Food And The Adopted Child
0 comment Saturday, June 7, 2014 |
I am very proud of the progress our kids have made with their relationship with food, with not a little help from husband and I, although I do say it myself.
Before we adopted them, the Foster Care placement of our two children almost broke down because of our daughter's relationship with food. I think she went through various stages whilst she was in care, but mostly our daughter would drag out how long it took her to eat food beyond all believability. Everyone else would have shovelled the meal down, consumed puddings, and be outside playing, whilst our daughters was just onto taking her eighth mouthful. She would take so long at her meal that despite an hour or so spent at the dining room table, she would hardly have eaten a thing.
For a Foster Carer to have a child that hardly eats is not only worrying, it is potentially incriminating. Everyone can see when a child is underfed and the fingers of blame point squarely at the parent/guardian. Social Services dragged their feet with providing any help, and so eventually the Foster Carers told Social Services that if they did not refer her to CAMHS for her eating disorder, they would stop fostering her. Social Services don't like sending their Looked After Children for professional mental health care, because it costs them money. But finding another Foster Care placement would have been extremely difficult and cost them even more money, and so they relented. As it happened, we were found as adoptive parents for them not long after.
I decided from the outset that I was going to feed the children only food that they actually liked. Their Fosters Carers could not afford this luxury, as they had two children of their own, and so mealtimes could not be individualised. But I was a on a year's Adoption Leave and could afford to take the time and effort to do this. I would even take them shopping to the supermarket with me and they could choose for themselves what they wanted to eat!
I was on the right track, but little did I know what a steep learning curve I had embarked upon. Firstly, the kids didn't seem to know what they actually liked to eat. Stuff that the Foster Carers said were personal favourites of theirs, the kids would now weep inconsolably at if I presented it to them on a plate. Secondly, my son would have a screaming rage if I tried to get him out of the house to a supermarket (or anywhere else for that matter) and then when I could get them both shopping with me, he would want anything and everything and come out of the experience so hyper he was in danger of lifting off and leaving the Earth's atmosphere.
At some point it occurred to me that the problem was that they wanted to eat what their birth parents had fed them. The difficulty was, however, that they were both under seven when they were taken into care and nearly two years had passed. Therefore, they wanted me to feed them what their birth dad had fed them, but couldn't remember what it was that they had been fed.
Their eating habits became ever more regressive until at one point, during that crushing arctic winter two years ago, they were down to eating just plain pasta. And even then, they could never remember what type of pasta they liked. I'd serve them a bowl of bow pasta which they had been happily devouring for a week, and they'd sit there wailing, acting as if I'd served them dog poo.
I hated tea time. Son would tantrum because he was expected to wash his hands before eating, and then daughter would tantrum because she was asked to come to the dining table. Then I would try to make jolly conversation whilst son often sat there wailing and daughter made face shapes with her food and played with her cup. True to form, it would take daughter an hour to get through a small plate of pasta, during which I would stay at the table with her. Son would have eaten pudding and be sitting wriggling annoyingly on my lap for the last thirty minutes or so before she would finish and I could finally be excused.
The breakthrough came when one of our electric heaters packed up and I could no longer keep the dining room warm. I gave them trays to eat their tea on in the living room and let them watch telly. It was A MAZ ING. My daughters silliness instantly disappeared and though she didn't eat quickly, she did eat well. And - the best thing - I wasn't needed. If I left that dining table even for a minute, something would get knocked over or a fight would break out or something, because they wanted me there. But when they got a telly to watch, well, I could get a newspaper out, or, incredibly, just go off and do something else entirely!
Daughter's eating habits improved from there. Food and food times had become such a source of stress to her that her anxiety levels made her act silly. Now there was no one 'watching' her, she could relax. And eat. Simple.
It was around the following summer that I noticed that my son was actually exhibiting controlling eating habits too. Previously, he would take his lead from his sister. If she ate it, he would. But then he started to get inconsistent. Again, we were back to him swearing he hated stuff when he had eaten it happily last week, and insisting that he liked stuff that I had taken off his food list because it induced a screaming fit of hatred from him. It took the long summer holidays of me making two meals a day for them both that made me see what was happening. He now wanted the opposite to what his sister wanted. If she liked sweet corn, he liked peas, if she liked baked beans, he liked alphabet spaghetti, if she liked bow pasta, he liked penne. Except maybe he didn't really like peas or alphabet spaghetti or penne pasta and so he would scream about the food, even though I had given him what he 'liked'.
And maybe it wasn't always about the food. Maybe he hadn't done well at his game on the wii, or been given an ice cream when he wanted one earlier, or knew he had to have a shower that night. Pretending that I was giving him food he hated gave him an excellent excuse to kick off and get all his rage out there.
I put up with this for a long time before one day just scraping his dinner in the bin, telling him that if he hated it so much I couldn't possibly give it to him. Nothing makes my children explode like having control taken off them. I cannot even begin to describe the rage attack that followed this action. And then again when he realised that now he was getting no food AT ALL until supper time. And then again when he realised that a teary eyed pleading for food was going to get him NO WHERE. That had to happen twice (in a period of about two months) before he would stop using food as an excuse to vent his anger.
Have I put you off adoption, yet?
For the last six months, things have been much easier as they've reset their default position on food. Now, generally, food is to be eaten and enjoyed without much comment, whilst using food to control the adult or as a rage release is the exception. Although that dysfunctional relationship with food is still there and resurfaces from time to time. This week we've had uneaten lunch box food hidden in coat pockets, entire meals surreptitiously scraped in the bin, and food left that I know they love, which I suspect has something to do with those bloody Easter Eggs I've been factoring into their otherwise consistent snack routine.
See how small a thing it takes to tip the balance and send the reeling back down to how they were?
No wonder I tense up when grandma sits at the table with them and tells them 'how well' they are doing at eating and 'how beautifully' they are doing it. At home, we try hard not to put a spotlight on food and reduce the anxiety around eating. Therefore getting them to see food as something you have to 'do well' at is not helpful. It also makes my daughter feel self conscious to be judged in such a way - back to feeling 'watched' - and she can't eat when that happens.
The food issue is a field of emotional mines with adoptive children. Food should bring infants and children comfort and relieve the distress of hunger, and should therefore be a bonding experience between child and primary care giver. Very likely however the adopted child was not fed appropriately, consistently and/or enough in the birth home, and so the child's relationship with food is already a fraught one, with high emotions of distress, mistrust and neglect already in the mix.
On top of this is the fact that children who have no control over their lives being turned upside down often gain a sense of control through food. Certainly mine had me jumping through hoops of fire to meet their emotional and nutritional food needs. Took me too long to figure out that I would never get it right whilst it suited them better for me to get it wrong.

Labels: ,