Cracker crumbs found under a pillow. Moldy food rotting under the bed. A stash of food hidden in a backpack. A child who sits at a table and eats - and eats - and eats, until you are afraid their stomach can handle no more.
Do you blame yourself? Do you hear your mother's voice in your head telling you not to waste food? Are you tempted to put a lock on the refrigerator door?
Please don't. Don't lock the child out of the bedroom or put locks on the kitchen cabinets. Don't yell, threaten, punish or cajole. Don't try to shame a child or make them feel guilty for what they are doing. Food hoarding behaviors will not diminish under threat of consequence.
Children communicate needs through behavior. On a deeper level, this issue is not about food but about control. The child is not yet ready to trust the adults in his or her life to provide a secure, safe environment. That trust cannot be won by threats, punishments or shaming behaviors.
This behavior does not come out of a vacuum. Rather, it is an adaptive response to deprivation. It often stems from years of food insecurity.
This behavior is telling you a story: "Once upon a time, my biological parents traded food stamps for drugs and I didn't have enough to eat... Once there was a time when I lived on the streets and had to beg for food from strangers... When my younger brothers and sisters were hungry it was up to me to feed them... In the orphanage, I had to fight for food..."
Listen carefully and be patient. Try to hear the story of your child. You know why you made this decision, to take a child into your heart, into your life. It hurts sometimes -- you wonder why this child cannot trust you.
But, the larger truth is that you are the adult -- and you made the decision to make this child a permanent part of your life. Please have faith that you possess mental and emotional resources to handle this challenge. Patience is a virtue that nobody really wants to learn, but life has a way of teaching it to us.
Steps to take:
1.) Acceptance: Convey, in your daily actions, that you love the child. You are not disappointed in them. You have not lost patience with them. You are not so frustrated with their behavior that you are about to trade them in for a better model.
These are their fears: That you won't love them anymore. That no one will take care of them. That deep down, they aren't worthy, aren't loveable, and that's why they ended up in harmful situations in the first place.
2.) Empowerment: Consider giving the child his or her own "food cabinet" in the kitchen, to store goodies that are theirs and theirs alone. Allow them to keep an air-tight plastic container of food in their room at night when they sleep, in case they wake up hungry. Let them carry a plastic bag of munchies in their backpack -- it will give them security just to know it's there.
3.) Teamwork: Confer with other adoptive/foster parents. Encourage one another to be patient. Share ideas that help -- and don't be afraid to gently confront another parent if you feel that their approach might be more harmful than healing to their child. Sometimes being a friend means being honest with one another.
4.) Consultation: If you feel that the problem is threatening your child's health, such as binging-and-purging, please consult a professional. It is wise to do your homework about which professional counselor that you choose. Make sure that the professional you choose demonstrates the ability to view child behavior within its context, rather than overmedicating or pathologizing the child.
5.) Realistic Expectations: Recovery takes time. You are not being judged or graded by your child's progress and the time it takes for your adopted/foster child to heal. If your adoptive or foster child's hoarding behaviors lessen but do not disappear completely, that is a success.
* Please note that this blog entry refers specifically to hoarding behaviors that stem from childhood trauma, attachment, anxiety and abandonment issues (not OCD).
Lisa Dickson is a former foster child and strong advocate for children currently in the foster care system.