Before your adopted child became part of your family, they experienced the loss of their first family. The emotions and experiences that are tied up in that can sometimes lead to behaviors that are difficult to understand. A common way that this trauma is expressed is through issues with food.
Every adopted child has a unique food history. If you give a newly adopted child a piece of food and observe what they do with it, their behavior will be telling of that history. It’s important to be understanding and encourage adopted children to develop healthy relationships with food. To do that, we need to know what food issues look like, where they come from, and how to manage them.
Recognizing Food Issues
Not all food issues look the same, and many initially present as behavioral issues. For example, children may have outbursts at the table that seem to purposefully cause turmoil. They may also lash out with hurtful comments about the way the food looks or tastes. While some children may hoard food in their rooms, others may decide not to eat at all. Children who have been pressured to eat may prefer to go hungry. And children who have been abused with food or deprived of it may develop food phobias or prefer to eat in isolation. In other words, food issues may look like under eating, overeating, or picky eating. If an adopted child has food anxiety, they may eat until gorged or be impatient waiting for meals. If an internationally adopted child refuses to eat, they may have a phobia of unknown foods. Adoptive families should familiarize themselves with all these various types of food issues so they can recognize them if they come up. That way, if an adopted child sneaks food when they are not supposed to, rather than scolding the child, parents can tend to the needs that are driving that behavior.
Understanding Food Issues
So, where do food issues come from? Adopted children have invariably suffered loss. With the loss of their birth family, many have suffered a loss of stability related to their nourishment. Perhaps for a time they were not being fed regularly, in adequate amounts, or a suitable diet, and they feared not knowing where their next meal would come from. For example, when a baby is hungry, they cry, and the parent provides their child with food. The baby no longer feels hunger and they begin to trust the parent to meet their needs. This starts an important cycle of trust. Many adopted children have lost that trust because their needs were not always met in a timely manner. In addition, many adopted children also have sensory processing issues which can affect their eating habits. This may be due to a lack of stimulation in an institution, or what and how the child was fed while in care. For example, if they were only fed soft foods and have limited to no exposure to crunchy foods. It’s histories like these that drive food issues.
Managing Food Issues
In trying to address the needs behind a child’s behavior, it’s important to remember that often children aren’t aware of why they are choosing food to express their issues so we, as caregivers, need to provide a lot of patience and understanding. Our main goal must be to re-establish a child’s trust that their needs will be met.
Here are a few tips to help heal your child’s relationship with food:
- Establish regular feeding times, aim for regular intervals every 2-3 hours for younger children, and 3-4 hours for older children
- Provide a calm environment in which to eat, and eat together
- Give your child some control over food selection by offering them a few options to choose from, and allow them to decide the amount they eat of the food you give them
- Offer a transitional diet that allows for some familiar comfort foods to facilitate their adjustment to your preferred diet (remember, children need to be exposed to a new type of food about a dozen times before they accept it!)
- For children with sensory processing issues, let them play with the food to familiarize themselves with new textures
- Introduce new foods by working outward from foods they already like (for example, if they like apple sauce, offer baked apples)
- Reassure your child that food is always available to ease deep-seated fears of hunger
- Avoid using food as a reward or punishment as this can cause stress
- Create a special stash of snacks that they can easily access to instill a sense of security and alleviate anxiety
While these tips are general, it’s important to tailor them to each child’s specific needs—work at their pace, negotiate coping mechanisms that work best for their unique situation. And most of all, remember that food issues can be managed successfully with a touch of love and a lot of understanding.