By Clare Marcangelo, Children’s Nutritionist
School has returned, or for some children it has started for their very first term. This comes with so much excitement and nervousness, will my child enjoy themselves, will they make friends easily, will I be OK without them home with me?!
But for many of us, this term may have presented additional worries. There is no reliable data on how many Australian primary and high school children currently experience anxiety, difficulty with focus and concentration, or behavioural issues. But I can tell you as someone who has “watched this space” from a professional and personal/parent level for over 20 years, there has been quite an increase particularly in the last decade.
Have you ever witnessed a child’s behaviour change rapidly, seemingly like a switch has been turned on? We’ve all known (or raised!) children who have a tendency to have a tantrum over small things, get angry easily or even throw things and hurt others. Or the children who distract others, or don’t manage to focus or finish their work day after day? In the past we either labelled them as naughty or a day dreamer and looked to tighten up the rules for them so they could get back on track.
The other end of the spectrum is the parent who tears their hair out trying to help their child who lets big emotions explode each day after school, an unmanageable scenario to which parents are often met with “Oh, he/she is an angel at school and so is clearly doing very well”
This is often a case of masking– concealing the stress all day only to (understandably) let it all out once they get within a few metres of their safe space – Mum, or Dad or Carer.
But what if this wasn’t just “personality” or a lack of discipline, (sigh) as some people would like to put it all down to? The time for tough love has gone. Watch or raise these children and you will quickly understand that being able to achieve these things can often be beyond them.
So how do we help?
The simplest place to start, and the one that is often over looked, is food’s relation to blood sugar regulation. It must be noted that this is rarely the only contributing nutritional factor, so please do read on.
If a child starts the day with just a carbohydrate based cereal, and perhaps very little protein/good fats competent to slow down metabolism, this may release energy very quickly, causing an initial spike in blood sugar. They then experience a small drop, which is rectified around 9am by fruit break, which although a healthy choice, is more sugar, spiking levels again.
They drop again only to often be picked up by a bag of crisps or a rice cake at recess, and a vegemite or jam sandwich at lunch. You can see how this pattern may provide many opportunities for a child to feel low in energy and what we as adults often classify as “hangry”. This can cause erratic, irrational behaviours, lack of focus or even emotional meltdowns. The good new is, this one is easy to correct. We merely need to perhaps change foods to slow releasing wholegrains, and add good fats and proteins to each meal and snack, to keep blood sugar levels nice and even all day.
Artificial additives in pre–packaged foods can of course cause behavioural and emotional outbursts in many children, and should be avoided. This means watching for a connection between behaviour and consumption of foods with flavours, colours, preservatives, and/or flavour enhancers. This can be done by monitoring ingredient lists and consulting free apps like “the chemical maze” to check for these. If you do find your child reacting to these chemicals, eating foods free of them or when possible, making it yourself should rectify this issue easily.
Even the slightest issue with gut health, which can come from birth and just become slightly worse over time, can cause a child extreme brain fog, anxiety and even obsessive behaviours. These gut issues can sometimes be hidden too, they don’t always manifest in obvious digestive complaints like bloating, constipation or farting etc.
Unfortunately, in many children that I see, these gut issues and sometimes other genetic factors can result in slight nutrient imbalances or deficiencies. This has a knock on effect of making it difficult to produce enough good feeling brain hormones, and so anxiety and emotional regulation, going straight into fight or flight, can be common.
As I said before, being in heightened easily does mean that a child may have very little ability to stop, listen and correct behaviours, or may be so anxious from a tiny trigger that they can no longer self soothe and continue with their work.
I love nutritional medicine for this reason as it gives parents tools they can use at home to unlock these barriers and help their child thrive. It isn’t always a standalone therapy, but a great foundation so that a child is all of a sudden actually able to stay calm enough to implement strategies that their carer or other therapist such as OT or psychologist may have taught them.
And remember, early intervention is a huge key, so thankfully whatever you do now can massively improve your child’s happiness and wellbeing for the future.
Clare Marcangelo is a local registered Nutritionist and former Early Childhood practitioner who specialises in children’s health. As a mum herself, she knows how hard it can be to make even the smallest of changes to a family diet.