My daugh­ter is steal­ing, hoard­ing food and secret eat­ing

The Irish Times - Tuesday - Health - - Front Page - John Sharry


My daugh­ter has just turned 11 and is a very anx­ious child in a way that man­i­fests in ag­gres­sion and low self-es­teem. There have been prob­lems since ju­nior in­fants. For ex­am­ple, she wrote in note books in school in se­nior in­fants that: “I hate my­self, I am stupid and I want to be dead.”

We did take her to see child psy­chol­o­gist and she has had play ther­apy and Cog­ni­tive Be­hav­iour Ther­apy (CBT) and she is in a much bet­ter place now so­cially and emo­tion­ally.

How­ever, she now has a prob­lem­atic re­la­tion­ship with food. She steals it and hoards it and then eats it se­cretly. She is slim as she is hy­per­ac­tive and burns it up but with pu­berty she is start­ing to put on weight. She hates her­self for that and it is af­fect­ing her self-es­teem.

I want to help her but am not sure what to do – we avoid keep­ing the treat food in the house that she likes to steal but then she will steal money to buy stuff.


Secret eat­ing and binge eat­ing are com­mon prob­lems among adults and chil­dren. As these prob­lems take hold, treat food be­comes an ad­dic­tion that is con­sumed to ex­cess and which is as­so­ci­ated with shame and thus done in secret. Of­ten, there is a com­mon pat­tern to this ad­dic­tive type of eat­ing. Usu­ally there is a trig­ger such as emo­tional stress, which causes the child to want to eat the treat food as a ‘com­fort’ but once they start they find it hard to stop and then they feel shame and guilt for hav­ing con­sumed so much. This pat­tern of eat­ing can eas­ily be­come a vi­cious cycle with the child ‘hat­ing’ them­selves for do­ing it, but then this ‘self-ha­tred’ causes then to en­gage in the habit more.

Help your daugh­ter open up

The first thing you can do is to try and break the shame and se­crecy your daugh­ter feels about the prob­lem. Try to get her to open up and talk about what is go­ing on for her. The key is to be sym­pa­thetic, un­der­stand­ing and non-judg­men­tal. For ex­am­ple, you might ac­knowl­edge with her that lots of chil­dren and adults get into un­help­ful secret habits about eat­ing, and ask her to talk about what is hap­pen­ing for her. It is im­por­tant to have an un­der­stand­ing tone and you may have to per­sist to get her to open up. For ex­am­ple, if she is de­fen­sive or de­nies there is a prob­lem, you might say “lis­ten, at some point we are go­ing to have to talk to sort this out. As your mum, I can’t let you get into a habit of steal­ing . . . I care about you too much.” If she closes down, pick a later time or a bet­ter place to try and talk again. Gen­tle, car­ing per­sis­tence is im­por­tant.

Break­ing the habit

Once she be­gins to open up, the goal is to help her un­der­stand her habit and to dis­cover new op­tions in the face of it. Help her no­tice the trig­gers for binge eat­ing and then brain­storm to­gether dif­fer­ent strate­gies and other choices she might have at that mo­ment. For ex­am­ple, she might sim­ply ac­knowl­edge her un­der­ly­ing feel­ings with­out act­ing on them or de­cide to talk about how she is feel­ing to you (or to note them in a jour­nal). Or she might choose to do some­thing in­stead of eat­ing, such as drink­ing a glass of wa­ter or en­gag­ing in a fun, dis­tract­ing ac­tiv­ity.

Also, it is im­por­tant to help your daugh­ter ad­dress any un­der­ly­ing stresses she might have and to help her de­velop new pos­i­tive in­ter­ests and habits in her life, whether these are sports or hob­bies or new so­cial out­lets.

If she has ben­e­fited from CBT in the past, then this could be some­thing you re­turn to. This might mean vis­it­ing the ther­a­pist she worked with be­fore for some booster ses­sions or you could relook at some of the ideas that worked for her. This might mean you en­cour­age her to no­tice the neg­a­tive thoughts that un­der­pin her secret eat­ing, so she can sep­a­rate her­self from them or you might prac­tise some mind­ful­ness or med­i­ta­tion with her. There are lots of good CBT work­books for ado­les­cents (just search on­line) that you could work through with her if she is open to this.

Help her no­tice the trig­gers for binge eat­ing and then brain­storm to­gether dif­fer­ent strate­gies and other choices she might have at that mo­ment

Cre­at­ing a healthy en­vi­ron­ment

From your ques­tion, it sounds like you al­ready have a pos­i­tive eat­ing rou­tine in the home and it is im­por­tant to con­tinue this. It is not a ques­tion of hav­ing no treats, but keep­ing these limited to cer­tain times and keep­ing them small. If your daugh­ter is hav­ing dif­fi­culty chang­ing her habit, it might be use­ful to make treats less ac­ces­si­ble in the house for a pe­riod, but be care­ful of this back­lash­ing or mak­ing the habit go un­der­ground (with your daugh­ter re­sort­ing to steal­ing). In­stead, try to talk through and agree these rules with your daugh­ter, so she is on board with how you are try­ing to help her.

Don’t ex­pect per­fec­tion

Chang­ing habits take time and it is im­por­tant not to ex­pect per­fec­tion. If you catch your daugh­ter se­cretly eat­ing again, try not to over-re­act by be­ing an­noyed or dis­ap­pointed.

In­stead, it is im­por­tant to be mat­ter of fact as you gen­tly ac­knowl­edge that you know and then to make a plan to ad­dress the be­hav­iour – “Its okay, ev­ery­one has set­backs. . . let’s talk to­mor­row about get­ting back on track.”

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