Food is a big issue, for all people, but especially for foster and adopted children. Food is a substance needed for the nourishment and growth of the body. It is also a means by which humans show care for one another, celebrate, and so much more. For the foster/adopted child, though, food can be tricky. Adults may have denied the child food through neglect and/or abuse. Food may have been used as a threat or a reward. Dire circumstances taught or forced some children to steal. So food became an issue, an issue that they carry with them today, even when they enter a stable home where food has neutral value.
What kind of issues might foster and adoptive children exhibit?
Stealing, hoarding, gorging, restricting, eating in secret (Rowell, 2020), seeking out highly palatable foods (Rowell 2018) over nourishing ones, etc. Are these behaviors preferred? No, but they make sense.
Children steal for many reasons. Children might steal food because their former caregivers taught them to steal so that they would have something to eat. Children might steal because they had nothing to eat and had no one they could trust to ask for food, leading them to take matters into their own hands. Children might steal food because they do not believe that there is anyone to ever care for them, and stealing food is a way to fulfill their primal impulse to stay alive. Children might steal as a way to assuage their anxiety (Shulman, 2007). None of these are “good” reasons to steal, but if caregivers can uncover what is behind the stealing of food, they might be able to address the need, and help co-regulate the child in order to have more preferred behaviors.
There are many reasons children hoard food as well. Children who experienced food scarcity are especially prone to this (Rowell, 2018). The presence of food, rather than providing safety, promotes fear. Brains go into protect mode when they see food, thinking, “This is all there is. Who knows when my next meal will be? I must save food to prevent against impending doom.” So children amass food, not to waste it, but as a survival mechanism. The answer is not to limit food, but rather to feed the children “regularly and reliably.” This requires a lot of diligence on the part of the caregiver or parent, and maybe even the caregiver or parent facing food fears of their own, but it is the only way to help the child feel safe around food.
Children can gorge on food for reasons similar to stealing food or hoarding food. The might gorge food because they did not have food (Rowell, 2018). They may gorge food because it is pleasurable and makes them feel better, even if for a limited time. They may gorge food because they fear that they will never have food again. All behavior has a cause. Seeing some of the causes behind behavior helps it make sense.
Scarcity can be a cause of other issues as well. Children might restrict food in order to save food for a “rainy day.” This is a way that they can feel that they have control, and are safe (Children First FFA, n.d.). Children might eat in secret because they fear their food might be stolen. They might eat in secret because they were once shamed for responding to basic biological hunger cues. Children, as all people do, need food.
The tendency of foster and adopted children to tend towards highly palatable, less nutritious food can disturb some parents and caregivers. This is all part of the process, though. Children who experienced food categories often crave high fat and high sugar foods because these types of food provide the most calories in the least quantity. When food is scarce, this is a good thing (Rowell, 2018). As food is plentiful, children may begin to explore, and even like other foods.
What can parents and caregivers do?
Coping with a child’s food issues can be exhausting, infuriating, saddening, discouraging, and so much more. Some tools and strategies might help. While they may not solve all struggles, they work towards demonstrating safety to children from hard places, and as Robyn Gobbel (2020) says, “regulated connected kids who feel safe behave well.” Ultimately, by providing a stable home, caregivers hope that their children will feel safe enough to drop protective behaviors and just engage with the family as the loved children that they are.
The first step in addressing food behaviors, then, is regulation. To feel safe, kids need to be regulated. They need to have tools to deal with their anxieties. This looks like teaching children skills such as singing, making music, dancing, stretching, art, prayer, deep breathing, walking, and play (Rowell & Shira, 2020). (Yes, some children need to learn to play!). These strategies have the added benefit of helping children connect their brains with their bodies, a connection that often suffers when children experience trauma (van der Kolk, 2014). Therapy might also be a helpful adjunct for teaching children these skills (Rowell, March 2020; Williams, 2014). Children need to practice these skills not just when they have food issues, but regularly and repeatedly so as to reduce overall anxiety, not just situational anxiety.
