Help my child hoards food!

Behaviour is communication

Staying in a constructive frame of mind can be very challenging when you know your child is food hoarding. I am not talking about sneaking the occasional biscuit or sweet. This post is for parents and carers whose kids have an obsessional, irrational and on-going hoarding habit. There are no magic bullets and you are likely to need some professional support. In the meantime here are 6 questions you must consider and 3 simple actions that anyone can try.

Questions 1: Does your child exhibit irrational anxiety or display ritualistic, obsessional behaviours? 

These signs may indicate that your child has an anxiety disorder or a neuro-developmental condition such as autism. Food hoarding is more common in children with these conditions. If you observe these things it is important to ask for a Psychiatric assessment.

There are many very good treatments and parenting approaches but you need to know what you are dealing with first.

Question 2: Did your child experience on-going neglect at any time in their life? 

Children who have experienced neglect often turn to food hoarding as a means of survival. These survival behaviours do not stop when the child enters a secure, nurturing environment. Hoarding gives some children who have had these experiences a sense of comfort, security or control.

Again there are very good treatments available. However the choice of therapy will depend on other co-existing issues and individual circumstance.

Question 3: Did your child experience ongoing trauma in their early years? 

Children from a background of trauma can become stuck in their development. The sort of experiences I am talking about here include; abuse or torture, witnessing abuse or torture, war, severe illness or seeing a close loved one experience severe illness.

Observe any toddler playing and you will see plenty of evidence of their sense of entitlement. Children who have experienced trauma can behave rather like a toddler, which can be very disconcerting. These children need to go back to where they got stuck and develop from there. Specialist programmes to help with this are offered by organisations like Family Futures, PAC, Beacon House and Coram.

Question 4: Does your child seem to use food as a comfort or coping mechanism when they feel angry or stressed? 

Just like many adults, children can also “comfort eat”. When we eat to manage our emotions we repeatedly strengthen the connections in our brain between relief from distress and eating. Please resist the temptation to offer your child comfort from foods with a lower fat or sugar content. You might be improving their nutritional intake but it will do nothing to break the eating/comfort connection in their brain.

Try to think about other things that your child enjoys and see if you can identify activities that more specifically address the issue. Physical activity can be very helpful so consider joining a sports team or athletics club. Just bouncing on a trampoline can also be really effective. Some children may need professional support so ask your GP for advice.

Question 5: Is your child eating a lot of sugary foods but little protein and/or fibre? 

Protein and fibre slow down the release of sugars into the blood. Sugary foods or low fibre carbs like white bread and white rice release sugar into our blood fast. When we have a high blood sugar level our body releases insulin to drive the sugar into our cells to make energy. However it’s not an exact science and we often produce more insulin than is needed to normalise our blood sugars. This can result in a low blood sugar, which will trigger feelings of hunger.

Try to find ways to help your child increase their fibre and protein intake and reduce their intake of sugary foods. This might be tricky if your child is also quite a faddy eater. A Dietitian will be able to help you find a range of suitable foods that fit your child’s preferences.

Question 6: Does your child seem to experience the world through their senses in an unusual way? 

Children with a range of neurodevelopmental conditions such as autism and ADHD and children from a background of trauma and neglect can experience the world through their senses differently. These issues are referred to as sensory processing or sensory modulation difficulties.

Some children are hyposensitive. This means that they don’t notice sensory experiences as readily as their peers. These children may not recognize feelings of hunger or fullness. Others are hypersensitive, meaning that they notice sensory stimuli more than than their peers. Others are sensory seeking and might gorge food to meet their sensory needs.

An occupational therapist will be able to help your child understand their sensory experiences better. You may also find mindfulness activities designed specifically for children helpful. There are some fun Mindfulness Apps that your kids can try eg Breahtr, Stop, Breath, Think and MindShift. These are free to download and are designed specifically to be tween/teen friendly.

For children who are sensory seeking, helping them get enough sensory input through other activities might help reduce hoarding and gorging. You could try diving into a pile of pillows, being rolled up tightly in a blanket, wearing a neoprene vest or using a weighted blanket. Again every child is different so experiment to see what helps.

If you would like to now more about eating and sensory issues I have produced an easy to read ebook that might help. You can find out more and get a copy here.

Many children will need some form of therapy or a specialist therapeutic parenting intervention. However there are a few things anyone can do to provide a good foundation for improvement over time:

One: Build your child’s confidence that food will always be available in your home.

Help them to get involved with growing food, shopping and cooking. If finances are tight growing food might help offset the costs of shopping.

Two: Make food accessible.

Make a customised food box for each family member and let your child decorate it. Explain to your child that they can have everything in the box every day and that you will refill it everyday. Keep it as healthy as possible to avoid blood sugar swings but be realistic. If at all possible work with your child to select the foods that go in the bag. This will give them more control.

Keep your kitchen well stocked with fruit and other healthy snacks that you are prepared to make freely available for everyone in your home. Make sure your child knows that they can help themselves. Always take a little food and drink when you go out.

Three: Give your child a sense of control by offering choice where you can.

Don’t offer too many options, as it might be overwhelming. Just say something like “would you like fish fingers or sausages for dinner” or “if you need a snack you could have an apple or a peach.” You know your child best so simply offer options that you know your child enjoys.

As a Dietitian and Mum to 2 children from a background of trauma, neglect and loss I want to offer great value, personalised support for parents and carers of kids who hoard.

The support will be provided via webinars arranged around the schedules of those who express an interest. Participants will be able to submit questions ahead of time that I will answer during the session to ensure that the material meets your needs. Numbers will be limited to ensure we address everyones needs. If there is a lot of interest I will simply put on more sessions

All you need to take part is a computer and Wi-Fi. No one needs to be on webcam so you can join us as you are, relax and get some support. I will be able to expand on the information in this blog post with practical ideas to fit your specific challenges.

If you are interested please make an enquiry here

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