Surprisingly food “issues” are one of the most common and easily solvable challenges that we see, as APAC Counselors working with adopted children. To understand how to treat hoarding behavior it is important to first understand the primary cause behind it. Children that have experienced early neglect will often fixate on food because their brain is constantly reminding them of when they were hungry. They could have just eaten a large, delicious, well balanced meal and 10 minutes later you could “catch” this same child stealing/hoarding/eating more food when they could not possibly be hungry. Please know that it is not a result of a conscious decision to hoard/steal/hide/the food, nor are they choosing to disobey/defy you - this is purely the survival portion of their brain dictating their actions. In fact, when they are in this mindset, there is little to no engagement from the frontal cortex which is the executive/decision making portion of the brain. This is purely a survival tactic.
The solution: Access, access, access. The last thing we want to do is limit food, which further perpetuates feelings of shame, fear, and insecurity which drives the resulting maladaptive behaviors such as stealing and hoarding to ever increasing levels.
What we recommend: Provide two “YES” baskets of food. One that sits on the dining room table/kitchen counter, the other placed in their bedroom along with a bottle of water. These baskets should be filled with healthy, appropriate snacks: apples, oranges, bananas, trail mix, dried bananas, dried apples, peanuts, etc. The child/children are able to access this food at any time. They do not have to ask permission to have some, nor are they ever told “no” that they cannot have a snack. If mom/dad is literally five seconds from serving dinner and that child grabs a baggy of peanuts, parents need to be ok with that. No comments, no correction, no sighing….no reaction. For this behavior to dissipate, the message has to be clearly communicated to the child that they will always have access to food. This may require quite a bit of deep breathing from the parent in the beginning, but remind yourself each time you see them taking food from the basket that they are in fact healing their brain and also that everything they are eating is healthy….so no harm done.
What you may see: The first day the child may eat every scrap of food in those baskets. The second day the child may eat every scrap of food in those baskets. The third day they child may eat every scrap of food in those baskets. But I assure you, if this intervention is done correctly you will quite quickly see that food is no longer an issue for your kiddo. Once the signal to the brain is sufficiently received, this behavior can (and usually does) disappear for good. However, in order for this to work there are two critical elements to remember:
- The baskets have to remain full at all times. Make Costco your new best friend. You need to always have a stash of backup in your home so that you can keep it filled. The minute you allow the basket to be empty the effect is severely diminished.
- It has to always be a YES. You cannot say no, at any time, for any reason. It can never be punitive, or taken away or discouraged. When this strategy is first implemented into your home it is important to have a short conversation with the child regarding the new policy in your home. “Hey sweet girl, dad and I have been talking and we decided something new! You may have anything you want from these two baskets at any time and you don’t even have to ask permission! Even if you wake up in the night and you are hungry you may have anything you want from your baskets.” Etc.…
As always, the APAC Counseling staff is here for you! We are more than happy to help out by answering questions and are a great resource as you navigate the complexities of raising a child from a hard place.
-Sonia Martin, MSW, LGSW
APAC Family Counselor
Sonia Martin is our APAC Family Counselor in Montgomery. She is also a seasoned adoptive mom, with seven boys! If you would like to get connected to our free APAC Counseling service, call 866.803.2722.