When we are doing our very best to care both emotionally and practically for a child who seems to be unaware of this and to reject our efforts, it can touch us in a deeply personal way. It may trigger a sense of frustration that our best does not appear to reach them or be ‘good enough’, consequently we can feel despair, even frustration and unappreciated. Food and eating can be a strong catalyst for this. Time spent discussing, choosing, thinking about and preparing food for a child who is clearly hungry but then only picks at it and half an hour later is hungry again can be an emotional business, so can hoarding food.
Discovering a child’s stash of food for the first time, in a school bag, under the bed or in a cupboard can be something of a shock. Surely they are not hungry and they must be able to see there’s always food in the cupboards and fridge? Repeatedly providing concrete evidence and reassurance that there is food in the house, at school, at other people’s houses and that there always will be should be enough surely? However, that alone is unlikely to address what hoarding is really about. Going to the supermarket, showing them how take-aways can be ordered or food delivered to the house should also reduce anxieties but all of this is addressing the need to hoard in an intelligent way whereas that is not the driver behind the behaviour.
On discovering a child has a secret supply of often random food, some of which may have come from lunch boxes at school, shops or parties can be alarming. It needs addressing so we may try to talk about it with the child and try to rationalise with them, saying, “there will always be food and if we run out we can go to the shop”, “you just had a big pizza why did you then take all the biscuits?”, “it’s not hygienic to have food under your pillow as it gets all mushed up and smelly”. However, hoarding food is not something to tackle in a reasoning, intellectual way as that is not where such an activity comes from in a child or an adult.
We need to have a quick look at the brain. It has 3 main areas, a survival part, an emotional memory part and a clever, reasoning, planning part. Gathering up and hiding food comes from the emotional and survival parts of our brain and is fuelled by fear, of being hungry, having food taken away in the middle of a meal, empty cupboards, or being forced to eat unpalatable food. Also, food being used as a punishment, “go to your room without your tea”, “eat everything on your plate or else”, “no you can’t have ice cream now you are too bad”. Food and eating is an emotional business for us all and many of us have complex ‘feelings fuelled’ relationships with it which can last a life time.
Traumatised children nearly always have some issues with food and eating which stems from stressful and negative experiences with the adults who have been in charge of nourishing them in their earliest years. Erratic feeding patterns, hunger, unpredictability would certainly make a child want to eat what they could get their hands on there and then. Or, if eating in front of others felt too stressful to do, then it would make sense to keep some food just in case these grown-ups suddenly stop providing it, even though they say they never would.
Talking to the emotions a child has around all of this is a better way forward. After all they are just trying to survive not upset you or anyone else. Being curious about how it feels for them to be that worried about food and eating is important whilst trying to avoid the “but you know we will always feed you etc…” Hard to do, as food and eating bring up big emotions in us all so being aware of this is a good starting place. As with all traumatised children, it takes time, you are trying to build trust which they have not had the luxury of experiencing thus far so understand that, just as you are doing your very best, so are they.
Trauma Parenting Specialist, International Speaker, Freelance Trainer