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Early Childhood Hunger
My daughter was severely neglected by her biological family during her early years of life. Drug and alcohol abuse played into it. I believe generational poverty and lack of resources, including guidance and education, to be at the root of it. She told me once that she remembers one of her siblings sneaking a cookie home from school. There were six children. They split the cookie six ways for dinner. It was the only food she had that day.
She entered foster care when she was four years old. No one helped her work through the damage caused by the trauma of being hungry for years. Instead, rules and restrictions were forced on food. For example, in one foster home she wasn’t allowed to have a beverage with breakfast if she had cereal because they counted the milk as her drink. Food was guarded and foster parents kept watchful control of the portions each child was allotted. She was constantly worried food would vanish from her life again and having to share it with the other foster children sent her into a panic.
So she started sneaking out of her room at night to steal food. Sometimes she’d rally the other foster children and they’d get a system down – someone kept watch while another child grabbed the food and another located a good hiding spot for their stash. She has told me that she loved it when they had bologna in the house. Bologna slices are thin and slimy. She stuck them right on her skin under her pajamas to smuggle them back to her room.
We adopted her when she was nine. She’s been with us for two years. We have a very different policy when it comes to food with few restrictions. My husband and I have worked hard to help her feel safe and to trust that we’ll provide for her. She’s come a long ways.
She still struggles with her food issues, though, especially in times of stress. It’s one of the first clues that something is on her mind. Her table manners go out the window. She shovels food in with her hands at a rapid pace and eats until her stomach sticks way out. She’s taken money that wasn’t hers to buy snacks at camp and hid empty food wrappers in between the couch cushions. She suffers from post traumatic stress disorder and being hungry is a major trigger for her.
She’s shown me firsthand the damage lack of food causes. It’s not just something that is felt physically. It is also mentally, emotionally and socially damaging. It impacts her view of herself and relationship with others. Food is constantly on her mind.
It brings her great shame. She knows her relationship with food is different from most kids. It’s just one more thing that sets her apart from “kids without hurt parts.”
Here are some things we do to help her deal with her food panic:
We talk to her about it. She understands that not having enough food when she was little impacts her now. She knows that stress causes her brain to worry she’s starving.
We ask that she ask us before she get something to eat. This is so she can hear us say “yes”. Yes, we have food. Yes, we will provide for her. Yes, we will allow her to eat. Every single time.
We never tell her she can’t eat. That doesn’t mean we allow her to make unhealthy choices all day long. She might hear, “Yes, you can have a snack, but not ice cream right now. You are welcome to a piece of fruit or yogurt now and ice cream after dinner.”
We keep healthy foods in the house. We stockpile fruit. I chop veggies, such as red peppers and cucumbers, for her to grab. She can eat fruits and veggies anytime she wants.
We let her pick other healthy food items she can grab quickly anytime she wants. We currently have homemade ice pops in the freezer, yogurt in the fridge and pretzels, popcorn, granola bars and applesauce in the pantry.
We take her grocery shopping with us. She had never been grocery shopping before coming to us at age 9.
We don’t have any locks on the fridge or pantry. Many of her foster homes did.
We eat together as a family every night.
We pack snacks whenever we leave home. She takes snacks to school. I keep beef jerky in my purse in case she gets hungry when we’re out. We pack a little snack sack for car trips.
We talk about the meal plan if we’re away from home. “We’re going to eat pizza at Grandma’s tonight. If you get worried while we’re waiting for the pizza, I have some apples in my purse for you. Grandma is going to order enough pizza for everyone. If you get stressed, you and I can take our pizza outside and have our own little picnic.”
We avoid commenting on her weight or possibility of weight gain. It just brings more shame. Weight gain is inevitable as she learns that feelings of stress and starvation do not automatically come hand in hand. As she learns to separate the two, I’m confident she’ll gain control of her eating and fall into the appropriate weight range.
Most of all, we try to be patient, compassionate and understanding. She spent her early years literally starving. Her earliest memories are of being hungry. She’s going to need time and positive experiences with food to get past the trauma of neglect and poverty.
Rachael is a freelance writer and adjunct college professor with a background in early childhood education. Her passion became therapeutic parenting after adopting her daughter in 2010. Read more about their journey at www.lastmom.com.
Read more about the U.S. diet, including common foods and recipes: http://adoptionnutrition.org/nutrition-by-country/usa/
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