Can you tell which one is the kid with the “hyperactivity issues”?
“I have to go potty!” Jelly Bean yelled.
Of course she does I grumbled to my husband. We were 10 hours into a 14-hour roadtrip, it was pitch dark, we were crawling through a white-out blizzard in nowheresville Kansas and we’d just passed the last rest stop 20 miles ago with nary another in sight for hours. Now I have to give Jelly Bean mad props: she’s an excellent squatter. Girl learned young from her brothers the benefit of being able to pee in the wild when the need arises. Sure she prefers a toilet but she can totally squat, pee, shake her tushie, stand back up and not even get her shoes wet. But this time it was -15 degrees outside and there was that whole blizzard thing going on.
“I have to pooooop!” she wailed. “It huuuuuurrrrts!” As we ventured off the highway into the hinterland in search of a gas station, outhouse or magic portal, I cursed under my breath. Do you know who’s fault this? FIBER ONE’S!! I HATE YOU FIBER ONE! (It’s always easier to blame a corporate entity than yourself.) But seriously, earlier that day I’d been looking for a treat to keep my kids occupied in the car and I ended up with a box of the new Fiber One fruit snacks. And those fiber-filled goodies wreaked havoc on all of our intestines! I’m not sure what the type of fiber is they used but we’d been “crop dusting” the poor Kansas crops with a cloud of flatulence and tummy pains for the past two hours. So why would I buy such a dubious “treat” in the first place, instead of, say, just buying an actual treat and telling my kids to enjoy it? One reason: Snowballs.
Okay, I have to back up. The week before winter break I’d gotten called to my kids’ school twice – both times because Son #3 got busted for throwing snowballs on the playground. (There’s snow! He’s 7! What do you expect??) And throwing snowballs is strictly verboten so said son got punished. The principal decided the best option was to take away his recess since that’s where the trouble occurred. For a whole week. I immediately set up a meeting with her and Son #3’s teacher to discuss this. Not because I wanted to be “that parent” who refuses to acknowledge their kid did anything bad – yeah he did it all right – but rather to point out that this method of discipline was going to end up punishing them way more.
While all three of my boys have always been very active, Son #3 makes Sonic the Hedgehog look lazy. He’s always building, climbing, jumping, running, tackling or just chasing his tail in circles. At home we deal with this by installing a rope swing and gymnastics rings in the basement, having a trampoline in the backyard and making him run around outside a lot. Unfortunately at school he needs to sit – quiet and still – for hours at a time. This basically goes against everything in his nature. So recess is his salvation. Often the playground monitor has him just run laps for the whole 20 minutes. Even then, sitting through class is tough for him. And now they took away recess. His teacher looked as scared as I did.
“Please,” I begged, “make him wipe down lunch tables or empty garbage cans or clean chalkboards (that are now all “smart” white boards that don’t need cleaning oops)! Anything but make him sit still!!” The principal, while very nice and attentive to my concerns, felt that since she’d already decreed his punishment she couldn’t change it now and so he’d have to sit – quiet and still – in her office during recess. But she at least agreed to consider the alternatives I suggested for the next time this happened. “Except, there’d better not be a next time,” she intoned. Then she suggested I have him tested for ADHD (attention deficit hyperactive disorder).
I bristled. First, I’m a little leery of ADHD in general. I’m not saying it’s not a real thing for some people but I find it concerning that according to the CDC by 17 years of age, 1 in 10 kids have been diagnosed with the disorder. Of those 2/3 are boys! One in five 11-year-old boys has been diagnosed with ADHD and of those about 70% are on medication for it. At what point do we say that maybe we’re restricting the norms for attention and energy a bit too much? Again, I’m not saying it isn’t real but I think it may be overdiagnosed. Sometimes I think that educators are so eager to get all the kids to sit still and listen (which I totally understand!) that they pathologize normal little-boy behavior. Kids aren’t robots! They’re learning the rules of society but in the meantime they will sometimes do things we don’t like. It doesn’t mean they’re sick, it means they’re kids.
And even if the observational diagnosis is correct (there is no blood test for this) then are psychotropic meds necessarily the best option? I am not against medication for ADHD but I do dislike it being the first line of treatment. Perhaps we should look at changing the environment that is making these brain changes so prevalent in kids? Or give them other behavioral options? Several years ago I was “diagnosed” with ADHD and offered a scrip for Adderall. Just like that. My doctor, well meaning as she was, didn’t take my eating disorder history or anxiety disorder or other medications or addictive personality into account. She just wanted to make my life “easier.” And, hey, I’d like my life to be easier! For sure! But if I’ve learned anything over the past decade it’s that all meds come with a price and after investigating the side effects for Adderall, I decided that I’d be better off learning to manage my symptoms in non-medical ways. (Again, I’m NOT saying this answer is the right one for everyone and I do not judge you at all if you take meds to help with your ADHD! I just didn’t feel like it was the right choice for me, given my medical history and predilection for addiction. That said, if you are taking ADHD meds for recreational use or just to finish your term paper then yes, I do think you are making a mistake and should stop.)
Yep. Son #3, doing what he does.
ANYHOW. Back to my kid. And the bariatric boggart of fruit snacks. Since I was so resistant to the idea of medicating my son, the teacher suggested that we try some dietary changes. She specifically mentioned the “Red 40 Diet” (an offshoot of the Feingold Diet) as she’d seen a difference in some of her students when they removed artificial flavors and dyes – specifically red dye #40 – from their diets. And I figured what the heck, might as well try it. I mean no one needs artificial dyes right? It would be good for our whole family!
