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The Child is Hungry

The Child is Hungry

As a chef and food service professional of over twenty-five years, feeding the hunger in others has been my bread and butter. However, there was a hunger lingering in the hearts & minds of the children in my home that went unnoticed for many years. Once I began to recognize the children were hungry, things began to shift dramatically in my ability to show up in a more positive way—especially during challenging situations.

Meet Bob

Bob represents a typical restaurant patron whose cravings for comestibles have pushed him past his emotional limits and are threatening to push the staff past theirs. He throws open the front door with a thwack and makes his way to the host stand. Frustrated by how long it takes them to find a seat for one person, he then complains that the high-top they assigned to him is too close to the kitchen. During his stay, he vacillates between thinking the server is bugging him too often and feeling ignored and forgotten. After scarfing down a dinner where the meat was not hot enough and the fries too soggy, Bob pays his bill, leaving a 10% tip and an emotionally drained waitstaff in his wake.

Put yourself in the shoes of someone working at the restaurant that evening. If you ran into someone like Bob, how would you describe him?

  1. Bob is a jerk.
  2. Bob is having a rough day.
  3. Bob is hungry.

Unless you were able to sit down and have a conversation with him or see the events leading up to the fateful encounter, you would have no way of knowing which of those three responses was true. That being the case, we can ask ourselves a different question: If we cannot know which perspective is correct, then which response is the most helpful? Which one will allow us to provide the best hospitality?

The Story Behind Each Response

Let’s unpack each of the potential answers and see.

Bob Is a Jerk. 

That may be true, but saying this to ourselves does not put us in a place where we are prepared to show grace. It’s a defensive response that heightens our own emotional activation and sets us on a course to fight fire with fire. If we are looking to be hospitable, this will not get us there, no matter how accurate or justified it might make us feel.

Bob Is Having a Rough Day.

That may be true, and it may get us to a place where we feel slightly more empathetic toward Bob. However, we have no way of knowing if he’s always like this or just under particular circumstances. In any case, his inability to handle the stresses in his life is no excuse for coming into this restaurant and taking all his frustrations out on the innocent bystanders who are trying to take care of him. This perspective can easily lead to disappointment, shame, and judgment.

Bob Is Hungry.

There is no doubt that this is true. Otherwise, Bob would not have slammed open the door to the restaurant in the first place! 

Hunger, by definition, is a sense of discomfort sent by the body up to the brain to make it aware of a lack of vital nutrients. This combination of deficiency (e.g., low blood sugar) and discomfort can create a situation in which our window for stress tolerance shrinks, making us more likely to behave in a way that rubs other people the wrong way. While this does not excuse Bob’s behavior, there is a deeper sense of empathy knowing that we’ve all felt the deeply-embodied sense that something is missing inside us, and everything feels a whole lot worse when we’re hungry.

Unfortunately, we human beings have a natural tendency toward frustration, blame, shame, and criticism rather than seeking empathy (an issue I will attempt to address in our next installment). Successful hospitality businesses understand this fact and are proactive in training their employees to act with patience, politeness, and professionalism when faced with challenging attitudes and behaviors. This is often accomplished using mantras such as:

  • The Customer is Always Right
  • Yes is the Answer; What is the Question?
  • Treat Others the Way You’d Have Them Treat You

Bringing Hospitality Home to a Child Who Is Hungry

Foster & adoptive care is a form of hospitality—and, like Bob, hunger can get in the way of a child’s ability to behave in a way that promotes healthy, happy relationships.

What makes matters more challenging is that, unlike the occasional restaurant run-in with a hangry customer, children in care reside in your home and present emotional dysregulation much more frequently. This was a source of deep frustration in my foster and adoption journey for many years until I realized an incredibly helpful truth:

This child is hungry.

I’m not referring simply to their metabolisms; children in care regularly experience a chronic sense of discomfort in their bodies resulting from being disconnected from their family of origin along with many of the people, places, and things to which they were accustomed and familiar. However, a child is hungry for more than these things. Compound this with varying levels of childhood trauma, and you have someone who is likely suffering from what I call the Hunger for Connection.

Neuroscience experts, such as Dr. Daniel Siegel and Dr. Curt Thompson, have indicated that our nervous systems long for peace—to obtain and maintain a sense of being Seen, Soothed, Safe, and Secure. For children who have been placed into care, an inability to recognize peace within their relationships with themselves, their environment, and the people around them causes a discomfort that is as real and deeply felt as any longing for pizza, potato chips, or ice cream sandwiches. Unfortunately, children most likely do not recognize this hunger within themselves, nor are most caregivers trained to identify the hunger for connection in them.

Children hunger for connection

Flipping the Script: Acknowledging the Child Is Hungry

Food industry professionals know that training their minds to frame their patrons’ behaviors a certain way, especially when acting a bit hot under the collar, can mean the difference between compassionate hospitality and stressful reactionism. Parents and caregivers can take a page from the hospitality success playbook by introducing a new phrase to put on repeat inside their minds whenever things are getting heated between themselves and a child in their care: “This child is hungry.”  

Recognizing that every child coming into care carries with them a Hunger for Connection—a sense of discomfort directing their attitudes, behaviors, and responses to the care being offered to them—can create mental and emotional space for the caregiver to approach difficult situations with a sense of empathy, compassion, and support. 

Like the food service worker who is trying to remain calm and collected when dealing with Bob’s challenging behaviors, foster and adoptive parents can access reserves of restraint when they remind themselves that what is pushing them toward their emotional limits is something familiar to us all: hunger.

© 2023 Chef Kibby. All Rights Reserved. Used with Permission.


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