Tuesday Topic: Will a Special Diet Improve My Child’s Behavior?

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This week’s Tuesday Topic comes from Christine who wrote,

My son is a child from a “hard place” and was adopted when he was two. He is now seven. We’re still trying to sort out his behavior problems. Is it trauma, reactive attachment disorder, autism? We’re not sure, but we’re working with specialists to try to figure it out.

What are your readers thoughts on using special diets (eliminating foods, etc.) to try to improve his challenging behaviors? Is it worth the challenge of one more thing he can fight against? What about the food trauma issues he already has? Will we make them worse?

I am quite sure that many of you have thoughts, ideas, and opinions on this topic. I know Christine would appreciate hearing from you and I am interested to read the responses as well. Please leave a comment, no matter how insignificant you think it might be. We would love to hear from you!

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Can you recommend any books? Have you read any of these? I’ll add titles as I get them from you.

If you have a Tuesday Topic question, email it to me. Please put “Tuesday Topic” in the subject line to help me stay just slightly organized. I’m ready for some new questions; even if it seems slightly off topic.   lisa@onethankfulmom.com

Have a wonderful day, friends.

Encourage one another,

Lisa

This post may contain Amazon Affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Let me introduce myself. Russ and I are the parents of twelve children by birth and adoption, and sometimes more through foster care. I'm the creator of One Thankful Mom which has been as much of a gift to me as to my readers. In 2011 I became a TBRI® Pracitioner* and have lived and breathed connected parenting ever since. I'm deeply honored to be the co-author, together with the late Dr. Karyn Purvis, of The Connected Parent; it is her final written work. I love speaking at events for adoptive and foster parents. I'm also the co-founder of The Adoption Connection, a podcast and resource site for adoptive moms. I mentor and encourage adoptive moms so you can find courage and hope in your journeys of loving your children well.

32 Comments

  1. Kimberly Witt
    January 14, 2014

    My husband and I have just been discussing the gluten-free option in our house. I'm anxious to follow along with this discussion. Thanks for starting it, Lisa!

    Reply
    1. Kimberly Witt
      January 14, 2014

      But now I'm thinking about school lunches. He already feels so "other" in so many ways. I know he would revolt if he had to bring home lunch every day….

      Reply
  2. Jennifer
    January 14, 2014

    My adopted child was exposed to alcohol while in the womb. He has alcohol related neurodevelopmental disorder. It looks like ADHD, ODD, RAD, and even autism. I would say that alcohol exposure is a possible reason many adopted children of unknown background suffer. For our son diet is key. We avoid artificial colors and preservatives as well as foods with salicylates. We are cutting out lots of gluten and sugar as well. We also, worry about making diet too much of a focus so we use a relaxed feingold approach. In fact, everything we do is relaxed. We use a relaxed tone of voice and we are relaxed homeschoolers. Relaxing seems to be key to raising our inflexible boy. Prayers!

    Reply
  3. Julie Gumm
    January 14, 2014

    Oh I could write a book on this one. My bio 14 yr old son is actually my "trauma" kid (traumatic birth where he tied a knot in his cord). He struggles with ADHD, anxiety, sensory issues and emotional regulation. He's been on medication for ADHD since he was 7 and hit helps tremendously. It also helped some with the sensory issues or as he's aged he's grown out of them. Not sure. Anyways…we were at a crossroads of having to increase his meds again and my husband started researching different stuff related to diet. We decided to cut out ALL preservatives, high fructose corn syrup and food dyes for Noah. It was AMAZING! Seriously life changing. He had been on a dose of about 30mg of Adderall (and it wasn't enough) and we were able to decrease it to 20 mg. It was definitely a learning curve. I already made probably 80% of our meals from scratch, but this meant doing pretty much 100% of it that way. The hardest part was finding snack alternatives for him for school lunches etc. It took awhile and a lot of experimentation but we found a good variety of things he likes. (If you have a Trader Joe's near you, that's the motherload.) We order some of his snacks in bulk on Amazon. Over the last few years it has been nice to see more and more companies making all-natural products. (We don't necessarily do organic stuff.) Yes, our grocery budget increased, but it's worth it. The hard part is that a lot of it is up to him to regulate. He still sneaks stuff from his friends at school. But we can tell. When he eats preservatives or food dyes his emotions are WAY out of whack and he's very hyper. After 6 months we decided to try going gluten free as well. We kept to this for about six months. It was even more expensive and more work for me (making his own pizza crust, cookies, bread, etc) and we didn't notice any additional difference so we dropped that requirement. My advice would be to try making some changes without making a big deal about it. Just replace the old stuff with better stuff. Nature's Own is a great brand of bread that isn't super expensive (a lot of times I can find it at my 99cent store). Aunt Annies brand makes fruit snacks, gold fish, teddy grahams. He also likes the Kid Clif Zbars.

