Food issues and traumatised kids

Rather naively, we thought knowledge of Peppa Pig was universal.

We had advanced warning from our Social Worker that a three year old would be arriving later that day.

Perfect skin, confident eye contact, nicely coiffured hair, good teeth and a generally healthy complexion are all things that many of the kids we’ve fostered have not had.

We felt a little bit smug about our preparations.

His room was ready, my wife and I had had plenty of sleep, and our birth kids (then 6 and 8) were buzzing with excitement.

We’d set a place at the table, we’d bought a Peppa Pig cutlery set, and my wife, a very good cook, had prepared ‘kid friendly’ spaghetti bolognese – lots of meat, not too many obvious vegetables, grated cheese and lots of pasta.

Our birth kids had already remarked that the Little Fella didn’t seem to recognise any of the TV programmes they’d shown him.  We supposed that there was no TV where he lived.

We called everyone for tea and the Little Fella dutifully followed the big kids into our extended kitchen.

This was a familiar routine for our birth children.

A rectangle table, the right number of bowls or plates, knives, forks, spoons, a jug of water, juice (squash if you’re Southern), unwritten rules about who sat where, serving bowls full of food dotted around the table, and everyone encouraged to take the food they needed, and possibly a little bit more.

If you were near the jug, you were in charge of drinks.

It was hard to tell whether the Little Fella was confused or simply overwhelmed.

He stood rooted to the spot, staring at the floor.

We asked him where he wanted to sit.

We asked him if he liked Spag Bol.

Did he like Peppa Pig?

We got no answers, or even any eye contact.

The Little Fella just stared at the floor.

We searched our cupboards, fridge and freezer.

Tinned beans, bread, peanut butter, cereal, frozen chips and any other fairly ordinary foods were all greeted with the same wide eyed indifference.

We even used the ‘sing song voices’ we had learned about on our P.A.C.E. Training.*

Unsure what to do, we just carried on eating our tea, occasionally trying to engage the ‘kid in the room’.

Family Teas are fairly quick affairs in our house, and our big kids soon finished and then disappeared back to screens and homework.

My wife and I began to clear up, and were loading the dish washer in that choreographed manner of an established couple.

With our backs turned, we sensed movement.

The Little Fella had moved.

He’d moved quickly.

He’d opened the fridge, seized an unopened Four Pint of Milk in a plastic bottle, bit the plastic lid off, ripped the foil off with his teeth and was glugging away.

The milk was pouring down his top, down his trousers and making a puddle on the floor.

But some of it was going down his throat.

My wife and I were unsure about what to do.

I get sent this picture every couple of weeks. I don’t like Fosters but I do like dogs. As long as they are kid friendly, Foster Carers can have pets.

Our six year old, who had reentered the kitchen on hearing the commotion, was the quickest to react.

‘In our house we have cups’, he said quite matter of factly.

He fetched a cup from the cupboard, poured the remains of the milk, mimicked drinking, and handed the cup to the Little Fella, with an encouraging nod.

The Little Fella drank from the cup.

Yeah, he wasn’t an expert, and lots of the milk dribbled out the sides, but it wasn’t bad for a first go.

And I really think it was his first go.

Everything about our domestic set up was completely and utterly alien to this kid.

We learnt by trial, error, and observation, that he had survived without encountering mealtimes, tables, chairs, cups, cutlery, or Peppa Pig.

I found this photo on the internet. The reality was much messier, but there’s no point in crying over spilt milk when we should be crying over neglected children.

But, he knew about milk, and he knew it kept you alive.

We discovered over the next few days that he also knew about takeaway chips, as opposed to frozen ones that you cooked.

In fact, if it came in a paper bag and was greasy, he seemed far more comfortable.

We worked out that he’d lived off milk and the occasional bounty of chips, pasties and sausages.

And so, to begin with, that’s what we fed him.

We decided we’d tackle the ‘5 fruit and vegetable portions a day’ sometime in the distant future.

Our first goal was to convince him that in this house, he’d never be hungry again.

We let him pile his plate as high as he liked.

He would sometimes go to bed with ‘Noodles, no sauce, Nutella on white bread and a cup of milk please Bill’.

Who would have thought that a combination of carbohydrates and E-numbers would be so irresistible.

Within a month, his favourite food had become ‘that beans and sausages’ from a tin, with a load of broccoli.

When the microwave pinged he’d go delirious with excitement.

Within a few years, the noodles, white bread and Nutella were often left untouched, and we threw them away each morning.

After a few more years, he went to bed without any food at all, confident that the kitchen and its full cupboards, would be there in the morning.

I’ve learnt that Holocaust survivors and POWs often never recover from the starvation they’ve suffered, and always have an uneasy relationship with food. I think it’s similar with some kids who have been neglected.

*P.A.C.E training is a form of therapeutic parenting. You learn to manage the tone and rhythm of your voice to avoid sounding confrontational.

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Birth parent, Foster Carer, Adopter and Recruiter of Foster Carers for Liverpool City Council

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