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instincts and feeding in adopting and fostering families…

Posted by on Nov 14, 2011 in Blog Posts | 4 comments

In honor of national adoption month, I thought I would write a post or two on the topic. It’s also timely as I am making a push to get my book on feeding considerations with adoption into shape…

As I work with more adopting families, I keep hearing parents talk about that “gut” feeling or “instinct,” almost always in the context of regret that they did not listen to or trust themselves sooner. I am mulling over this idea of instincts and trust, and permission to listen to those instincts, and want to throw this out there.

All parents, including adopting and fostering parents have instincts. They have that gut sense when something feels wrong, or when it feels right, they  know the difference between feeling tired, but good (or at least OK) at the end of the day vs. exhausted and anxious– knowing that something is wrong but not knowing how to fix it. I’ve had more than one adoptive parent say to me, “I knew this all felt wrong. I knew I was going against every instinct I had, but I kept doing it…” What I am specifically talking about is feeding.

The most common scenario I am working with is this. I get a call, often tearful, from the mother of a toddler or preschool child (more often girls than boys) who is “obsessed with food” often with accompanying accelerating weight gain, but not necessarily. The little ones often have a history of food scarcity and even downright starvation. Then the child is welcomed home to love, nurturing and good nutrition and then often experiences rapid catch-up growth, perhaps even into the “overweight or obese” category (or getting close), and the health care providers and sometimes the parent panic about weight. The parents are warned that the child will be “obese” and unhealthy and that she needs to be limited, and she’ll “get used to normal portions.”  This limiting has predictable and often disastrous consequences for all involved. The child’s main focus, to the exclusion of play, socializing and even attachment- is singularly to get more food. The exhausted parent and even siblings are given the task of giving less food, or being the food “police.”  These moms are a main motivation for writing this book. I haven’t talked to one who hasn’t cried and said they knew it felt wrong, but the doctor, nutritionist, endocrinologist has scolded, questioned the commitment and even threatened the parent with “Don’t you dare give her more than we tell you!” The suffering can go on for years, and no, they don’t “get used to normal portions.”

Or perhaps it is the father of a boy who is small or not growing as expected who was told, “Do whatever you have to to get food into that kid!” Perhaps he has bribed and shouted and begged and threatened, and even once in desperation forced a bite of food into his son, with intense love and fear in his heart, only to see his child grow more picky, distant and angry. Oh, and he eats even less…

Parents in both scenarios are miserable, the children in both scenarios are miserable, the parents are working hard, are committed, compliant and more than a little afraid. The conflict around food defines the relationship, the anxiety, the worry– not providing, trusting and attaching. The parents, through no fault of their own, have not only not had proper support and education and anticipatory guidance, but have been actively given BAD feeding advice.

These parents are afraid they aren’t doing it “right,” they try harder, afraid their child is unhappy and is doomed to be unhealthy, afraid perhaps that there will be that extra scrutiny and judgment of their parenting…

“What does it mean if my son is labeled “failure to thrive?”    or
“What does it mean if my daughter is labeled ‘obese,’ and I am labeled as “noncompliant?”

My theory, based on conversations and interviews in preparation for my book, is that with adoption, there is perhaps that extra doubt, that extra reliance or vulnerability to suggestion from “experts,” that extra fear that that social worker who did the pre-placement workup could come knocking again… (FYI,  I have seen these scenarios in first-time as well as “seasoned” parents.)

So, part of my message to ALL parents is  trust yourself. Trust that instinct. You know your child best. If you are doing everything you are told, and the issues, whatever they may be are getting worse, month after month, trust yourself and look for help, look for someone who will listen. It’s part of why I feel compelled to write this book. I don’t think this information and support is accessible right now for adopting and fostering parents. Good parents are the ones that know when they need help, who know when something isn’t right and who do the best they can to make it better.

What do you think? Am I off base?

*When I say “parent,” I mean any adult who is doing the work of parenting…

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  1. Becky Henry

    You are right on target from my perspective as well. As someone who coaches the parents of kids with eating disorders I have learned a lot about evidence based approach for treating eating disorders called: Maudsley Family Based Therapy (FBT) which utilizes the family for refeeding. This method has shown great success within the first year for treating adolescents. 50% recovery within the first 6-12 months which is far greater than other treatments. And much shorter.

    Training parents how to gently but firmly and calmly feed their children makes so much sense. And for these parents who are getting such wrong messages from their untrained health care providers makes me nervous that we’ll have many of these adopted kids developing eating disorders if they are being force fed or underfed.

    Can’t wait to read your book!

    I have a friend who adopted her daughter from Russia about 7 years ago and the girl was fed in an orphanage with a spoon so large that she had to hold her tiny mouth wide open to get the food in. I’m happy to connect you if you’d like more info.
    Becky Henry
    Hope Network

  2. Kris

    I’m not a parent, but I am a child–and an adopted one at that! What you’re saying here makes perfect sense to me. If a parent is obsessing about feeding and food, then how can a child NOT also become obsessed with it? Force, coercion, shaming… how can these ever be good for anyone (giving or getting)? Sometimes the advice given by some healthcare professionals sounds counterintuitive to me. Of course a child who was severely deprived of food early in life will eat more than a child who didn’t go through that trauma: they can’t be sure when or what their next meal will be. But if the parent provides security around food and follows the division of responsibility, giving lots of options for different foods, then things will turn around eventually. And while the child is learning how to eat, provide plenty of good play time too.

    Eating and meal time should never be a time of obsession or fear. Sitting down to eat or talking about food shouldn’t make you cry.

    You are completely “on base” from my perspective, Katja. Thank you for continuing to get the word out.

    • katja

      Thank you for sharing! Your voice is so important on this issue. Often we hear only from the adopting and fostering parent, so thank you! If I may contact you, I would love to see if you have any other insights. I am interviewing teens who are adopted, and would love to add any insights you have :) (I can email you through our host server, but want permission first.) Feel free to say no!

      • Kris

        Sure! Please feel free to email me if you think I can be of help. Although I am a grown-up child who’s 48 years old now (it made sense to me when I wrote the original post to say that I wasn’t a parent, but that I was a child — we all are children), so I don’t know how pertinent my insights might be. Also, I was adopted as an infant, but I have always felt that my family had a lot of insecurity around food, and have often wondered if that might be due to my mom and dad somehow feeling inside that they did not have “real” parenting instincts.

        I have a cousin who was born 3 weeks before me, and she has struggled with eating and with her weight her entire life, so somehow in my mind being adopted and having eating issues and other issues around food have always been related.

        Anyway, if I can help please contact me. I’d be happy to talk with you.