    Reply
  4. Emily B
    January 14, 2014

    My youngest daughter was exposed to TCH and benzodiazepenes in the womb, in addition to mom being a chain smoker. She experienced profound neglect in infancy, physical abuse for the first 3 years of her life, and was exposed daily to THC, cigarette smoke, and meth in her home. Official dx are ODD, PTSD, SPD, and developmental delays, and there are learning disabilities that we're in the process of getting diagnosed. We have found diet to be critical. Our rule is to only shop the outside edges of the grocery store for that child. I avoid any product that has more than 6 or 7 ingredients on the label. I do not feed her meals out of the frozen food section (including chicken nuggets or frozen waffles), anything with food dyes (the reds are the worst for her), or anything with a whole lot of preservatives. I have celiac disease, so we are largely gluten free in our home anyway, though I am not religious about this for her. She still eats only a fraction of the gluten that most kids eat. We rarely eat sugar. Pancake syrup, honey, and jam are about the extent of it, with an occasional ice cream or fun-sized candy treat. No soda, and no juice, either, unless we juice it ourselves. It is a more expensive way to live, but the impact has been huge for my daughter. She is in beautiful physical health. Her aggression and anxiety are dramatically lower when she's eating right. It is definitely not a fix-all, but it really does help. She has learned–even though she's only just 6–that she feels really horrible after eating anything brightly colored, such as Cheetos, fruit punch, or Skittles. She will ask for an alternative.

    Reply
  5. holdingtomorrow
    January 14, 2014

    I'm not an adoptive mom yet (we're soon going to start our homestudy to adopt through the foster care system), but two of my three bio kids have autism spectrum disorders. We've seen lots of improvements through diets and supplements. For my son, avoiding gluten, dairy, and corn, as well as following the Feingold diet really helps. For my daughter (who was more severely impacted by autism), we've used the Specific Carbohydrate Diet, and it has changed all of our lives. Before the diet, she would scream or moan for hours in the night, and had severe meltdowns and aggressive and self-injuring behavior during the day. Most of that resolved quickly as we strictly followed the diet with her. It has felt like a miracle. If you think your child may have autism, and you want to try diets, vitamins, etc. there are a couple great places to start. The Autism Research Institute publishes results of it parent surveys of over 10,000 parents on diet, vitamins, etc, and have ratings of how successful various interventions are rated by parents. http://www.autism.com/index.php/treatment_ratings

    Reply
  6. Jennifer
    January 14, 2014

    I have a 4 year old who we brought home a little over a year ago out of foster care here in the states. He had a liver transplant due to neglect from bio mom. He has to be on a low fat diet because of his liver but I choose to take out artificial coloring after reading some research connecting it to ADHD. He is a very high energy boy and I found that watching the coloring and watching the sugar intake has helped us a lot. Our family has just started talking about going gluten free. I am hesitating because it feels overwhelming to me. We have already started the food battles as he just turned 4.

    Reply
  7. Deborah
    January 14, 2014

    I think "will it" is the wrong question….. "can it" invites a more honest response – because the potential outcome is as different as every unique child. I have read testimonies that swear by removing red dyes, gluten, sugar, etc…. from a child's diet. And for the child who chemically reacts to those things – of course it "works". However, just as doctors must try different ADHD meds, or blood pressure meds or pain meds for different people, different people have different reactions to chemicals ingested through food. We tried these things with my trauma daughter and were unsuccessful – but we did not lose anything in trying. What's the potential harm in trying – on the chance that it would be beneficial you should try it all!

