Conquering Food-Related Fears and Behaviors

by Bob DeMarcoBob_DeMarco

Oprah Winfrey once had actor Sidney Poitier on her show as a guest. She asked him about his difficult early life and how it affected him today. In response, Poitier opened his suit jacket and pulled out a Snickers bar.

“This is always with me,” he told Oprah. “When I was a child there were times where we were starving. We had no food. Even after I grew up, made a living, and could put food on my table, and in abundance, I still lived with the fear that I would not have enough food. I live with that fear even today. So, this candy bar is always in my pocket!”

A Common Issue

Food is often an issue in families with children who have experienced early trauma or neglect. The causes vary, but the results are often the same: overeating, undereating, hoarding food, stealing food. The way children deal with their often intense feelings about food—especially when combined with other challenging behaviors—can drive resource parents to the brink.

In our home we’ve dealt with “The Cave Man” who can’t shovel food in fast enough, “The Bird” who refuses to eat at all, “The Bottomless Pit” who never seems to fill, “The Night Owl” who won’t eat dinner but is starving at 2 a.m., “The Scavenger” who takes from everyone else, and “The Collector,” who likes to store leftovers from the evening meal under the bed.

Our kids had indeed come from a neglectful situation and at times went for days without someone offering them food. This might explain why raw spaghetti and dry cake mix are comfort foods for them, or why my son feels an intense need to provide for his younger sister, or why he asks about lunch while eating enough breakfast for three grown men.

Food Can Be a Minefield

Food-driven behaviors present real challenges for parents and add to the length and breadth of the emotional minefield we navigate as we try to help our kids heal. Many of the mines I’ve stepped on are because I didn’t use the proper parenting techniques I’ve learned. One would think that after five years parenting children with trauma backgrounds, I would know authoritative parenting doesn’t work and that I will not win a battle for control with my kids.

One would think. And yet I have been heard to say:

“You will not leave the table until you eat that chicken”… BOOM (mine explodes).

“You will not hide food in your room”… BOOM (mine explodes).

We can easily avoid some mines by looking at our kids though a trauma lens. Others are trickier and require greater caution.

I actually said this to my tween daughter: “Honey, don’t eat more, I know you don’t want to put on more weight.”

To be honest, with that one I didn’t even know I had goofed up. I was truly trying to encourage her. It wasn’t until my 18-year-old daughter pulled me aside and told me what the message sounded like on the receiving end. With one careless remark I took a shot at my daughter’s already crumbling self-image…KAAAAABOOOOM!

Thank God these kids are so resilient and that I get so many chances to teach my kids how to apologize and to forgive.

What We’ve Learned

As with most things, there are no easy answers when it comes to food challenges. But here are a few things we’ve learned:

Ironically, many of the medications prescribed to kids like ours to help manage their mood and behaviors affect their appetite. We’ve seen significant swings in eating patterns when meds have changed. Watch out for side effects.

We’ve learned that our kids sometimes confuse emotional and physical feelings. Anxiety, for example, can be mistaken for hunger. On the way to therapy both kids would claim to be “starving” but after some probing we helped them see the “hunger” sensation was coming not from their freshly-filled bellies, but from concerns about what the therapist might bring up.

Understanding these and other things has led my wife and I to the realization that battling with our kids over food is not a good fight. Instead we’ve chosen to come alongside our kids to join them in the fight against their food-related fears. Now, this doesn’t mean we allow a free-for-all. Rather, it is changing our frustration- and control-driven perspective to one driven by empathy and creativity.

What Works for Us

The Basket. We’ve ended the midnight marauding of the Night Owl and the hoarding of the Collector with one simple accommodation. In addition to teaching the kids there are appropriate and inappropriate times to eat, we’ve put a well-stocked basket of healthy, packaged foods in each child’s room. They may eat from this basket any time they like. We’ve told them, “When it’s getting low, just let us know and we’ll fill it back up.”

This approach does several things. First, it quells their fear there won’t be enough food. Second, it stops the negative behavior, allowing me to get a good night’s sleep. Third, it gives them some control. They help select the contents of the basket and can eat anything from the basket whenever they want. Finally, it is one small proof to our kids that we are “in their corner” and can be trusted to provide for them… (mine defused).

Breakfast. We take a similar strategy with breakfast. My son can eat as much as he wants, but we put some limits around it. First, he cannot help himself—we must serve or supervise the serving of the cereal or English muffin. Second, we require that healthy foods be in the picture. We choose breakfast cereals with low sugar and high fiber as the “base” and allow the children to mix in a small amount of sugary cereal if they choose. If that’s not enough, a second bowl of just the “healthy base cereal” can be had. The next course must include fruit, and we typically finish with protein (often peanut butter on toast).

My son no longer needs the food basket in his room, but he tends to get up earlier than the rest of us. The solution? On Friday nights we provide a granola bar he can eat in the morning to help tide him over, so the rest of us can sleep in a bit.

At School. We’ve worked similar strategies into our kids’ IEPs at school. For example, our son’s IEP calls for him to stay well hydrated and have a snack every two hours, which allows him to focus on his schoolwork. We send the healthy snacks to school as they are needed.

Let Your Struggles Be a Strength

Food related issues run deep, are hard to overcome, can manifest in different ways, and if not dealt with well, can be a real source of strife.

The truth is, we all have demons that haunt us and drive our behaviors. Whether it’s anxiety about food, low self-esteem, lack of confidence, or something else, I encourage you to use your personal experiences (I’m talking about your struggles) as a means of connecting with your child. Use them as a way to understand how hard it can be to overcome deep-seated fears and beliefs.

I’ve found I’m most successful as a parent when I’m able to maintain the perspective that it is me and my kids against the demons that haunt them, and I find that I’m best able to have that perspective when I identify with them. As many of you know, parenting kids who have been traumatized can often be an exhausting and thankless job. There is power in reminding ourselves why we foster and adopt in the first place.

When it comes to challenges around food, a healthy dose of understanding coupled with small, simple accommodations can help our kids cope with their fears and do the healing and growing they need to do.

Bob DeMarco is an adoptive parent in North Carolina.