Extreme Food Obsessions: Nichelle

Extreme Food Obsessions: Nichelle

"My daughter was diagnosed with Prader-Willi Syndrome. What happens is

the part of the brain that registers that you're hungry, that you're full, doesn't work very well," says Nichelle of 6-year-old Savannah.

She bemoans the desperate measures her daughter takes to satiate her hunger. "I've caught Savannah stealing food out of the refrigerator. She'll climb up on the shelves. She'll take Lunchables. I've caught her trying to eat two or three in a day," Nichelle reports. 

The characteristics of Prader-Willi Syndrome (PWS) include weight gain, small hands and feet, almond-shaped eyes, and mild mental retardation. Savannah possesses these traits and more. "She's very impatient. She has a severe speech delay. She has temper tantrums," reveals Nichelle, who finds it difficult to control her own anger. "There's times when I have to get the belt. There's times where I've smacked her across the face when she's spit at me. I have said, 'Are you f***ing stupid? Are you a f***ing moron?' My mom has told me that I'm too strict with Savannah. "

Her mom adds, "Michelle's language toward Savannah is not for her age. She's not patient enough with her."


Nichelle feels her discipline is justified, but yearns for another solution. "It makes me look like a horrible mother, but step into my world for a day and you'll see." She turns to Dr. Phil. "I'm at my wits' end. There's got to be a better way to deal with my daughter's outbursts."

"Basically, this affects the hypothalamus of the brain, which is the satiety center. That's the part of the brain that sends the signal that says, I'm full.' In absence of that signal, they not only don't get a signal that they're full, they have these cravings and they're just constantly eating, eating, eating," Dr. Phil explains.

He wants Nichelle to understand the extreme measures that some people use to control PWS. "Parents that live with these children have to put locks on refrigerators, locks on things, because they are so genetically driven that they just go after it relentlessly," Dr. Phil says. He addresses the outbursts that Nichelle has when Savannah can't control her appetite. "You say, 'I've slapped her in the face, hit her with a belt, called her a moron, stupid, an idiot.'"

"I said, 'Are you stupid?' 'Are you an idiot?' " Nichelle makes clear.

"Are you clarifying that because that makes it better?"

"She's doing things that she knows are wrong, things she shouldn't do," Nichelle insists.

"I do not mean to trivialize or minimize the challenges that you face with this child at all. I'm not here to do a seminar on Prader-Willi. What I'm here to talk about is the reality of it in your life," Dr. Phil says. "You don't take a mentally retarded child and beat them with a belt. You don't slap them in the face. You don't yell at them and say, 'Are you an idiot? Are you a moron? Are you F-ing stupid?'" 

He admonishes Nichelle for holding Savannah to an unrealistic standard of discipline.  "You say, 'I know she has a brain malfunction, but she chooses not to listen' ... Do you have a brain dysfunction? No. And you can't control your tantrums and your behavior, but yet this child that has this disorder ... you hold her to a standard of self-discipline and behavior, but yet you can't do it yourself?" he points out.


"But she knows my rules. She fully understands everything," Nichelle presses.


Dr. Phil sympathizes with Nichelle, but doesn't condone her actions. "I know that it is very frustrating, but what you're telling me is, 'Therefore, I go off and beat my child with a belt. I scream and yell at her.' You cannot change what you don't acknowledge. You have to acknowledge that behavior is abusive. You can't do that," he says sternly.

"That's why I'm here. Obviously what I'm doing isn't working."

"The good news is, there are things you can do to improve the situation. The bad news is, it isn't going to go away," Dr. Phil asserts.

Nichelle remains optimistic about her daughter's chances to have a normal childhood. "I want her to be independent. I know it sounds like denial, but I don't treat her any different than I would treat a normal child," she says.

Dr. Phil takes her to task. "One of the things you said was, 'Yes, I call her a fat ass. Yes, I say these things to her. But children are cruel, and I would rather her hear it at home than go out there and be shocked to hear it from someone else.'"

