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Reactive Attachment Disorder and Food Struggles

 “We need to talk about Sunshine’s eating habits. She’s refusing multiple meals a day.”

The clinical director of Sunshine’s RTC continued explaining everything that had been tried.

This is the third RTC that Sunshine has been placed in due to behaviors related to Reactive Attachment Disorder, and other emotional and developmental disabilities.

They had given Sunshine food choices at this RTC.

They had offered to have her help prep her meals.

They made her favorite foods.

Still the problem was worsening.

A list was read out loud of all the food that Sunshine had refused over the past two weeks. It included hamburgers, French fries, and potato chips, all of which are her favorites.

No information that the clinical director shared was new.

This is what life has always been like with Sunshine due to Reactive Attachment Disorder and Food Struggles.


Reactive Attachment Disorder and Food Struggles


Reactive Attachment  Disorder and Food Struggles


The History


Sunshine has a LONG history with food, and it’s not a good one.

Throughout the years we’ve dealt with food refusal, food gorging, vomiting, gagging, stealing food, and so much more.

This is all completely normal with a child who has Reactive Attachment Disorder.

This has been on top of reflux, food allergies, and other special dietary needs.

Sunshine has had a barium study. She’s been to a swallowing specialist. An OT has worked with her.

We have tried so many different methods to empower Sunshine at mealtime. 


  • Use a Montessori weaning table
  • Teach practical life skills related to food preparation
  • Let Sunshine prepare her own food to the ability that she’s able
  • Let Sunshine meal plan
  • Take Sunshine grocery shopping to ensure we have foods that she loves
  • Provide choices to choose from
  • Improve sensory experiences related to food

Still, Sunshine refused to eat on a regular basis.

Mealtime became a battle ground.

Often the issues started even before a meal was prepared, especially at dinner time. If Sunshine didn’t like what we were having all sorts of behaviors would start.

The screaming would come first, then would come the physical aggression.

When my husband wasn’t home, I’d always need to make sure the refrigerator was stocked full of grab and go foods for my other children to prepare on their own. Sunshine’s outbursts and aggressions could last hours, to the point that I could not prepare a meal.


The Doctor's Orders


I spoke with Sunshine’s developmental pediatrician about these struggles early on. 

As a mother, I felt like the most horrible person on earth. 

Nothing I tried would help with the mealtime drama, which was affecting Sunshine’s health.

The developmental pediatrician was kind yet blunt.

If she was refusing to eat, then I needed to do what was necessary to make sure she ate. 

If that included a stand off until she conceded, then that’s what needed to happen.

If she would not feed herself, then I was to feed her.

Refusing to eat was not an option.

So that’s what we did.


The Nightmare


We continued to do all the things mentioned above AND…

At each meal, I set the rule that Sunshine had to eat however many bites of food she was in years of age. When Sunshine was five years old, she needed to take five bites.

If she decided to refuse and throw a fit, I’d wait until the fit was over, and we’d start again.

If Sunshine decided to spit her food out, the count started over.

If Sunshine became aggressive, I’d wait it out and we’d go at it again.

It was a nightmare.

I felt like a monster.

This was not the mother I wanted to be.

But, year after year, this proved to be the only way to ensure that Sunshine would eat.

You see, Sunshine has absolutely no concept of when she’s full or hungry. This dates back to trauma she experienced during the first six months of her life (before she came to us).

Food trauma is real.


Validation


As I shared with the clinical director what had worked at home all those years, frightened out of my mind to be judged as being that parent, the clinical director surprised me.

“Okay. We’ll do it.”

I was speechless.

“Are you sure? It’s going to result in so many more aggressions.”

She was sure.

Sunshine’s refusal to eat has become that dangerous.

Part of me was frustrated.

After six months of working with professionals, my advice is the best idea they have.

Yet, if my advice is the best option they have, that means that no matter how horrible it felt forcing Sunshine to eat all of those years, it was the right thing to do.

If Sunshine is refusing to eat even more there than she was at home, that meant that the whole mess wasn’t my fault.

I’m not really great at accepting that things aren’t my fault.

I do not have confidence in my parenting abilities after how horrible experiences have felt.

So for good measure I reminded the clinical director of a few other things.

  • Sunshine’s GABA supplement should not be taken with food, or else it causes her tummy to be upset.
  • A side effect of one of Sunshine’s meds is constipation. If she’s constipated, she’s not going to eat much.
  • Sunshine had COVID-19 a month ago and it may have changed her taste buds.

But ultimately, all of us agreed that it seems all of this comes down to control.

Reactive Attachment Disorder goes far beyond the challenges of parenting a picky eater or one with sensory struggles.

Why I Share


I’m sharing this experience because I know there are other caregivers out there struggling with food issues related to Reactive Attachment Disorder. They are real. You are not alone.

Documentation is so important in these cases.

Keep a food journal.

Write down behaviors.

Try everything and anything that professionals suggest. 

Document if it works and the consistency in which it works.

Talk to your child’s pediatrician and other specialists.

You need a team.

You need support.

Battles as severe as Sunshine’s regarding food are not normal. Seek help.

You are not a bad caregiver for doing so.

This is not your fault.

If you enjoyed this post, you may enjoy the resources below.

What Is Reactive Attachment Disorder A Minimalist Montessori Home Tour: The Kitchen How to Discipline a Child with Reactive Attachment Disorder Food Issues When Food is Your Child's Enemy Day to Day Life Parenting A Child with Reactive Attachment Disorder

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