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So. Your adopted child hoards food.

June 11, 2015

***This post was original published in May 2015***

Such a complex, yet such a common struggle for adoptive families. So complex and so common that I’d say almost every single adopted child I work with has some sort of food ‘thing.’ They may not hoard or overeat or do anything that interrupts their daily life, but it’s there. This post was inspired but something I read online, but if you are one of my families and feel like this rings true to you, please know that this is because this is a very, very common struggle for adoptive families.

Maybe your child is very controlling about food.  Maybe she hoards food.  Maybe he is sneaking food.  Maybe she just is always hungry and always eating.   You find your chest clenching, your anxiety skyrockets.  You want to do what’s best for your child but this eating thing has got to get under control! Right?!

Remember how Trauma Mommas develop 4 Super Powers?

  1. Understanding the neurobiological impact of trauma on the brain. What happens to a child’s brain, nervous system, attachment, emotion regulation system, and sense of self when he spends months or years hungry? How does your body react when it believes it is starving? How does your brain respond to a slight dip in blood sugar level (a cue that you need to eat)? Know that hunger is registered in the brain stem, the most primal area of your brain. When your blood sugar dips, cortisol is produced. Brains that have lived in chronic fight/flight/freeze mode register that slight dip in blood sugar as “I’M GOING TO STARVE” as opposed to “It must be getting close to lunch time…my stomach is growling!”
  2. Understanding how their child’s specific trauma has impacted their specific brain. OK, so you are starting to understand the theory behind how hungry tummies impact the brain. But how does this translate to your child specifically? Look at your child’s history. Compare it to what you know about brains. Look at your child’s present life and find her common themes. Are they “I’m starving!” “If I don’t eat RIGHT NOW I never know when I’ll eat again!” “I don’t like this feeling so I will soothe myself with food.” “I don’t trust adults to take care of me so I must take care of myself, always making sure I have enough food to eat.” These themes help us peak into their past.
  3. How are you participating in the trauma tornado? Scared child (hungry! When will I eat again!) acts scary (hoarding, overeating). Scared momma (“The doctor is on my case about my overweight child!” Or maybe “My parents were restrictive and shaming regarding food and this is triggering my old stuff!” Or maybe “I can never satiate or make my child satisfied. I’m a bad mom!!”) acts scary (Restricts food). The cycle continues. Remember the step where you jump out of the trauma tornado? It’s at the “scared mom” step.
  4. Heal thyself. Is food a huge trigger for you? Do you love to prepare good, healthy foods and therefore watching your child gorge or hoard junk food is really a sore spot with you? Take what you learned in your journey to developing superpowers (steps 1-3), and sooth and heal yourself. This is how we jump out of the trauma tornado. If you can turn around those negative beliefs and feelings by reminding yourself  of steps one and two, you’ll respond in a way that is not scary to your child. “My child hoards food because his brain believes that every time he is slightly hungry he is actually starving to death. I will make sure my child knows that food is always available to her.”

OK, you want some practical advice now!

It’s impossible to blog about the perfect solution for your specific situation, unfortunately. But my #1 suggestion to families is to create a place- a drawer, a cupboard, a backpack, a container of some sort. Together, you and your child fill it with healthy foods that you both agree on. Allow your child unlimited access to this stash. If dinner is five minutes away…your child can still take from his snack drawer. If dinner was just over five minutes ago…your child can still take from her snack drawer. If you child fills up on the healthy foods you’ve agreed to put in his snack drawer and doesn’t eat dinner, no problem! It was healthy!! If your child raids the fridge at night, then give him a bedroom snack container. Or place a granola bar or an apple on her nightstand.

This may alleviate all your child’s food anxiety (though, probably not all). This may just alleviate it a tiny bit. It may not alleviate it at all. Oftentimes children with traumatic pasts will benefit from both therapeutic parenting and trauma healing. Look for a therapist that promotes and believes in attachment, as well as one trained in trauma healing, such as EMDR or Somatic Experiencing. Check out the therapist listing at the Attachment & Trauma Network– they are a great resource.  Combining therapeutic parenting with trauma therapy will help your child shift that negative belief of “I am starving!” or “I can’t trust adults to feed me.”  Sometimes therapeutic parenting isn’t enough- we need to get at that place in their brain where that belief is stuck.


Like what you read here?  To get more trauma momma support, click here to sign up for my monthly (or less) newsletter!

Don’t miss Trust Based Parenting…In Real Life!!!  A one-time only, six-hour workshop for parents in West Michigan (Jenison) on August 8, 2015.  Click here for more details and to register!

Robyn Gobbel, LCSW is a child and family therapist in Austin, Texas specializing in adoption, trauma, and attachment counseling. She is the founder of the Central Texas Attachment & Trauma Center.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Jennifer Bates permalink
    April 16, 2014 8:51 am

    Robyn, I found you through Pinterest. I am a therapist, but I am also a foster/adoptive mother. We have been working with a trauma therapist, but recently, seemingly out of nowhere, our 8 year old daughter had severe aggressive behaviors at school which resulted in crisis workers being called and eventually hospitalization. The school is now considering her for special education and even placement out of her home school. After reading the hoarding article/blog, I’m wondering if the sugar dip isn’t possibly part of the issue. She has high cholesterol and her A1C indicates that she is at risk for diabetes. Her bio mother is also diabetic. She has also gained about 18 pounds over the past several months. So on Thursday the psychiatrist said she needed to be on a diet. Friday, she had two major incidents at school. The following Monday, incident at school, resulting in evaluation at the emergency room. No school Tuesday through Thursday, due to various reasons, pediatrician appt., psychological evaluation, Lice, etc. Friday, another incident at school resulting in hospitalization. I am wondering if there is a connection with the sugar dip, if so what would be suggests to request from the school? She takes scheduled sensory breaks, I was thinking of asking for her to have a protein snack available during those times, but I’m not sure what else would help.

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