Often food hoarding is directly connected to the child's experience of significant neglect, having consistently had 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, a child would view this as an opportunity. It would be logical that a survival mentality would develop, causing the child to respond to the availability of food by overeating or hoarding food. In neglectful situations, food hoarding is a wise alternative to ongoing food deprivation.
Kerry talks about the food issues she had a with Dan, one of her foster children, and how she dealt with them.
What can be confusing and frustrating to carers 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 himself as unworthy of care and lacking in a sense of partnership with foster/adoptive parents. They may not feel that their carers 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 behaviour to getting needs met 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 motivation for hoarding food, which is to at all costs avoid food deprivation caused by neglect.
Several examples of interventions that might help include:
Food Baskets: Provide food baskets in the home—created with the child’s input—consisting of snacks that are healthy and appealing to the child. The child should be told the food baskets will be refilled and are a better alternative than hoarding. If the child hoards the food basket, set limits, but do not discontinue the basket idea. Some schools will also cooperate with keeping food baskets in the classroom, especially if the child is prone to taking other students’ snacks.
Backpacks: When packing lunches for school or events, pack a special container of food that can be removed and kept with the child. This provides a traveling sense of food security and food availability for the child. Coupling Nurturing with Eating: Always positively reinforce any progress the child makes in curbing hoarding behaviour. 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 family members.
Teach Food Regulation: If a 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 the physical sensation of fullness. Fifteen minutes is about how long it takes to feel full.
- 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?
- are there things that trigger eating problems in the child?
- is the child displaying an emotional neediness in the way he eats?
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 whether 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 and nurturer.
Copy adapted from Foster Parent College, An online training site for foster, kinship and adoptive parents.
Dave explains how two children in his care, were taught to stop hoarding food and trust that food would be available when they needed it.