    Reply
    1. holdingtomorrow
      January 14, 2014

      That's a great analogy!

      Reply
  8. Amy
    January 14, 2014

    I think most people can benefit from eliminating sugar, gluten, and possibly dairy. Our whole family, including our domestic adopted child has seen benefits of eating whole, non-processed foods. I would recommend it to every family. You would be amazed at the results!

    Reply
  9. Sara
    January 14, 2014

    Our little one that came home at 6 months old is now 3 1/2 years old. About 9 months ago we eliminated gluten from his diet. We already limit preservatives, artificial colors, and sugar. The changes we saw were amazing. His impulsiveness improved, his speech and vocabularly exploded, and it was like he could hear us for the first time. He was often aggressive towards other kids (sensory issues) but even those improved. The biting all but stopped. It was like he had a lot more control of his actions and could control himself. Shortly after that we started working with a homeopath and it was revealed that he had lots of heavy metals in his system. We have been in the process of helping him heal from that for the last several months. It's definitely still a process …a difficult one at times…but it's better than it was. We didn't have the same struggles others might with food since he was so little and wasn't as aware of the restrictions for his food. When/If he enters public school I feel like it might be more challenging.

    Reply
  10. Erika Greig Stanley
    January 14, 2014

    We have taken our seven year old son has ADHD as well as the usual adoption related behaviors. In August we took him off of gluten, and try to limit carbs and sugar. I have noticed a difference. He seems to be less irritable and angry when his sugar and grains are limited. I also make sure he gets a lot of protein – eggs, meat, yogurt, nuts. I'm not completely convinced that the gluten is bad (beware of "gluten free" stuff, it's full of sugar) but I do think when he gets a lot of meat and eggs his blood sugar is more steady and so is his mood.
    We were really lax over Christmas break letting him eat what he wanted at parties. It was a terrible idea. He was a mess for weeks afterwards and then going back to the old way of eating healthy was a major battle all over again.
    I talked to my doctor about this and while she agrees that low carb/no gluten is best for him, we need to be flexible and allow treats sometimes. "Don't ruin a family vacation over it," were the words she used.

    Reply
  11. Elizabeth
    January 14, 2014

    Food and mood are definitely linked. I notice it in myself and my kids. When we stay full of protein and good carbs we all have more margin to deal with life. I don't think you can expect diet changes to fix emotional problems, but a healthy diet gives your kid a clear head and stability – that makes everything easier! Good luck to you!

    Reply
  12. Minna
    January 14, 2014

    Similar to Deborah, we have given Feingold, gluten-free and the Perfect Health Diet serious test runs of 6 months to a year each and seen no difference for our 12yo son with SPD and OCD. Our diet has always been long on whole foods and very low on anything artificial, however, and I agree that other than the moderate increase in time, energy and grocery money during the trial periods for the different diets, we didn't lose anything by trying.

    Reply
  13. daysofwonderandgrace
    January 14, 2014

    Our daughter has diagnosed FASD + ADHD. She's been so needle-shy we've avoided allergy testing, but finally did it (starting with a simple RAST blood draw) at age 9 because she she has always showed classic persistent, but seemly low grade allergy to something. (Classic allergy symptoms like drippy nose, night cough, most recently, hives.) We were very surprised that the only thing that showed up was a mild allergy to dairy. We had figured out when she was an infant that she was lactose intolerant, but had not noticed dairy. And since it was only a "mild" reaction on the RAST test, we didn't think much of it until she came home from an ice-cream birthday party with red, puffy eyes plus her (classic for her) off-the-chart emotional melt-down tendencies. So on a whim we eliminated dairy and her off-the-chart behavior, within a week, was fully back in the range of normal-but-exciting 🙂 again. Further, she notices such a difference in how she feels that she is self-policing her own dairy intake –avoiding it. It has not eliminated her neurological or her attachment challenges, but eliminating a food she has been allergic to and we have been exposing her to since the day we brought her home, has made a world of difference in her ability to relate to us and our ability to relate to her.

