Friday, November 9, 2012

Food Issues

Today I wrote to a friend who just got a couple of foster kids recently and was frustrated that her kids were eating constantly. It's hard for someone who doesn't have a child from hard places to understand the depth and intensity of problems that these kids have. Sometimes I look back and wonder how we made it through those first few months of foster care.

After writing my response to her, I realized there may be others who are walking the same path and would like to see what I learned when we got our kids. When you read this, realize that my kids are not in the same place now. There has been growth. No, they aren't completely healed, and still have food issues. But it definitely isn't at the same intensity. Also realize that not all kids have the same problems. We are not all the same. The kids are not all the same. But at the same time, there are common themes, common problems, and common feelings. 

So here is what I wrote to my friend:

Yes, it does get better.

You and the kids are feeling totally normal in this situation.

I used to call my kids "my little hobbits." In the Lord of the Rings, if I remember right, the hobbits had breakfast, second breakfast, brunch, elevensies, luncheon...they never stopped eating. My kids, too, had insatiable appetites, though they seemed a bit more picky. Yes, they underweight and needed to catch up by eating a few more calories and good nutrition. But they didn't need as much food as they thought. We would be in our van, five minutes from our home, and one of them would suddenly be hungry and thirsty. They would both then scream to stop immediately for food and soda, even though it was faster to just drive home. They would sneak food into their rooms, stuff food in their mouths when we went places, and be extremely demanding. 

The problem was that they didn't trust that the food would be there the next day, the next hour, the next minute. And without food, they wouldn't survive. They also didn't trust that I would take care of their needs. Why should they? It never happened before! Think of it. If you didn't think you would eat again, if you thought the food in front of you would disappear before you could get to it, if you didn't understand time well because of age, fetal alcohol, or trauma, if you didn't think anyone else in the world would help you to survive, wouldn't you grab and eat anything you saw? They are acting perfectly normal for their situation.

And you are feeling perfectly normal. 

You know there is plenty of food. You want to take care of them, well, in your heart you want to. They are acting completely crazy and making your life crazy. You should not feel bad for feeling the way you do.

The worst of the food issues will get better. It might take a few weeks or months, but after awhile you'll begin to realize that their tantrums and food weirdness will be less intense and farther apart. They might not completely heal, but it will be easier for you to live with.

Just remember, it's not about food. It's about attachment. It's about trust. It's about how awful they feel inside. What they are feeling is not always hunger. Many kids, including my own, get their signals mixed up. They say they are hungry when they are thirsty. They say they are bored when they are really overstimulated. They say they need food, when they really need to go to the bathroom. They say they are hot when they are really cold. They think they are starving when they are really having an anxious feeling in their gut. Their brains are not wired right, and it takes time to rewire. You need to guess what the real problem is, and then help them to learn what would better fill that need. When they want food, but just ate, you might say something like, "You're hungry already? Ok, here's a cracker, but maybe you're feeling sad too. Are you missing your mama?" Before long, you'll be a great detective. I can even tell when my twelve year old is constipated!

So now for the advice, if you want it:

1. Get some respite. You need to recharge.

2. Don't feel bad for feeling the way you do, but don't yell at, hit, or abandon the kids. I know, it's tempting. But any negative response from you will set them back longer.

3. Help them understand time. Use timers. There are sturdy hourglass sand timers for kids. Show them in concrete ways when the next meal is coming. Become very regimented, even if that's not your nature. You can loosen up in a little while, but right now things need to be very scheduled. You can also use the timer to slowly help them to wait. Just like an infant, their waiting time might be a few seconds, but you can slowly lengthen the time they can wait for things. Maybe even five minutes! 

4. Resist the temptation to be a short order cook. I did that, and it wore me out. I also couldn't feed them the same way they wanted anyway. Who knows how Mommy Sophia made their eggs? So you need to cook one thing for the family for each meal. 

5. If they don't want what you are cooking, have available quick and easy alternatives. My kids would only eat raw carrots for vegetables. I wasn't about to eat only carrots every day. So instead of forcing them to eat broccoli, I would tell them that they could eat either broccoli or three mini carrots, their choice. They ate the carrots. I don't know what I would do if they hated all vegetables, but this was a compromise. Eventually, they learned to eat more vegetables, but it took time. When the kids feel they have a choice between two things, they will do more than if they feel they have to fight for everything. 

6. Let them carry around baggies in their pockets with snacks. It might help them to know that they have access to food when they need it. If they stuff that in their mouths too quickly, then you carry the snacks, letting them know the food is there.

7. Always have water and a snack in the car with you. I really regretted forgetting that!

8. Check their rooms for food. I told the kids that it would attract ants. They still hid food until one day the ants came in. Then they believed me. But the no food in the bedrooms is a good rule to strictly enforce. Don't just ask them. Assume they do it, and get it out of there. 

9. Have in your home easy snacks that can be given to them between meals. Carrot sticks, graham crackers, cheese sticks, granola bars, etc., are things that don't take time, but can be easily given. 

10. Have them use their words to ask for food. They need to learn to ask politely for food. Screaming, scavenging, and stealing must not get them what they want. 

11. Feed them on your lap sometimes. Have them look in your eyes when they eat. Food can be a attachment tool, just like when a mama feeds her infant. 

12. Don't take them places yet. They aren't ready. Things need to be simple, calm, and regimented. Birthday parties are anything but that, plus someone else is getting all the attention. We still, after ten years, tone down birthday celebrations. I didn't even take my kids to Sunday school for at least a year, because it was too chaotic for my kids. Then we went together, so that I could pull them out if they got dysregulated. Amusement parks became not a place to have fun, but a great place to have a meltdown. My kids still struggle with parties and crowds. They are happier when things around them are calmer than how they feel inside. 

Ok, I think I'll stop on number twelve. Many of those things I learned the hard way, over time. Some may not work with your kids or family, but they worked for us. But if you do nothing else, take a break for even a couple of hours. Maybe you can have someone take care of the kids while you take your birth son to the party. You need some respite. Do you have anyone that can do that for you? You need to have a couple of hours away at least once a week. That's the one piece of advice that is the hardest, yet the most essential.
I'm praying for you. Let me know how I can help. Really.

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