Tuesday, April 1, 2014

We Are Free

Our children are now gluten and dairy (casein) free. We have also completely eliminated artificial dye and preservatives from their diets. This is a change that certainly felt daunting at first, but now I can't imagine going back. It is hard to know where to begin to describe the struggles that we've had with Tommy over the past three years. It has been three years of frustration. Yelling. Crying. Teeth gritting. Praying. Reading. Behavior modification. Our story feels so complicated and hard to explain, but here goes. 

Since he was a toddler, Tommy has always been very energetic, curious, super talkative, questioning. But around age four he became, for lack of a better term, intense. Sometimes just. plain. crazy. He became extremely energetic, almost maniacally so. I remember going on a camping trip with some friends when he was around five years old and being completely embarrassed at his behavior. He was a little tasmanian devil, hitting children with sticks,full-well knowing this was wrong, but seemingly unable to stop himself. He was hurting people, laughing maniacally one minute, crying inconsolably the next. Totally out of control. 

As time went on, he became more defiant, impulsive, questioning, fidgety, moody, emotionally sensitive, disrespectful, energetic, strong-willed, and he developed a serious bad attitude. He always woke up in a bad mood. He fought almost non-stop with his brother. Yes, they had sweet moments here and there, but most of the day was constant bickering between them. He constantly picked things up and played with them (sometimes to the point of breaking them), usually without even realizing what he was doing. It was an impulse that seemed out of his control.

Homeschooling was very difficult. I knew he needed the structure and content of at least a little bit of schooling, so letting him "just be a kid" wasn't an option. Without the challenge of learning things like math, piano, and reading, his behavior became worse. I knew this from experience! But at the same time, it seemed like it was torture for him to pay attention for longer than two minutes. And when something didn't come easy, the volatile emotions came pouring out.

And so, for the past several years I've been on a journey to figure out what exactly the root of this problem was. At first it didn't occur to me there was anything wrong with my child, I just thought, the problem lie with me. I thought I was just lacking patience. During this time I felt intense guilt for not being able to show the kind of gentleness and patience to my child that I knew I should be. Every morning I begged God to give me gentleness, compassion, patience, and love for him. I read so many books on how to be a better parent, be less angry, and have more patience. Those books helped, but still every day I felt like failed miserably at being patient.

To be perfectly honest, I disliked being around him. That sounds like a horrible thing for a mother to say about her child. But the attitude, defiance, and power struggles were relentless. Read that word again and let it sink in: Relentless. From the time he woke up at 6:30am until the time he fell asleep around 9:00pm, the arguing, bad mood, and disrespect never stopped. At least once a week for three years I was brought to tears by the frustration and reality that my child was acting this way, and I couldn't figure out how to deal with it or how to change it. After a few more years, and talking with other parents and doing lots (more) reading, I realized the problem wasn't with me, but with my child. That was a burden lifted, but it still didn't help our day-to-day struggles with each other very much.

 A year ago someone suggested that maybe he had some educational issues. After (even more) reading, we decided to have some testing done, which revealed a few learning difficulties, including ADHD-like issues which explained some of his behaviors. I put him on a magnesium and zinc supplement which is supposed to help with ADHD-like behaviors. It did curb the intensity of his behaviors, but only a little bit. I read up on how to homeschool a child that was 'differently wired'. There was some improvement, but not enough.

Something had to change. We couldn't keep going on like this. I knew this wasn't who Tommy really was. I'd had glimpses of his kindness, his introspection, and occasional calmness. I knew he wasn't really this kid who as acting like this. I remembered  a year before reading a blog post from a friend on the topic of going gluten free for her son. So I reread that post. I borrowed books from the library and read all I could on the subject of behavior and diet. I learned about elimination diets. I looked up blog posts about gluten free/casein free diets and how they affected children's behavior (incidentally, always for the best). I become convinced this was something I needed to try. I committed to trying it for three weeks. The idea was that we would remove every morsel of gluten, casein, preservatives, and dye for three weeks, and then add one thing back into the diet to see how he reacted.

