As a new foster parent, I was confident, I felt like I had an understanding of what to expect when we welcomed foster kids into our home. My husband and I have biological children of our own and we were ready to help foster children. We completed the foster parent training classes and had an abundance of knowledge of what we might expect from kids with trauma.
We felt prepared and were ready for our first placement. Like most new foster parents, my husband and I felt ready, we were prepared by a great team and had learned the tools to help struggling kids. Then came Stacey, Anna and other foster kids that struggled with one common theme.
I never expected my foster kids to struggle so much with food!
We learned in our training that food wasn't always plentiful in their biological home and that often food was a punishment, a discipline tool for many biological parents and caregivers. What I didn't fully understand, even after learning about it in our foster parent training classes, was that children who have not been fed regularly or consistently often develop a survival mentality toward food.
The preoccupation with food was a theme my husband and I saw over and over again with nearly every child that came into our family. They obsessed over food. Questioned if they would eat again. Begged us not to take away food because they were "bad". It was heart-wrenching and it took us a few placements to figure out how to best help the kids in our care.
Getting a foster child to trust that she will be fed, takes time. A lot of time.
Stacey was our first placement, a 14-year-old beautiful girl with a horrifying past. She had been in multiple foster homes and now she was with us. She had many behaviors and a variety of coping skills but one thing, in particular, would be our challenge. Stacey checked the contents of the refrigerator and scanned the shelves of the pantry every time she passed through the kitchen.
I was one of those moms that used a label maker and organized food like I was running my own grocery store. A quick glance and I knew how quickly snacks were disappearing, which snacks were the favorites and which ones the kids rejected. With 4 other kids in the house, it was not unusual to go through snacks as if a small football team lived in the house. I knew my kitchen, I knew the other kid's habits and I knew something wasn't right.
Within the first two weeks of Stacey joining our family, I began to notice food was disappearing at a much faster rate than what was normal in a home of six. Snacks went missing within hours of a grocery run. The other kids were complaining that they didn't get their share of a favorite snack. At first, I looked to my boys as the possible bandits. With swift denial from both of them, I turned my suspicions to Stacey. Might she be raiding the pantry at night?
It was real, in my house and it broke my heart.
I can't remember exactly how the conversation went, only that Stacey denied knowing anything about the contents of the pantry. It was the wrappers in the washing machine that made me question her honesty. Upon setting her clean laundry on her bed I noticed something unusual with the bed that led me to a quick sweep, I was shocked at my discovery.
I found over a dozen hidden snacks in drawers, pockets, and between the mattresses. I remember thinking why would she steal food, why would she stockpile granola bars and crackers. We ate 3 meals a day, there was plenty for everyone. Then I remembered a video we watched in our foster parent training. It was real, in my house. A child who did not trust that food would be provided.
A constant message of love and promise were all I could provide her.
The conversations seemed repetitive over the weeks but we began to see small progress. Reassurance and a consistent message of love and promise were all we could offer her. Eventually, we came up with creative tricks and solutions to help her trust, feel safe, and believe that she didn't have to sneak or hide food to protect herself.
Allowing her to be part of the creative process towards her own healing was also important. She stopped hoarding food in her bedroom by relying on some of the new tools she learned to feel safe and to trust. Occasionally a wrapper or snack would turn up in the shoe closet or a coat pocket but we let those instances go without mention. She had come so far in her healing.
Understanding the reasons why foster children struggle with food will help you as a foster parent address the problems in helpful, healthy ways.
"Are we eating today?" A question I heard 15-20 times every day for weeks on end from 6-year-old Anna. She and her non-verbal 8-year-old sister Maria had joined our family, making us a family of 8. No matter how many times I reassured Anna that the next meal would be coming, she doubted me. I encouraged her to watch or help me prepare a meal, and she doubted me. We counted granola bars and apples to help her understand there were enough for all 6 children in our home, and she doubted me. I had a long road ahead of me.
I walked into the apartment and held my breath. I knew in that instant I would welcome these sisters into our family.
Prior to the girls coming to our home, we were able to visit them in their apartment where they lived with mom and relatives. I have many memories of that visit but the unplugged refrigerator, with a broken door, pulled away from the kitchen wall has stuck in my mind forever.
Next to the sink, full of garbage, was a rat rummaging for food. It wasn't a kitchen where food was prepared and meals were shared, it was a pass-through area to the rest of the apartment. A filthy hallway of sorts. There was no table or chairs, just a single, soiled sofa where the two girls sat. My husband and I both felt the horror and neglect these sweet girls were enduring and knew they would not spend another night in the filth they knew as home.
Gaining their trust wouldn't be easy but my family was up for the challenge.
The girls didn't like cold food, ate no vegetables or fruit and preferred room temperature drinks. I understood, having seen the refrigerator in the middle of the kitchen. Anna spoke for Maria and told me what she liked and didn't like. Sometimes she told me Maria didn't like something so she would be assured of not having it herself. That became her running routine and I fell for it every time in the beginning.
Baby steps meant serving food on paper plates and allowing them to share food with each other. It meant buying chicken nuggets while I gently introduced fresh meats. Applesauce was as close to a piece of fruit as we got for a long while.
I told her it was a napkin and explained what it was for.
I vividly remember Anna waving a white paper in the air asking what it was. I explained it was a napkin and showed the girls how to use it. Anna didn't understand the need and thus had no use for it but Maria immediately used the napkin appropriately, although aggressively until in several pieces.
They sat together at the kitchen island and the other 4 kids, my husband and myself sat at the table. They weren't ready for the stimulation that came with eating as a family, and we didn't push it. They were happy to be together, eating a meal that had been promised to them.
"Are we eating today?" continued for weeks. Anna would sit on her stool and watch me cook but still wasn't trusting that the food would be shared with her and Maria. I would emphasize that I was cooking dinner for everyone to enjoy and she would bounce back with "I know, but are we eating it today?". I reassured her we were eating today.
If she asked me once, she asked me a hundred times. I never dismissed her or requested she stop asking, eventually, she just did. Eventually, the girls accepted my invitations to help with meal preparation. They searched the pantry for items needed, stirred pasta sauce, and setting out the silverware (and napkins) became our routine. Then one day, the table was set for 8. Anna and Maria were ready.
I remember that I didn't say a word about it. I just smiled and thought about the hundreds of baby steps it took to get that table set for the entire family. I'm not sure what finally triggered the move to the table but we were thrilled they made the decision to join us on their terms when they were ready. Or maybe just on Anna's terms when Anna thought both she and Maria were ready. 🙂
Interested in caring for children with significant trauma? Do you think you might be ready to help a child heal?