At the end of my meeting with the principal, I said we’d try the diet over the Christmas break. To which she replied that things had better be improved by the time my son returns to school on January 8th (Wednesday) or we’d have to discuss further treatment. I panicked. I’ll admit it. Two weeks seemed like too short a time to see real results! And what if it didn’t help? Plus, with my history of food issues, would this send my kids into a tailspin of food restriction and eating disorders? (Heaven knows they have the genetics for it!).
But when I walked outside to talk to my son, I found him with his big, brown eyes full of tears. “Did you fix it, mom?” Before I could answer he added, “Because I really WANT to be good! I do! I don’t want to make Mrs. X mad at me. I’M NOT A BAD BOY!” It was that last part that broke my heart. No, he’s not a bad boy! And I hate that this whole process is making him feel like one. He’s in first grade for pity’s sake. First graders by and large are the most wonderful, innocent, sweet kids. So I told him that I love him and I think he’s good and wonderful and kind and smart. But that he was going to have to try a little harder to sit still and follow the rules. “But I CAN’T sit still!” he cried. “I try and try but my little legs just want to move!” Grabbing my hands, he pleaded, “Help me?”
I felt like I had to give him something. And it wasn’t going to be meds. Yet. So I explained that his teacher thought that taking out red dye might help and asked him if he wanted to try it. He did. He really really did. He wanted something to pin his hopes on as much as I did. So we started it. That first night my resolve was tested when a neighbor brought over a plate of beautiful cookies – all iced and dotted with M&Ms. You know what’s in commercial icing and M&Ms? DYE. Suddenly all my kids were clamoring for one and I realized I couldn’t tell Son #3 no and then make him watch while his siblings ate them. And I didn’t have anything else to give him instead. So I chucked the whole beautiful plate in the trash. All four of my kids erupted in hysterics. Yeah, taking candy from a baby? NOT EASY.
And so it went for the rest of the break. I’ve spent the last two weeks slapping away candy canes from Santa and well-meaning bank tellers (oh yes, those stripes are red dye), hiding contraband that my other kids bring home, reading every label in existence and – my personal fave – running screeching across the room yelling HE CAN’T EAT THAT! I’ve become that lady you guys. While most people are pretty understanding about life threatening things like peanut allergies, believe me when I say you get a lot of disapproving glares when you tell the grandma at the church dinner that your kids can’t have the candy bags she brought. I’ve tried explaining it to people but I’m mostly met with a lot of eye rolling.
Truth to tell there was a time I might have rolled my eyes too. I mean the dyes and flavors are approved for human consumption by the FDA right? And my older two sons don’t seem to have any problem with them. Yet as the days have gone on I think – I think – that there might be something to this diet. Son #3 has been noticeably calmer and less histrionic than before. And I don’t think you can chalk it up to simply eating less junk. We eat very little processed food at our house to begin with and my kids generally only get treats when we go someplace that has them. And he’s still been eating sugar, like the homemade cookies his older brothers keep churning out. (They’re in a baking phase. My kitchen’s a permanent disaster but whatever they’re learning stuff.) I think for some kids the artificial stuff really does a number on their systems. Plus when I posted about it on FB I was deluged with responses from other parents/people who’d experienced the crazy-making effects of food dyes/flavors themselves. We’re definitely not the only ones dealing with this.
But what does the research say? In 2010, the FDA released an analysis of food dyes that concluded that there is no conclusive proof that food dyes cause hyperactivity in most kids but that some kids with ADHD seem to be particularly sensitive to them. (Um, ok? Which is the cause and which is the effect?) In 2011 an FDA panel was convened to reexamine the issue at the behest of parents, pediatricians and a slew of anecdotal evidence but the FDA said they still needed more time to examine the issue and declined to make a decision. Yet primarily based on a separate study, called the Southampton Study, the European Union decreed that dyes do cause children to become more hyper and apparently all food-dye containing items in the EU now have a label warning parents. Most recently, a 2013 study in the US showed more evidence of a link between Red #40 and hyperactivity in children. There’s currently an on-going social media push by parents and others to get the dyes banned in the US or at least have similar labeling laws.
While the results with Son #3 have been encouraging, the execution has still been exceedingly difficult. Christmas was a landmine of red and green-dyed candy everything. Even innocuous foods like some breads, crackers, cheeses, yogurts and cereals have dyes in them! The only things that are totally safe are fruits, veggies, meat and eggs. (But no sauces or dressings!) I don’t mind cooking stuff from scratch. The trick is to get him to eat it without feeling deprived of the usual joys of childhood like popsicles and gummy bears. Which is how I ended up with the cursed fruit snacks. 99% of candy on store shelves has the artificial stuff in it but you can find fruit snacks that only use natural dyes and flavors. They’re still loaded with sugar so they taste like candy and he still sees these as a treat – especially since I never buy them at home. But that only goes so far.
So now what do I do?? I’m four days out from school starting again and really starting to feel stressed out that Son #3 won’t be “better enough” by then. I don’t know what to do about this ADHD thing. I don’t know how restrictive I should be with the Red Dye diet. (From trial and error it seems like even a little bit throws him into a tailspin.) I don’t know how to talk to my kids about what we’re doing without making some foods sound “bad”. Right now I’m trying to just focus on showing him how he feels better without it and that it isn’t good for anyone, not just him. But the orthorexic voices in my head are having a field day with this and I’m desperately hoping I can do a food elimination diet in the “right” way.
And the worst part is that I know that Son #3 can see how stressed, upset and anxious I am about all this and I’m SO afraid he’ll feel like this is all his fault. I know this post is super long and disjointed but I’d love any help/advice/sympathy/resources you have!! Any of you ever had to deal with food restrictions for your kid? How do you deal with needing to restrict certain foods for yourself if you’ve had an eating disorder? What should I do about this “ADHD” ?? Any of you ever successfully used a certain diet to help fix a mental health issue?