    Reply
  14. Tricia
    January 14, 2014

    It was a huge help for one of our daughters. It allowed us to get off of psych meds that weren't helping tremendously. We work with a naturapath – very expensive route to go… – and eliminated gluten/dairy/corn and eat very few processed foods. Apparently a body can think that many things are gluten. It involves blood tests. I had to be in the "right place" to go down this road. It was a nagging thought in the back of my mind for years, but I simply didn't have it in me to go there until I was ready. Later, I and another child were also tested and we all 3 adhere to this due to intestinal permeability issues for each of us. There is a lot out there about the connection between the gut and the brain. We are mostly on a Paleo type diet – whole, healthy foods – and it does require a great deal of shopping, chopping and cooking.

    We all have to look at our big picture life, be realistic, find a time when we can handle a big shift and sometimes just dive in and try. Our one daughter noticed a big difference in how she felt in about 2 weeks. We all noticed a huge difference in behavioral outbursts. She does grumble sometimes and I imagine that someday she will want to go off, but I am thankful for these healing and MUCH calmer times for our family. I would not do it unless it made such a big difference for our family. I feel much better as well :-).

    Reply
  15. Jennifer
    January 14, 2014

    Absolutely. My daughter can not even have cross contamination of gluten or she gets violent. She's only 5. It was just reconfirmed this past month when we tried regular oats instead of the oats labeled Gluten Free. She had a terrible time. Gluten is the worst offender. We also avoid dairy, food coloring, and refined sugars.

    Reply
  16. Brianne
    January 14, 2014

    My DS, now 7, has many of the ADHD/RAD/AUTISM symptoms (the final dx they came up with was autism) but we believe his symptoms are most likely caused by alcohol exposure. We tried GFCF for a while with no change. Then came the day that I gave him grape flavored cold medicine for the first time and all h*ll broke loose. We discovered reacts *significantly* to all artificial dyes. We haven't eliminated all preservatives yet, because his diet is so extremely restricted already (texture/control issues), but I imagine it will have an impact as well. It didn't make him a different kid overnight, but it did make a big impact.

    Reply
  17. Isabelle
    January 14, 2014

    Our child is basically on a Feingold stage 2 with no MSG or similar free glutamate type of food additives. Every time we have a slip up of some sort we realize that all the things that are hard about this diet are SO much easier than how he feels if he is not on this diet. The amount of cooking required is fairly intense so you have to determine if it is realistic for your family or be creative about cooking ahead, freezing stuff, etc.

    Reply
  18. findingmagnolia
    January 14, 2014

    We have eliminated gluten from our oldest daughter's diet, with great success. She is able to be more flexible now, whereas before, if we deviated from routine or something went wrong (a big spill, for instance, or a ruined craft project), she had a very hard time. It doesn't solve everything, but I'd say that it plays a role that's equal to her getting enough rest. It's one of many things we do to help her, and for us, it's been effective. It's not effective for every kid, but I think it's worth a shot to try it. We saw results within a week, and negative responses when we briefly reintroduced, so it was not a huge commitment if it didn't work. Once she is used to this change, we will eliminate dairy (which, frankly, will be a much harder sell, as she loves ice cream).

    Reply
    1. Brianne
      January 15, 2014

      Coconut milk "ice cream" is pretty good, especially in shakes 🙂 It's pricey, but at least it's an option!

      Reply
  19. Laura
    January 15, 2014

    We do a Paleo diet. No artificial anything, whole foods, no dairy, gluten, or soy. Look on Pinterest or the web for Paleo blogs that have simple recipes. It's been an adjustment and taken a year to have a decent menu. It is worth trying. It did help but took a bit to see the difference. Remember it takes at least 1 month off gluten for the gut to heal amd to see any changes. Look up Paleo lunches on Pinterest and there's tons of yummy fun ideas for kids. At home we are 100% at following eating this way, but are more flexible when with others. The best advice given to me was to not make eating this way an idol and to value people over food. Give yourself tons of grace. I started simple by first conquering breakfast and then moving to lunch, etc. Our whole family does it together rather than the one kiddo.

