It happens, finally! You have a child placed in your home that you have long waited for. Or maybe it was a quick placement. You are excited. You are ready. Everything is prepared and the child is settling in. And then you notice it. He hides a roll from dinner under his pillow. There is a stash of green beans in a napkin under the bed. There are packages of granola bars peeking out from his drawer of clothes. What is going on, you wonder. Could he be hoarding food? Why?
Many children hoard food due to neglect and inconsistency in their lives. They are not fed on a regular basis so they learn to make sure they can take care of themselves to meet this basic need. Their need for survival takes over and they instinctively know what needs to be done to protect themselves. So why do some children continue to do this once they are in a safe environment?
Learning to trust is a big issue. Food may come three times a day with snacks today, but will it tomorrow? The next day? Until your child knows that food is readily available to them, they will continue to feel insecure. This means that you, as their caregiver, will need to do a few things:
Look at your own relationship with food. Know that how you view food will is not how your child does. You probably take it for granted that you will always have food available to you when you need it. You may not have ever experienced the fear of genuinely not knowing when you would be able to eat again. Your child has. Experiencing that level of food insecurity can create a lot of psychological issues centering on food.
Give choices when you can in order to allow the child some control over their food. Ask if they want a banana or an orange, potatoes or rice, cold cereal or oatmeal.
Make food available. Ensure that meals are served consistently and on time. Leave out healthy snacks between meals. Let your child know that when you run errands, snacks are in the car. Whether they eat them or not, they will know they are there, which brings comfort.
Do not make food a battle. They have battled enough. Do not lock the pantry or fridge. Do not force them to eat at mealtimes or exert strong controls over how much they are allowed to eat. This makes food a contest between parent and child. It says this is mine, not yours, and that is exactly what you are trying to stop.
Encourage good eating habits and praise your child when they exhibit them. Weave into your daily talk that food is nourishment to our bodies and always available in your home. Be patient. Sit down for family meals and encourage relationship building versus focusing on food. Eat at a consistent time, create a routine. All of these things will help your child feel more at ease.
Give your child a basket or bag that they can fill with food. Discuss which foods store well and which rot and are not safe to keep. Giving your child a place to put things will help him feel more in control, and allow you to not find surprises where you least expect, or want, to find them. Put the basket in a special place where no one else will get into it. Teachers can also have special places for snacks at school to help ease anxiety in that environment. This act of ownership will help them feel more comfortable. (Every so often, you may want to go through the basket with the child and have them remove things that are no longer safe to eat. )
Help your child recognize signals of hunger and fulness. With hoarding also comes, at times, binge eating. The child will overeat to the point of being sick because they are fearful they will not be fed again for a long time. This calls for a food “time out” regulation. In this, the whole family eats dinner and then does not eat again for awhile. This teaches the child to learn how it feels to be full. Talk about that with your child. Discuss how it takes 15-20 minutes for our brains to be told our tummies are full so we should wait and listen to our bodies. Always discuss things with your child so they know what your reasoning is and learn from what you are implementing. It allows them to have a sense of control over their own lives, which they so desperately want.
After a time, most children stop hoarding and learn to have good eating habits. Be patient. This can take months or even years to smooth out. Remember, their hoarding is not a reflection on you as a parent; it has to do with their story before. Talk to your child’s caseworkers to get a clear picture of what they have been exposed to. Make sure there isn’t an underlying medical issue. Be firm but kind and most of all, be loving and consistent.