Out of desperation and completely fed up, Jane* gave me a call one day. Every night while the rest of the family slept soundly, her six-year-old foster daughter, Abby, would climb out of her bed. Her middle of the night routine went something like this:
- Tiptoe into the kitchen.
- Push a chair to the countertop & climb up.
- Unlock the “child-safe” cabinet door locks.
- Eat whatever was in the cabinets.
- Take some food back to her room.
- Hide the food in her room.
- Not eat the hidden food.
- Do it all over again the next night.
Jane had tried everything: consequences, yelling, monitors, alarms, a sandwich before bed. Nothing was stopping Abby from waking up to eat things she shouldn’t have been eating. Jane was worried for Abby’s safety—she couldn’t continue to roam the house and move furniture in the middle of the night. And she was completely exhausted from dealing with what she termed “constant disobedience” from Abby.
But was it truly disobedience?
I asked Jane about Abby’s history. Abby was removed from her birth mom at the age of four and had been in several foster families. Jane was a relative of Abby’s birth mom and CPS was committed to finding a family member for Abby to live with, so she landed in Jane’s home.
After reviewing Abby’s case records, Jane learned that Abby endured abuse, witnessed violence, and experienced extreme neglect. When CPS found her during a welfare check, she was alone with no food and no water. The case worker indicated that Abby had likely been that way for days.
Abby’s midnight ritual wasn’t disobedience. It was a strategy of survival.
Food hoarding is a common behavior in children who have experienced neglect. It includes hiding or stealing food even when there is more than enough. This is a strategy that children and teens use to help them feel more in control. When food and water have been withheld, the hunger and thirst is not easily forgotten.
“So,” Jane asked me, “why can’t she see that there is enough food for her in this home?” To Jane, it seemed so logical that Abby would see her current situation as one where there would be enough food and water. What Jane didn’t understand is that Abby was not operating out of a place of logic.
Abby was operating out of a place of control.
Abby was trying to survive in her new surroundings by taking control of what she could: taking charge of her food. By getting up in the night and getting as much food as she could, Abby was ensuring that her needs would be met. Her middle-of-the-night routine was not discovery, disobedience, or disrespect. It was simply survival.
In her book, “Love Me, Feed Me. The Adoptive Parent’s Guide to Ending the Worry about Weight, Picky Eating, Power Struggles, and More,” Dr. Katja Rowell says this:
*Names have been changed.