    Reply
  20. Renee
    January 16, 2014

    FEINGOLD diet – changed our lives!!! We have 3 children, 2 adopted from foster care and both exposed to substance trauma in the womb. If you want to chose just 3 things off the Feingold diet to try and avoid to see if it makes a difference – I would recommend: Articifial colors (all dyes), APPLES, and Tomatoes! Amazing results – now we haven't moved past phase 1, but that's okay!

    Reply
  21. Dainne
    January 16, 2014

    Autism and being on the "spectrum" isn't caused by diet (type, allergies or deficiency). Many people with ASD have extreme sensitivity to taste and textures of food and will only eat a limited diet. A great website if you think your child may be on the spectrum is Autism Speaks. According to Autism Speaks, "Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and autism are both general terms for a group of complex disorders of brain development. These disorders are characterized, in varying degrees, by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication and repetitive behaviors. Autism appears to have its roots in very early brain development. However, the most obvious signs of autism and symptoms of autism tend to emerge between 2 and 3 years of age. Autism statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) identify around 1 in 88 American children as on the autism spectrum–a ten-fold increase in prevalence in 40 years. Careful research shows that this increase is only partly explained by improved diagnosis and awareness. Studies also show that autism is four to five times more common among boys than girls. An estimated 1 out of 54 boys and 1 in 252 girls are diagnosed with autism in the United States. First and foremost, we now know that there is no one cause of autism just as there is no one type of autism. Over the last five years, scientists have identified a number of rare gene changes, or mutations, associated with autism. A small number of these are sufficient to cause autism by themselves. Most cases of autism, however, appear to be caused by a combination of autism risk genes and environmental factors influencing early brain development.

    In the presence of a genetic predisposition to autism, a number of nongenetic, or “environmental,” stresses appear to further increase a child’s risk. The clearest evidence of these autism risk factors involves events before and during birth. They include advanced parental age at time of conception (both mom and dad), maternal illness during pregnancy and certain difficulties during birth, particularly those involving periods of oxygen deprivation to the baby’s brain. It is important to keep in mind that these factors, by themselves, do not cause autism. Rather, in combination with genetic risk factors, they appear to modestly increase risk."

    Hopefully this helps!

    Reply
  22. Scooping it up
    January 16, 2014

    I don't adhere strictly to a certain diet, but I have changed my thinking to feeding my special needs child's brain, not his belly. This means every morning when he wakes up, he is allowed a high protein gluten free snack, like a rice cake with peanut butter or a Lara Bar. Immediately. He needs food often to stay regulated and he needs food within, I am not kidding 2 minutes of waking up.

    Gluten, sugar, dyes, make his self control worse. Period. Changes we've made: gluten free foods for him, and less wheat for the other children, pushing probiotics daily in the form of cultured stuff like raw milk yogurt and kefir in smoothies every day, sometimes twice a day, lots of fish oil and vitamins, lots of protein like raw cheese, peanut butter, lentils. He is vegetarian by choice (at age 4) so getting enough protein in him means we do use dairy, but we use a local farm to purchase the high fat, high protein unprocessed, raw dairy products.

    I know this diet of looking at at what will help his brain work its best and gut be as clean and happy as possible does help, but it is not a magic bullet. He still has PTSD and sensory issues that affect him and me every day. But him, without these measures and dietary changes things are worse. I do feel it's made a difference for him.

    It's tricky sometimes. We bring gluten free bread and treats. Every few weeks when our family orders pizza, we order a special, more expensive gluten free version for him. We've decided it's totally worth it.

    Reply
  23. Kathleen
    January 17, 2014

    I have a library book that i have been waiting for called "Gut and psychology syndrome : natural treatment for autism, dyspraxia, A.D.D., dyslexia, A.D.H.D., depression, schizophrenia" by Natasha Campbell-McBride. Has anyone here read it? Been waiting for MONTHS! There's only 3 copies in the system and there's like 40 holds on those 3 copies.. Here's hoping its good!

