When my husband and I became foster parents, we knew one thing for sure, we would steer clear of eating disorders. We knew my challenging experiences with a close relative during my formative years might trigger a familiar frustration, so we were careful to avoid teen placements involving this diagnosis.
However, no one told us how many young children coming into foster care have already been adversely affected by food issues. Many have gone hungry, been deprived of food, or survived on poor diets of sugar and carbohydrates. Some have never before eaten a meal seated at a table or used cutlery. For some, fresh food is new. Wow! Were we in for a big surprise!
Most foster and adoptive parents will eventually host children who have “disordered eating.” This can vary from extremely picky eating, to hoarding food, to stealing food. In the first year, one of our foster children never said he was hungry but often announced, “I’m starving!” It seemed a rather drastic pronouncement in place of simply asking for a snack.
His response was not that surprising once I understood what happens to the brain when a baby or child goes hungry and is uncertain when the next meal will occur. You see, when a child experiences hunger, fear is triggered in the primitive part of the brain, the part responsible for survival. The brain responds to this as perceived starvation, trumping other activities in the higher, more developed part of the brain. So even though our foster son only felt twinges of hunger, those twinges signaled his brain to respond as if starvation was happening - again. He became hyper-vigilant and obsessed with food, he had no control over this response, and no tools to help him cope.
The good news is that we can help children cope with food insecurities by first building trust and meeting their needs, and secondly, by disengaging from food battles. The not-so-good news is that children’s fear-response to hunger may last their entire lives. Even Sidney Poitier, who experienced extreme poverty as a child, admitted to carrying a Snicker’s bar in his designer suit pockets because, even in his wealthy adulthood, he continued to fear he would not have enough food.
In order to partner with your children and help them heal, the first rule is… Do Not Engage!!! Food battles are NOT the best way to expend your energy and will not achieve any desired results. They may actually worsen the problem.
Here are four ways to help children learn to have a healthy relationship with food and hopefully bring some sanity back into your kitchen.
Model what you expect. However painful it may be, first take a look at your own habits. Do you eat nutritious meals and snacks? Do you sit down and relax for meals or are you always on the fly? Are you downing a gallon of coffee each day to help you survive? Children are watching and imitating what we do.
Keep nutritious foods in the home at all times. Also, take nutritious snacks and water whenever you go anywhere. Children from hard places need to eat and hydrate every few hours to regulate their blood sugar. You may need to allow children to have a snack bowl or box in their bedroom so they always have the feeling that food is available. Talk to them after they eat nutritious foods and help them become aware of how good they feel after they eat. We allowed our foster children to have fruit, nuts, and nutritious bars anytime they wanted, except for 30 minutes before mealtime.
Allow compromises. It can take months or even years for children to learn to eat healthier foods. Their taste buds need time to adjust. Often sensory issues play a role in why certain textures or types of foods are distasteful. Certain foods or smells may trigger past trauma. One child would literally throw up if she had to eat peanut butter because it triggered her memories of peanut butter being the only available food for months on end. Bring understanding and compassion to these responses, NOT punishment. A strategy may be to offer a desired food after a few bites of a less desirable food has been eaten. For example, “You may have three M & Ms after you eat half of your sandwich.” These compromises allow children choices within boundaries while also providing opportunities to try healthier options.
Involve your children. Involving them can drastically reduce anxiety that arises around food. Allow them to help plan meals, make grocery lists, go to the grocery store (only sometimes, though, as this can also add stress), and prepare meals. Make a calendar with their planned meals so that when you are asked for the 100th time, “What’s for dinner?” you can point to the plan! Better yet, if they are old enough, ask them to make a meal chart.
Progress can be slow with food issues, but progress is what you’re aiming for. Keep the lines of communication open and try to detect which foods may be triggering your children. Remind them that they will always have food in your home and talk about the past weeks or months - how this has remained true.
Until children feel safe and know that food will always be available, they will continue to act on their “starvation” responses. Refusing to engage in battle will already de-escalate the problem. Add to this time, patience, and a good sense of humor. You will begin to see results!
Johnna Stein serves as the Director of Training at Promise686, developing new materials and teaching foster care ministry basics for Live The Promise Church Advocate Clinics. She and her husband, Frank, have been parenting bio and foster children for many years and are pondering their recent transition to an "empty nest."