Don’t I know it.
Now, on the other side of 2 decades+ of parenting children with a trauma history, I see this clearer than ever. I understand why the child who was deprived of nutrition as an infant, starts nearly every day out with the question, “What’s for dinner?”
I understand why, at times, a simple fast-food meal is treated like it’s their last.
That wasn’t always the case for me, though. I was blinded by rules, budgets, and the way I was raised. I came from a home where breakfast, lunch, and dinner were what they were, and maybe we could have a snack in between, but that was rare. A special occasion at best. You ate breakfast, went to school (or out to play if it were summer break), ate lunch, back to school or play, and then mom yelled out “Dinner!” and rang a bell when it was time to come in and wash up. And if you didn’t clean up that plate, you’d sit there ’til sundown!
Rules. Rules. Rules.
They worked for me and my sister. Mostly. I honestly don’t believe it was the most effective way to parent and basically turned us into kids who worked hard to not get caught scraping the food off our plates to the floor for the dog to take care of things!
So, are you making things worse with your child by enforcing and upholding rules around food? Maybe. If anything, you may be causing added triggers around their insecurity. It’s like trying to put out a campfire with a can of gasoline. The more you pour, the brighter it burns.
But, dear caregiver, I don’t want you to feel guilty or ashamed. That doesn’t help at all and is not the point of this post. If you are feeling this way, there is hope.
Let’s shift the question: How do you lead your child who has a food insecurity, if not with rules? And how do you keep from making their insecurity worse?
Here are some ideas…
- Rules must transform into guidelines. Rules are rigid, guidelines are flexible. In our household there is breakfast, lunch, and dinner, but snacks are available in between. The guideline may be 1 snack in between but if we notice our child struggling there may be an exception. Every situation, and day, can be different. We’re working to meet a need, not enforce a rule, or make a point.
- Yes, with permission. Food is always available. You can always have a snack in our home. It’s always a yes, but with permission. Why? Not only do we not want to cultivate an idea of scarcity for a child who has a lingering food insecurity, but we’re also working on a bigger picture. That picture? We’re raising future adults. And those adults, we hope, will recognize boundaries, learn a level of patience, and function within the confines of asking and gaining permission, with food, but also in life.
- Constant access. As I mentioned in Point 2, food should always be available. In some capacity. This doesn’t mean that you’re handing out snacks 10 minutes before dinner is ready and placed on the table. You simply point to the fact that you’re about to eat. They can wait. You may need to reassure them and point to the food that’s being prepared. Perhaps even give them a sample tasting ahead of dinner being served. My advice has always been to have healthy snacks readily available for those in-between times.
- Ownership with food. Speaking of constant access, one of the most important things we have done with our children, over the years, is give them ownership with the type of snacks we make readily available. There are boundaries with this of course. We may allow them to choose one not-so-healthy snack and make it clear that this can be a once-a-day type snack, while the others are healthy and nutritious. But allowing them to pick out food with us, in the grocery, or online if we’re ordering through InstantCart has helped reduce insecurities around food.
At the end of the day, the best advice we can give to you is this: Identify and meet the need first above all. Yes it is food, but on a larger scale, it’s connection. It’s validation that you see they are wrestling with a big insecurity, one they may not even understand. You can bridge that gap for them.