Hungry & Insecure: The Bottomless Pit Called Childhood Trauma

peanut butterWould you like some crackers with the peanut butter?

Too late! My son ate the whole jar when no one was looking.

Food insecurity. It’s a lasting symptom of early childhood trauma. One of many yet one that is difficult to overcome.

Take my 24-year-old son Andrew. He hasn’t gone without food since entering foster care shortly after birth. Yet his anxiety about not being fed still gets the best of him – especially at night.

Here’s why. For the first two months of his life, he suffered severe neglect. He was left alone. When he cried to be fed, no one responded. Upon removal by child protective services, he was severely dehydrated – lucky to be alive.

Because Andrew was an infant who couldn’t communicate his needs with words, the intense discomfort in his body left a lasting impression in his brain.

Hunger hurts bad. I have to eat before getting hungry – even if I’m full.

Most meals during his time in a foster home became a trigger. He ate like a starved animal – unsure if more food would be offered later.

After being placed in my home at age five with his two younger brothers, I tried to do all the right things. We prepared food together. We made meals a special family time – structured and predictable. We enjoyed ourselves at the table. And no one was forced to finish items they didn’t like.

Moreover, seconds were readily available. All my sons had to do was ask – which they readily did at every meal. However, Andrew would gorge if I turned my back or went into the kitchen. He then suffered miserably with a stomach ache an hour later.

Unfortunately Andrew’s food fixation continued for the next decade. My empathetic words along with a huge bowl of oatmeal before bedtime couldn’t overcome his past trauma.

Never-ending anxiety over one of life’s most basic needs.

Soon jars of peanut butter, packages of hot dogs, boxes of raisins, loaves of bread and bags of frozen fruit disappeared over night.

I tried leaving food out. Sometimes that helps children with past trauma feel more secure. In Andrew’s traumatized brain – which was further damaged by his birthmother’s alcohol use during pregnancy, my approach simply gave him “permission” to eat around the clock. And he did just that.

A food addiction and eating disorder in the making.


Finally I had no choice. At bedtime I secured the pantry and refrigerator with cable locks. Problem solved, so I thought. Less than a week later, food came up missing. Amazingly, Andrew squeezed his little hand through the narrow opening in both places.

Instead of shaming my son, I offered a second bowl of oatmeal, a banana and a plateful of nuts after his bath. But the food insecurity didn’t wane.

Unlike some kids with past trauma, Andrew didn’t hide the food for later consumption. He ate it all – right then – to the point of making himself sick.

One evening his abdominal pain grew intense and didn’t subside for hours. After paging our pediatrician and sharing his symptoms, she sent us to ER – worried about a rupturing appendix. Six hours in the ER and two scans proved nothing.

The next day I found two empty jars of peanut butter.

I’d feel miserable too.

To avoid a pantry break-in after purchasing several cartons of protein bars on sale, I hid them in my bedroom closet. Obviously not very well. The next day all were gone. After not being able to finish his breakfast, Andrew showed me two dozen empty wrappers stuffed under a sofa cushion.

His one and only hiding place at the time.

Although less impulsive outside our home, Andrew still struggled.

In middle school one teacher used candy to reward behavior. But she rarely locked the door when not in her room – which became an open invitation. Nearly every morning Andrew helped himself to her “stash” of food.

After finding the evidence at the bottom of his book bag and finally connecting the dots, I asked – then begged – the teacher to lock her door. No response, until Andrew got caught. Yet his suspension didn’t change her ways – or my son’s maladaptive behavior.

Several years later when Andrew had a vocational experience, his supervisor’s lunch came up missing twice the first week. Nothing but an empty bag left in the refrigerator. Thankfully the man spoke with me and immediately began locking the office door. 

Never a problem again.

Sadly thousands of children experience the same bottomless pit called trauma. Most see the symptoms. Few take time to fully understand the cause.

After 20 years of consistency at home – and with a more developed brain as a young adult, Andrew does much better with food. But he can struggle when least expected – like the time he consumed a jar of peanut butter before a big running race. A gut ache and a less-than-expected performance that he’s never forgotten.

As a precaution today, I let him take a snack whenever he leaves the house. The last thing I need is my son taking food on impulse – and then someone over-reacting, causing a scene and possibly taking matters into his or her own “hands.”

Food for thought – such a common phase.

It now conveys a deeper meaning for me. No doubt, childhood trauma is very real.

Unmet needs early in life can last a lifetime.  DCP


Craig Peterson publishes EACH Child every Tuesday. To subscribe, open this link and “Like” the page. EACH Child is Special: Working Smarter Not Harder to Raise Every ONE

To follow Craig’s journey in raising his six children with special needs, click here: Adopting Faith: A Father’s Unconditional Love

To follow my son Andrew’s inspiring story, “Like” his special Facebook page Andrew Peterson Athlete and Advocate

5 thoughts on “Hungry & Insecure: The Bottomless Pit Called Childhood Trauma

  1. My heart just aches with all the suffering children receive at the hands of adults. I bless you and pray for you and your family.

  2. This is a painful story, for both the child and the parents and other family members. I would like to introduce you to a field you may not have heard of that has the possibility to relieve your son’s pain. If you are interested, please let me know:

  3. My son also has FASD & had childhood trauma & was removed from his mother at 12 months with severe malnutrition. I adopted him at age 6. He does not gorge on food or steal food. But he will put lots of food on his plate & then not eat it all or orders large amounts when we go out to eat. He is 26 years old & still seems to have the need to see the large amount of food available just to him to feel comfortable. He never leaves a restaurant without a doggie bag.
    My younger stepson is 25 & is on the high end of the autism spectrum. He was adopted by my husband & his ex-wife at birth & was brought home straight from the hospital. His adoptive mother abandoned the family when he was 7 (more like 3 emotionally). This abandonment left many issues. I married his dad when he was 10 & he lived with us. He had & still has similar food issues to your son. He gorges on his food & he will steal food. He is only 5’8″ & weighs 290 pounds. He also refuses to do any kind of exercise. We are told that these behaviors are a result of Reactive Attachment Disorder that developed due to abandonment by his adopted mother at a young age.

  4. My daughter, adopted at 2 from a russian orphanage
    Always has to have food nearby, grazes all day. She used to go to bed with a piece of bread in each hand, for security.
    She’s not fat, we let her eat whatever she wants, she always wants more than she can actually eat. Age 20 now

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