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Stealing Food and Attachment Disorder


I'm hoping you can shed some light on a positive way to deal with a recurrent situation of stealing (food). My partner has two children (8 & 9) who have been stealing food from other kids at their summer camp. I don't know if it is relevant but she adopted them 3 1/2 years ago. We know their early years were difficult, but for the past 3 1/2 years they have been given love, support, guidance and plenty of food. It is clearly not about the food and the behavior needs to change. Can you help?
Thank you in advance,


Thanks for writing to Positive Discipline.  I have worked for many years with foster and adoptive parents. I have focused much of my time/research in the past few years on attachment and brain development and what happens for children who have experienced chronic stress or trauma in their early years, and how this impacts behavior - and have become more and more convinced that the Positive Discipline philosophy and tools are specifically those most needed by these children.
So, onto your question.  Even though the children have been with your partner for over 3 years, that means that for the first 5 or 6 years they likely experienced some trauma - without knowing their background, it's difficult to be specific - but I would guess perhaps some neglect, or abuse or at minimum most children in this situation have had several moves (from birth family, and then often several moves within the system).  Infants' brains are hard-wired to 'connect' and it is from the first few caregivers that they are making decisions about who they are, how the world works and how they fit into it...and what they need to do to survive or to thrive.   Most children who come into the foster/adoptive system are simply surviving in those early years.  The decisions they've made were largely implicit (without language, concepts are stored in the 'limbic' part of the brain - emotions, body sensations) and so, children often behave in ways that don't make logical sense to us (or to them), but is simply a 'survival' mechanism.
Again, without knowing your children's background, I am just guessing here - but many children who have had neglect in their past, hoard food.  It's usually a result of not trusting caregivers to meet their needs, and one of our most primary needs is food.  This has nothing to do with you or your partner (which is why it doesn't matter that you have lots of food available) - it has to do with early caregivers, and those implicit decisions made as an infant.
There aren't any easy answers, but here are some suggestions:
   The behavior is a symptom of some unmet need (like a baby's cry).  We would never punish (or even try to think of a logical consequence) when our infant cries....and the same holds true here.   If you can meet the unanswered need, then the behavior will diminish and stop over time.   It might be helpful to ask some curiosity questions to see if they remember times when they were hungry.  These are often 'what' and 'how' questions - 'What do you remember about food, or meals, when you were little?'  'How does your tummy feel when you are hungry/full?'.   It's important to hear and understand whatever they can share, without judgement - just to respond to the feelings if there are any 'gosh, that sounds really scary', or 'you must have felt really sad'.
Curiosity questions might help find solutions as well - 'what were you trying to accomplish by taking the food?....'how can we help you with this problem?'
'What might be a better way to make sure you have food?'.
Many parents that I have worked with have found that it's helpful to let children carry a backpack day and night that is full of non-perishable foods, or to give them a drawer in their room or in the kitchen that contains food, allowing them to look at it and/or eat whenever they want.  You can also give verbal messages "I love you and there will always be enough food for you".  What you are doing, is replacing a decision about food that looks like "I never have enough food", or 'caregivers don't feed me when I'm hungry', or even 'I might starve to death', in their brain structure, to 'I have enough food', or 'I don't have to worry about how to get my next meal', or something similar.

My last point is, if this is their first time away to a new environment, especially if it's 'sleep away' camp, the fear of this 'move' may have re-stimulated these feelings and decisions, and the resulting behaviors.

The good news is that the brain is very resilient, and I am constantly amazed at the ability of children who have been through the most painful early years, to do incredibly well in loving, nurturing homes.
Good luck to you both.

Penny Davis

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