Older Child Parenting — The Facts Behind Food Challenges

It's not uncommon for an older child to arrive in his new family with feeding problems hoarding, stealing, or gorging. Our expert explains how to help.

Food problems in older children can be overcome

It’s not uncommon for an older child to arrive in his new family with feeding challenges. These behaviors, which can range from stealing food to refusing to eat, are connected to the child’s uncertainty about being fed when he was very young, and are sad effects of early neglect, abuse, or deprivation. With time and patience, however, food-related problems can be undone. And, as many families can attest, the effort is well worth it.

For parents, the key lies in treating the cause of the child’s food anxiety, not in attempting to stop the child from manifesting the symptoms. Here is what three families did to help their children begin to overcome food problems and join the family. Finding what works best for your child starts with determining what he needs — and providing it.

Complete the Bonding Cycle

Alan was six when he was adopted from foster care. He had lived in two homes, one of which was abusive. Meals with his new family were a nightmare. He spilled drinks, threw tantrums when the foods on his plate touched each other, and was awkward with a fork.

The first task faced by parents of a hurt child is to help him get unstuck. Think of getting a car out of the mud or snow; you cannot simply move forward without digging deeper into the mess. Instead, you must back up to gather the momentum that will propel the car forward. This exercise may have to be repeated several times before the car moves. So it is with children of trauma. In most cases, they need to go backward before they can make progress. They need what they need, even if it seems age-inappropriate.

For Alan, it meant going backward, until he could be evaluated by and work with an occupational therapist. His mom bought a divided plate, so that his foods didn’t touch. A raised lip around the rim helped push food onto his fork. A toddler sippy cup ended spills, and toddler silverware ended the utensil war. While these solutions were developmentally incongruous for a six-year-old, they were just right for Alan. Over months of consistent, structured feedings, he learned to depend on his parents, and developed a strong bond that allowed him to get better. The family meals have settled down, and everyone is happier.

Build and Maintain Trust

Theresa experienced a great deal of deprivation in her early years. Now, at age four, she arranged her entire life around food. Night after night, she roamed the house, taking food, gorging, and hiding what she could not finish.

A child who has gone hungry lives with a primal fear that she will never get enough food. She has learned to eat whatever she can, while she can. Or she stashes it away…just in case. Although many parents try to restrict food intake or limit certain foods, both of these interventions are perceived as deprivation by the child, and are nearly guaranteed to fail. Providing the food that your child seeks is more likely to minimize her food-related obsessions.

Theresa’s parents placed a container of nonperishable snack foods in her bedroom. She was given choices — which also helped her relinquish control more easily — while her parents placed boundaries on the prowling and grazing behaviors. When she awoke throughout the night, she knew that there was something right there to satisfy her craving. Her parents kept the snack bin fully stocked, and reassured her about it. As the child eventually trusted that food would always be there, she stopped eating it. The family had resolved the ongoing quest for food, and reduced the fear of not having enough.

Nurture Through Food

Sally’s mother begged, pleaded, and tried to force her to eat, to no avail. Finally, she packed a basket, filled with snack bags, for her daughter to carry around all day. Sally explored the food, and ate what and when she wanted. After six weeks of being “the boss of her basket,” Sally told her mother she was finished. She began to eat meals with the family.

If a child is allowed to exercise more control over what she eats, without interference, chances are that she will independently expand her food interests. Food preferences develop very early in life, and most of us do not alter the kinds of things we choose to eat. Think of your own preferences: your tastes, the things you would never try, the things you always like.

Indulging specific food issues will have a more positive effect than trying to resist them. We are not suggesting a separate meal for each family member, but some accommodations can be made for individual tastes. If your child likes only green beans, is it worth the struggle to force her to eat peas? Wouldn’t it make more sense to just cook green beans? Feed your child what she wants, and she will eventually decide to try something else. When you introduce new tastes and textures, do it slowly, mixing the new food in with her favorites.

Nurturing through food is not just about calories. It is also about promoting growth, development, and trust. Preparing food, enjoying it, and cleaning up afterward are rituals for most families. A regular, relaxed routine reduces a child’s mealtime anxiety, improves her appetite, and, ultimately, builds attachment to her new family.

Make your family’s food nourishing and fun: Buy a fancy plate at a garage sale, and serve your child’s meals on it. Teach him to set the table. Kick back and enjoy a cup of cocoa together. If your child wants you to, feed her a bottle when holding her, no matter what her age — 10 is not too old. Go out to dinner with your teen, just because.

So, what’s on tonight’s menu?

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