Staying in a constructive frame of mind can be very challenging when faced with a child who hoards food. I am not talking about sneaking the occasional biscuit from the tin or sweet from the jar. This post is intended 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 I’m here to help with 6 questions you must consider and 3 simple actions that anyone can try.
- 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. If you observe these things it is important to ask for a referral for assessment by a Psychiatrist. There are many very good treatments and parenting approaches but you need to know what you are dealing with first.
- Did your child experience on-going neglect at any time in their life? Children who have experienced neglect often learn to hoard food and other items as a means of survival. These survival behaviours become like a template and 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 but the choice of therapy will depend on other co-existing issues and individual circumstance. Theraplay and Dyadic Developmental Psychotherapy can be helpful and you may want to discuss these with your mental health team.
- Did your child have an on-going period of traumatic experiences 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 no doubt see plenty of evidence of their sense of entitlement to whatever they want. Children who have experienced trauma can behave rather like a toddler, which can be very disconcerting for caregivers. These children need support to go back to where they got stuck and develop from there. This requires skilled parenting and usually therapeutic interventions. Standard parenting courses are unlikely to be useful to parents and caregivers of these children but specialist programmes such as those offered by organisations like Family Futures, PAC, Beacon House and Coram may help you.
- 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 – often high fat/high sugar foods. Please resist the temptation to offer your child comfort from foods made with products designed to maintain the taste whilst reducing the fat and sugar content. You might be improving their nutritional intake but it will do nothing to break the eating/comfort connection that has formed in the 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 football team or athletics club. Just bouncing on a trampoline can also be really effective. Some children may need professional support to manage their emotions through counselling or play therapy so ask your GP for advice.
- Is your child eating a lot of sugary foods with 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 causing them to drop too low. We then think that we are hungry and need to eat when actually we just need to eat better to stop the blood sugar swings. 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 as can often be the case with children who hoard. A Dietitian will be able to help you find a range of suitable foods that fit your child’s likes and dislikes.
- Does your child seem to experience the world through their senses in a way that appears unusual? Children with a range of neurodevelopmental conditions such as autism and ADHD and children from a background of trauma, neglect and loss can experience the world through their senses in a quite different way to other children. These issues are referred to as sensory processing or sensory modulation difficulties. Some children are hyposensitive meaning 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. Over time it’s important to teach our children to understand that the way they experience the world through their senses is different and to become more self-aware. An occupational therapist will be able to help you with this. 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 and you will need to experiment to see what helps.
Many children will need some form of therapy or specialist therapeutic parenting intervention however there are a few things anyone can do to provide a good foundation for improvement over time.
- Build your child’s confidence that food is something that 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.
- Make food accessible. Make a food box for each family member and let your child decorate it. Let your child know 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. 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.
- 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 will 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.
There will be a small charge as I need to cover the cost of the webinar platform and my nutrition business is how I earn a living. I intend to run these webinars over the summer and autumn of 2018 based on demand. If you are interested please e-mail me at
In compliance with The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) I will keep your contact details for no longer than one year following our last correspondence or until you request that I delete them. i will not distribute, sell or lease personal information to third parties unless I have your permission or am required by law to do so.