    Reply
  24. mikeandkatie1
    January 17, 2014

    I know I feel a whole lot better and can behave better when I don't eat foods I can't digest. I've posted ideas and recipes on my blog. I don't buy specialty gluten-free products because they often contain eggs, rice or corn which are also difficult to digest and I have reactions to. If the majority of the family is eating the same way then it becomes less of a power struggle. You can still offer a variety of items to try and choose.
    http://mikeandkatie1.blogspot.com/search/label/Lo

    Reply
  25. Cara
    January 18, 2014

    we are just starting this journey after bringing our two boys home 4 years ago. Both were malnourished. We did hair samples that show how their body is metabolizing food, if they are high in metals, low in minerals and overall health. The results for our youngest confirmed my gut feeling. He's in extreme adrenal fatigue and low oxidation that can translate into a lot of things. I know each child and situation is different. In my mind, I will try anything I can to see if it will help. I don't think it's the "cure-all", but maybe if we can deal with physical issues that will open the door to better help with emotional brokenness. In the end, only Jesus can heal our broken spirits and bodies. I'm a mom that is broken in many ways and need the strength and grace of my Savior everyday.

    Reply
  26. mwoverduin
    January 23, 2014

    I have a question on this…
    We have cut almost all refined sugar and most gluten from our diets… Sugar started as something I need to do for my health – but then we noticed a difference on our son's behavior. Decreasing the gluten has also helped. This is for our diets at home. I find it a little harder to control when he's away – as he wants to enjoy the same food as everyone else (he's 4). I usually cave and prepare myself for the effects it'll have on him. I find now, that overall, things are better – but since the diet change, if he now has some of these foods, his behavior is worse than it was before the diet change.
    So, my worry is that while he's young and I control what he eats, this is okay. But what about as he gets older? I imagine it will be hard for him to discipline himself in this when his buddies are enjoying all kinds of food that aren't great for him. And then he won't know how to handle the effects of these foods so well, because we haven't really given him much opportunity to have those behaviors by limiting his diet. Is it better to just go back to the previous diet and work with him on learning to manage his behaviors?
    I'm not sure that I'm making sense here… but I thought I'd try to ask what I've been trying to sort through in my mind….

    Reply
  27. cathylank
    January 31, 2014

    When we went through an EXTREMELY rough period last year we went to see a guy who specializes in Chinese medicine/supplements as several people swore by him and found better results from his advice than from psychiatric medication (which was our next stop). He talked to us about the likelihood that our daughter has an addiction/high sensitivity to sugar and the importance of protein to balance out the sugar she was eating. We didn't stop her from the sugar (it's more of a negotiation than a flat-out forbidding it) but we started to have her eat meat along with it and we think it has helped. He also recommended some other supplements which we did for awhile and gradually stopped and we didn't see any difference when we stopped.

    Reply
  28. Ashley
    March 19, 2014

    I have 5 kids, 3 by birth and twins by foster adoption who were heavily poly drug exposed before and after birth, and one of the at 17 months developed a very serious autoimmune kidney disease that nearly took her life. The following year she was on over 10 medications and with a feeding tube, port in her chest, constant diarrhea and vomitting, and miserable 24/7, her twin was also struggling significantly with attachment and RAD due to all the separation from me while I was in the hospital with her sister (nearly 6 months worth of separation in the span of a year.) It was a horrible situation. We started using essential oils and dramatically changed her diet to follow the GAPS diet which is very similar to Paleo with a big emphasis on probiotic and other healing foods. She is a completely different child, only on 1 medication, and both girls have healed emotionally, mentally, and physically. We've also gotten our older bio son off ADHD medication this way. Diet absolutely plays a crucial roll in over all health and mental functioning and regulation, that is science. The Lord knew what he was doing when he created the foods on our plant and how they work with our bodies and brains. The diet change has been SO overwhelming and so much work, but worth ever second and gets easier. My one caution is for people trying to stop gluten and dairy, it can more be a band aid and not get to the root issues, and most people end up replacing their processed gluten/dairy filled diet with highly processed alternatives including GMO rice, corn, and soy, which may be easy short term, but is not setting the child up for long term success and victory over their health and mental struggles.

    Reply
  29. paleo cookbook
    April 22, 2014

    Diet has a profound effect on children. It does on adults as well but children and teens have so many other hormonal and other issues going on.

    Reply

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