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I have a foster child who is with me on a long-term arrangement and has been since he was 2 years old. He is now 8 and whilst he has always had issues with food, they seem to be getting worse. He steals food from the pantry and hides it in his room and he takes food from other children’s lunch boxes at school. We don’t limit food at home so he has plenty to eat but his hording of snacks is becoming a real problem. I am finding moldy fruit hidden in his clothes drawers and sandwiches under his bed. He is also very protective of his space so gets angry when I come searching for the source of the smell in his room. I know this is a trauma-related behaviour and I just need some help with how to respond to it. How can I help him stop hoarding food? Is this an issue for a psychologist?
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Yes, you are correct that this behavior is a deep-seated psychological problem most likely stemming from food insecurity. Discussing that he can have food whenever he wants is a great start. But I think that your instinct to consult a child psychologist is correct. Something is bubbling up from his past, or a new stressor is causing him to revert to this primal survival instinct.
You have your hands full for sure, so seeking an expert opinion on this issue may be a relief for all of you.
You are a blessing to this child and are to be commended for taking in a child in need. Wishing you the best!
You are obviously doing a great job providing for and caring for your kids and you should not feel that this behavior is a reflection on you or your parenting. Food hoarding is often a trauma based strategy that occurs after sever neglect or abandonment. You don't mention anything about your foster child's history before they came to you, but if they were in an environment where there was uncertainty and insecurity this could help to explain the situation. In a secure environment, a child knows that their needs will be met by their caregiver. When the caregiver has not provided consistent care, a child may develop adaptive behaviors that they believe are necessary for survival.
Has anything in your family changed recently that may have caused the child to question their own security in the family, for example a new baby? A change in the family dynamic or make-up may act as a trigger for this self-protective behavior.
I would recommend that a counsellor or play therapist help your child to identify the underlying causes of his hoarding and protective behavior. They can then work with you to put measures in place that will reassure him of his place in your family and help him to understand that he has a support system and does not need to be in permanent "survival mode". You might also like to do some research about Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD). This is common in foster and adopted children and arises from a failure to form normal attachments to primary caregivers in early childhood. Food hoarding can be one of the behaviours of children with this disorder.