This post contains affiliates. The links don’t cost you anything extra but they do provide me a small commission if you use them.
Understanding the Significance of Food for Children with Attachment Issues
I am a Christian mental health therapist. Over the years I have worked with hundreds of adopted children and children who have been in the foster care system. It is a topic that God has placed near and dear to my heart!
It takes a special person and family to take in children and offer love and protection. I truly believe this is a calling from God for some individuals.
What I also have come to experience is there is not nearly enough information and training to help equip adoptive parents and foster parents to understand and help care for these children in the ways that they need.
Many children who are adopted or in the foster care system have attachment issues or a full attachment disorder. This is not a choice but rather how their brain has become wired to view the world.
For more information on exactly what an attachment disorder is please read my post Information You Must Know as an Adoptive Parent.
One of the areas that children with attachment issues struggle with the most is food. Food is clearly crucial to our survival but even more so for these children, food becomes a focus or even an obsession.
Food for Survival
We need food for survival. But some children with attachment issues have endured terrible trauma, abuse, and neglect surrounding food. They have been in situations where food has been withheld from them, used as a form of punishment, or their living conditions were so dire that food just wasn’t available.
Lack of consistent and stable food can lead to multiple eating issues that are not simply a choice for your adoptive children to change.
It is also important to understand that children who have endured other types of trauma that didn’t include food may still develop food issues.
Fast Eating and Overeating
God created us to innately want to live. One of the ways to remain alive is through food. Children who may not have experienced consistent or stable food situations in past environments often eat at warp speed. The focus in not to enjoy or savor the food but purely to survive. They then may also gorge themselves on food because in the past the next meal was not always guaranteed. And by eating so quickly their body doesn’t have the time to send satiation cues to stop eating.
This is a behavioral response that may take years to change.
Even though you have a full refrigerator and a stocked pantry, your adoptive child may struggle to feel secure. This is not bad manners or poor etiquette by your adoptive child. This also does not directly relate to a child’s level of safety in your home. This will just take time.
I ask that the parents dish out or allow the child to fill their plate first before the rest of the family. This helps to reduce anxiety that the food will be gone and help them to see their plate is full. To help the situation I will have the kids chew each bite of food 10 times before swallowing. They also are to practice putting down their silverware in between each bite.
Sneaking food is also incredibly common for children who have experienced trauma and abuse. Again, food may have been withheld from them or used as a punishment. I have heard painful stories of children going days without food because the child was “naughty” in some trivial manner. These children learned to sneak and steal food to survive.
This tendency also then can carry through even in healthy and stable environment. I’m not justifying the behavior as acceptable however it is important to understand why it is happening.
I have worked with children who would sneak obscure pantry items (cans of gravy) or frozen items because they figured those wouldn’t be noticed in comparison to food in the refrigerator or snacks.
I recommend that adoptive parents have a fruit bowl and/or healthy snack bowl accessible at all times. This helps the child to know that they are able to have food without restriction but it also is a healthy choice.
Hoarding food is a behavior I see often in my clients with attachment issues. It is also the behavior that seems to cause adoptive parents the most frustration and potentially can be the most harmful for the child. I have worked with children who have stockpiled perishable items and then gotten food poisoning because they spoiled.
Like the other behaviors, hoarding food was a way to survive in the child’s past environment. It was a way to ensure food would be available to them even if the adults in their life didn’t have any or tried to keep food from them.
This also is a behavior that takes time to change but needs to be closely monitored for health reasons.
I will recommend to my families to set up a shelf in the pantry and/or fridge that is specifically for their adoptive child. The parent is to help the child come up with a grocery list of items that they would like to have stocked. This allows for the opportunity to help teach about healthy food options. But it also gives the adoptive parent the opportunity to show and reinforce for their adoptive child that they will provide for them. And that when food runs out it will be restocked.
Food to Fill Emotional Voids
To add to the complexity of the situation, food also can be used as a way to fill emotional voids. This can be true for all of us and often is at the root of most eating disorders. But this is especially true for children who have attachment issues.
Emotions are hard to understand. They can be even harder to express. Food, however, can make you feel better momentarily. And by momentarily, I mean the positive emotion is over as soon as you swallow. So these kids just keep taking bites. They are trying to fill the void of their past pain, abuse, neglect, and/or abandonment. But it doesn’t work.
In actuality it only makes the situation worse. Because the emotional void can never be filled by food the void seems even bigger and more hopeless. Overeating also leads to health issues and weight-gain which can cause more emotional distress.
To help your adoptive child to fill their emotional voids check in with them often. Schedule one on one time. Catch them being good and be liberal with your praise. Seek a therapist if your child doesn’t feel comfortable talking to you about their emotions. And please don’t feel bad or like a failure if your adoptive child won’t talk to you yet about their pain or past experiences. For these children their tends to be so much shame tied to their stories. Talking to a supportive therapist who has no tie to the family can sometimes feel safer.
Daniel Siegel, Peter Levine, and Bessel van der Kolk are three experts in attachment disorder and trauma who have spent their professional lives in understanding and helping children heal. I would highly recommend the following books for further information: The Developing Mind, Trauma Through a Child’s Eyes, and The Body Keeps the Score.
For more articles on attachment disorders and adoption please read my other posts Information You Must Know as an Adoptive Parent, Love Skewed, and Parent according to Emotional Age not Chronological Age.
I sincerely pray that this post meets you where you are and helps you to better understand the food issues your adoptive child may be struggling with.