Would 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