How To Manage Your Child’s Food Insecurity

We are in the middle of the Holiday season which means Christmas parties, family gatherings, presents, and food. Lots of it. This may be a trigger for your child if he or she has a history of hunger or malnourishment. How do you successfully navigate this with your child?

The most important thing to start with here is remembrance. We must remember that behind the behavior we see externally there may be a cocktail of deep loss, deep fear, or deep insecurity swirling around in your child, that he or she may not fully understand. But it’s inside of them, and it’s a constant voice prompting them to fight. It’s a survival strategy they learned to utilize a long time ago, even before they may have been cognitively able to understand what was happening to them.

Think about a newborn baby for a second. How does a newborn baby communicate his or her needs? They cry. Baby is hungry…baby cries. Baby is wet or poopy…baby cries. And in a normal situation, this baby’s caregiver (usually a mom or a dad), responds within seconds, picks baby up, soothes baby, changes his diaper, gives her a bottle, and baby calms down. His or her amygdala (the alarm system within their brain) was triggered by the hunger, or the uncomfortable deal happening in their diaper, but now all is well. And thus, they calm down.

Translate this over to the baby who cries out of hunger, or the dirty diaper, and there’s delayed response, or worse, NO response. The amygdala goes off, but no one responds. No one hurriedly works to soothe the child. After a while, the amygdala stays triggered, and survival mode kicks in. For a child who was malnourished, or hungry often before coming into your care, this has left them in a constant (or often) state of survival. Even if you have always provided enough food for them, this survival tactic lives in them. Even if they have never gone hungry in your care, it’s alive and driving them. I’m highlighting and italicizing that last sentence because it’s key. We have had so many clients, readers, and listeners over the years who isolate the behavior to the here and now. It’s not. It stems from way way way back in the past, before you and I were in the picture.

So, what do you do about your child’s good insecurity. Especially this time of year, when Holiday parties, and family gatherings, with LOTS of food, are prevalent?

Here are some strategies to keep in mind and utilize…

  1. Remember, this is more about control than food. Within our children, there is deep loss. Loss they can’t even explain. The loss of a first family, the loss of normal, the loss of security, and the loss of control. Because our children often exist out of a place of survival, they will do things like fight you for control over things that may seem small or insignificant. But they are not insignificant to your child. He or she is trying to regain some measure of control by behaving the way they behave. This fight for control may come out full force with food. Be patient with this.
  2. Remember, this is about management, not correction, or fixing. For you, personally, remind yourself daily that your job is to be a manager, not a fixer, or corrector. You may never be able to fix their food insecurity. It may always be there, they may always carry it, and no amount of rationalizing or explaining to them can take that loss out of your child. But, you can apply strategies, daily, to manage this.
  3. Your answer should never be no. With food insecurities, you should never tell your child no to food. This reinforces loss of control for them. But your answer may be not yet, or soon. Especially if you are just 10 minutes away from dinner being served. If you’re away from a main meal time, tell them yes. One thing that we have found helpful, in helping soothe food insecurities but also establish the understanding of boundaries, is to let our children know that the answer with food is always “Yes, but with permission.” You will always say yes, but they need to form the habit of asking first. On a related note, keep an arsenal of healthy snacks that are readily available any time your child asks. More on that in the next point.
  4. Create an allotment of ‘anytime’ snacks. Because this is management, and it may be constant, make sure you create an allotment of anytime snacks that are available…anytime…day or night. These snacks should be healthy in nature, and not cost you an arm and a leg (since you’ll be replenishing them often). For the child who wakes up in the middle of the night hungry, invite them to choose which snacks they would like to have at night, and then together, place them in a basket the child can keep next to their bed at night. This is a quick soothe to the fear they often wake up with, and may provide more sleep for you.
  5. Walk with them, not over them. This may sound strange with a post like this but allow me to explain. Often times, our children just need to know that we are on their side. That we understand their feelings. That we feel the loss they live with. They need permission to feel all of these complicated and messy feelings they feel, and know their caregiver (us) is right there with them in this insecurity and fear. So, when their food insecurities are at an all-time high, it’s important that we respond with something to the effect of, “You know what, I’m hungry too (or ‘sometimes I feel that hungry too!’), how about we go to the cabinet and get a snack together?” This is the art of walking with your child, not over them, or past them. Your response may be a bit different, but make sure your lingo reinforces how much you are on their side. Over time, they will begin to build trust in you and come to an understanding that, in spite of the fear they feel, everything is going to be okay.

Back to what I said a moment ago. This is about management. This is about reminding yourself that way more is happening with your child than meets the eye. There is an origin to the behavior. In this case, it’s food. And food insecurities go so incredibly deep within a person who suffers through them. Keep this at the forefront of your mind, and respond with patience and understanding. You will begin to see positive results.

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