you feel that the problem is threatening your child's health, such as binging-and-purging, please consult a professional.
It is wise to do your homework about which professional counselor that you choose. Make sure that the professional
you choose demonstrates the ability to view child behavior within its context, rather than overmedicating or pathologizing
Realistic Expectations: Recovery takes time.
You are not being judged or graded by your child's progress and the time it takes for your adopted/foster child to heal.
If your adoptive or foster child's hoarding behaviors lessen but do not disappear completely, that is a success.
Child Neglect and Hoarding Food
Food hoarding is a common issue displayed by foster-adoptive children. Food hoarding
can be central in a child’s world and resistant to change. Additionally, hoarding food behavior can bedevil and bewilder
parents. So why does a child hoard food? Often food hoarding is directly connected to significant neglect that the child
has experienced in consistently having their basic needs for life sustaining food denied or inadequately met. As a result,
the child is forced to become prematurely self-reliant in meeting their own basic needs. For example, in a situation where
the parent is chemically dependent resulting in inconsistency in providing and having food available, it would be reasonable
that when food is available that a child would view this as an opportunity. It would be logical that a “survival mentality”
would be for the child to respond to the availability of food in self-reliant ways which could include over-eating and hoarding
food in secretive ways. In neglectful situations, food hoarding is a wise alternative to ongoing food deprivation.
What can be confusing and frustrating to foster-adoptive parents is why food hoarding
continues when the child is being properly cared for and has no apparent reason to continue to hoard food? Unfortunately,
child neglect often leaves a child insecure, seeing themselves as unworthy of care and lacking in a sense
of partnership with foster-adoptive parents. They may not feel that their foster-adoptive parents are available and sensitive
drawing this false conclusion from their previous “blueprint” of being victimized by negligent parenting.
When trying to positively impact food hoarding, we hope to move the
child from solitary and secret self-parenting behavior to a world of meeting his/her needs within a healthy parent-child
relationship. We want to avoid drawing battle lines around food. If we lock the pantry, the refrigerator,
the kitchen, we create a “mine and yours’ mentality, one the child is very familiar with from the past.
Designing family interventions should be preceded by a close look at the child’s
function of hoarding food which is, at all costs, to avoid food deprivation caused by neglect.
Several examples of interventions that are designed to focus on the function of neglect based food hoarding include:
baskets in the home that incorporate the child’s input in creation and consist of snacks that are healthy and appealing
to the child. The child should be told the food baskets will be re-filled and are a “better alternative” than
hoarding. If the child hoards the food basket; set limits but do not discontinue. Some schools will also cooperate with
food baskets; especially if the child is prone to take other student’s snacks.
When packing lunches for school or events, pack a
“special container” of food that can be removed and is with the child. This provides a traveling sense of food
security and food availability for the child.
Coupling nurturing with
Always positively reinforce any progress the child makes on hoarding
behavior. If the child utilizes a food basket, nurture the child when they seek items from the food basket. Positively comment
on how all family members are always fed. Weave this message into mealtimes and have this message commented on by various
Teach food regulation:
If child has a tendency to gorge, set a “food time out” after a complete meal is consumed. Make certain
this applies to all family members. The goal is to assist the child in learning to experience a sense of “fullness”.
The “food time out” should not be presented as denying food but rather delaying additional eating for a prescribed
period of time. Describe how the physical sensation of “fullness” feels. Fifteen minutes, after the completion
of a meal, is an estimate of the time before fullness will be experienced.
with all behavior and emotional challenges, a child’s special needs and individual circumstances should be considered
when designing interventions. Additionally, professional therapeutic assistance can offer help in the assessment and treatment
of food issues. In an effort to understand the function of food hoarding, the following questions can assist in a parent’s
understanding of their child’s food hoarding.
- Could there be
psychiatric or biological issues contributing to the hoarding?
- Does the
child’s history reveal reasons for fixation on eating?
- Does the
child substitute a food fixation for a loving relationship with parents?
there things that trigger eating problems in the child?
- Is the child displaying
an emotional neediness in the way they eat?
It is important to understand
how the child’s food issues impact you as a parent. Become aware of your own food issues and explore if they influence
your ability or willingness to look at the child’s problem with an open mind and creative flexibility. Also study
yourself to determine if the child’s food hoarding personally threatens your role as a provider/nurturer.