The next step is to connect with the child. Bruce Perry calls this the “relate” step (Info NMT, 2020). Kids need co-regulation to help them with their food issues. This looks like sitting with children to model healthy eating behavior (Eckerle, 2018; Rowell & Shira, 2020). This looks like reliably providing meals and snacks to help reduce feelings of scarcity (Rowell & Shira, 2020). Parents may choose to give their kids a “stash” of non-perishable foods to address this, or they may choose to themselves reassure kids of abundance in order to increase bonding. Parents may want to restrict food, but the opposite, providing plenty is really the answer. Even if parents provide a “stash,” they need to provide regular access to highly palatable food (along with the good stuff) (Rowell, 2017). Parents as co-regulators, though, can determine what food, who much food, and when the food will be available (Satter, n.d.). This helps children eventually become more relaxed about food, and therefore, their own self-regulators. Another option for co-regulation is to engage the child in cooking (Williams, 2014; Rowell & Shira, 2020). This, too, teaches children that food is not scarce, and in fact, that many of the things in the cupboard can be combined to make new foods. Parents are the conduits via which children get to more healthy places with food.
The last step in Perry’s framework is reasoning (Info NMT, 2020). Calm, regulated kids who have strong bonds with caregivers may begin to have capacity to understand triggers for their behavior (Williams, 2014). They may be able to talk with parents about their feelings, eliminating the urge to use food for comfort. They may be able to express their fears about lack of food in the cupboards and allow parents to remind them that they will always have food (Rowell & Shira, 202). They may be able to seek and receive comfort. This is the last step, though, and one that often takes the longest. A rule of thumb is that children need 30-90 days of consistent caregiving per year of life (age) to start to feel safe (Arizona Trauma Institute, 2018). That is a long time, but a needed time.
Many foster and adoptive children struggle with food issues. Foster care and adoption have everything to do with connection and relationship, and so does food. Whether children struggle with stealing, hoarding, gorging, restricting, eating in secret, seeking out highly palatable foods, lying or all of the above, the answers lie not in behavior modification, but in relationship. Trauma happens in relationship and trauma heals in relationship. Food trauma is the same. Children need secure, regulated adults with consistent caregiving to heal from food insecurity and so much more.
Arizona Trauma Institute. (2018, January 4). Why doesn’t the child that is safe in a foster home fail to stop lying and stealing? [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qTCdaheeQqA
Children First, FFA. (n.d.). Helping foster children overcome eating disorders. Children First Foster Family Agency. https://childrenfirstffa.com/helping-foster-children-overcome-eating-disorders/
Eckerle, J. (2018, August 22). Mealtime support is crucial for children who have been adopted or have experienced foster care. M Health. https://www.mhealth.org/blog/2018/august-2018/mealtime-support-crucial-for-children-adopted-or-in-foster-care
Gobbel, R. (2020, January 9). Regulated connected children who feel safe behave well. RobynGobbel.com. https://robyngobbel.com/regulated-connected-kids-who-feel-safe-behave-well/
Info NMT. (2020, April 2). 4. Regulate, relate, reason (Sequence of engagement): Neurosequential Network Stress & Trauma Series [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LNuxy7FxEVk
Rowell, K. (2017, June 10). My kid gets dessert every night and is still obsessed with sweets! The Feeding Doctor. https://www.thefeedingdoctor.com/blog/my-kid-gets-dessert-every-night-and-is-still-obsessed-with-sweets
Rowell, K. (2018). Hoarding, overeating, & food obsessions in adopted & foster kids. Creating a Family. https://creatingafamily.org/adoption-category/hoarding-overeating-food-obsessions-adopted-foster-kids/
Rowell, K. (2020, March 28). Impact of past food insecurity. The Feeding Doctor. https://www.thefeedingdoctor.com/blog/impact-of-past-food-insecurity
Rowell, K. and Shira, E. (2020). Healing from food insecurity: Beyond the stash. North American Council on Adoptable Children. https://www.nacac.org/resource/healing-from-food-insecurity/
Satter, E. (n.d.) Using “forbidden” food. Ellyn Satter Institute. https://www.ellynsatterinstitute.org/family-meals-focus/39-using-forbidden-food/
Shulman, T.D. (2007, July/August). The seven types of people who shoplift and why they do it. Psychotherapy Networker. https://www.psychotherapynetworker.org/blog/details/1236/shoplifting-an-important-and-neglected-clinical-issue
Van der Kolk, B. (2014). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. New York, NY: Penguin House.
Williams, K. M. (2014, April). Food fight! The complexities of foster care’s food issues. Foster Focus. https://www.fosterfocusmag.com/articles/food-fight-complexities-foster-cares-food-issues