"Well, I don't want her to be fat," Nichelle explains. "I'm like, 'If you keep eating, you're going to get fat and kids are going to make fun of you.'"

Dr. Phil doesn't buy her excuses. "We can play semantics all you want, but I know abuse when I see it. And I know it when I hear it. And treating this child in this way, you've got to hold yourself to a higher standard," he reproves. "This child relies on you. This child will likely never live independently without being in a structured, supportive environment. And calling her names is nothing less than demeaning and hurtful to this child. You, Nichelle, are her soft place to fall in this world."

Nichelle needs to provide Savannah with a highly structured and extremely calm environment. She should also enforce a low caloric intake diet for her daughter. "You do none of that, by your description. You don't have locks on things; you don't have a highly structured environment. It isn't calm and peaceful and so she spins out of control," Dr. Phil observes. "Do you get the gravity of this? Only if you get the gravity of it, will you make the changes that you need to make."

Nichelle stands her ground. "Kids drive their parents insane, that's what they do," she says.

"Yes, kids drive their parents insane, but parents don't call their children F-ing idiots, particularly when the child is genetically predisposed to the behaviors that are driving you crazy," Dr. Phil counters. "You're very young, and you are very naive about this. You are so far in over your head that you've got to feel like you're drowning. I am not trying to be hard on you here other than to the extent that I want you to have a wake-up call. You need help. You need support groups. You need different kinds of resources. And I will pledge to you that we already have those things in motion."


"My problem is, I think that I'm in denial about it, and that I want, maybe, to force her to be the normal child that she's not by being strict on her," Nichelle admits.

Dr. Phil introduces a mother and daughter, both named Mercedes, who have learned to live with a family member's Prader-Willi Syndrome. They made a documentary to chronicle their journey.

The younger Mercedes narrates, "This is my sister Maribel Rivera. Maribel is a 23-year-old woman living with a rare disorder. Along with the chronic feeling of hunger, people with PWS tend to have obsessive-compulsive behaviors, such as being repetitive and stubborn, picking skin irritations
and a strong need for routine."

Her mom adds, "We had to adjust by having the refrigerator locked 24 hours a day."

The younger Mercedes continues her narration. "Frustration or a change in plans can easily upset a person with PWS," she explains. When Maribel can't get ice cream from a passing ice cream truck, she wails, screams in rage and rips her clothes off.

Her father, Francisco, expresses regret. "I don't want to take her out at all. I have to sometimes. It scares me. If I don't buy stuff for her, she'll ask people for money," he says.

Due to obesity, Maribel has developed several health problems, such as diabetes, a sleeping disorder and gall stones. "I scared to die. I want to see God, but I scared to die," she says with childlike innocence.

Nichelle cannot hold back her tears after watching the documentary clip. "It was scary," she sobs uncontrollably into her hands.

Dr. Phil wants Nichelle to have realistic expectations about her daughter's disorder. "The point is, good or bad, that's what it is. And you have to get your mind around that," he says. Turning to Maribel's mother, he says, "Tell us about Maribel. You don't yell and scream at her. How do you relate to this child?"

"The first thing is, you have to have so much love for your daughter. It's that patience and that strength and you don't give up," the elder Mercedes explains.

Addressing Nichelle, Dr. Phil says, "When I see people that are expressing anger like you're doing here, I know that that is a sign of hurt, fear and frustration. You've got to feel overwhelmed and you've got to feel alone," Dr. Phil says.

"Yes. I just want to crawl in a hole."

"But you can't crawl in a hole. You're her mother and you're the only mother that she's ever going to have," Dr. Phil says firmly. "The point is you're not alone. We've spoken to the president of the National Organization of Prader-Willi Syndrome. Her name is Carolyn Loker, and she has an 11-year-old daughter with the disorder. She lives very near where you are, and she wants to meet with you and get you into a support group when you get back."

Dr. Phil offers Nichelle additional resources and therapy to help her cope with Savannah's PWS. She gratefully accepts.