I totally cleaned out my pantry and fridge of anything with gluten or casein in it. I made a trip to Trader Joe's to stock up on almond milk, and gluten/dairy free snacks to replace the ones I removed. We talked to the boys about the new diet changes. We told them that we think gluten and diary might be hurting their brains and bodies, but we're not sure, so we are going to try taking it out of their diet to see if their brains and bodies start working better. They were upset about it for the first few days, but got used to the new changes pretty quickly. 

Four days later Tommy was a completely different child. He was still talkative, but the defiance was gone. The moodiness was gone. The arguing and relentless questioning was gone. For the first time ever, started having wonderful conversations together. One day we went to Peet's to share lattes (his was an almond-milk vanilla steamed milk) and chatted for over and hour. This was unheard of before. For the first time I felt like this was who Tommy really was. He become calmer. He became pleasant to be around. He was happy all day long. I actually enjoyed being around him! He was kind to his brother on a regular basis. He become much less impulsive and actually thought about it before he did something. 

One big change that I didn't anticipate was that Tommy started playing with other children. I noticed this one our first playground trip after the diet change. He found a group of kids to play with and organized a game with them. This was absolutely something he never did before. Normally when we went to the playground he would mope around, complaining that no one would play with him. Eventually he'd find something to do by himself, and often would end up back in the car reading books until it was time to leave. 

Then came the day when I added dairy back into his diet. Just a few hours after that big glass of milk, his old behaviors came back. It wasn't quite as bad as before so we waited. We kept giving him dairy products to see what would happen. By the second day all his old behaviors came back. Day three, same story. The bickering, disrespect, impulsiveness, moodiness. I've become convinced that dairy (casein) is definitely something that is causing him to react. After three days of consistently bad behavior we decided to take dairy out of his diet for good. Some day I may put gluten back into his diet to see what happens, but I have a feeling I already know what will happen. Testing it will just be a confirmation. I'm not necessarily saying that this new diet is a magic bullet and that life will be easy going from now on. I'm sure Tommy will always have his ups and downs. But I have hope now that the 'downs' won't be so bad. 

When I think back on the years of struggles I had with Tommy, I am brought to tears (and I don't cry easily!). I feel like so many years were wasted, with me being in a constant state of frustration with my child. I have to wonder why God didn't show this path to me sooner. Maybe He did and I just didn't pay attention. But maybe it was so that I could appreciate the dramatic change in my son more deeply than I otherwise would have. I am indescribably grateful to have my son 'back' and am loving every moment that we spend working on rebuilding our relationship.

My reason for writing this is to give hope to others going through anything remotely similar to our struggles over the past several years. If you suspect that something 'just isn't right' with your child, you are probably right. Trust your instincts. Study your child. Do your research. Read as much as you can on the topic of food and how it affects behavior. Be willing to take the risk of changing a diet if you even think it might help. It just may be the thing that saves your family.

Here are the books I read on the topic of diet and behavior that helped a lot:
Cure Your Child With Food
Eating For Autism
ADHD & Autism Cookbook
Is This Your Child?

Helpful blog posts on the topic of behavior and diets:
The Feingold Diet [How It Changed Our Lives For The Better]
Feingold Diet 
Studies about Diet & ADHD

Mark thought it would be fun to list all the books I've read in an attempt to understand my son, so here those are too. While all of the books were generally helpful, I've put an asterisk next to the books that especially helped me, and that I would recommend for parents with kids who have similar issues of ADHD-like behavior and emotional intensity.

On the topic of my "differently wired" child:
A Parent's Guide to Gifted Children
Helping Gifted Children Soar
Parenting Gifted Kids
The Myth of the ADD Child
The Faces of Gifted
Dreamers, Discoverers, & Dynamos*
Your Six Year Old
Your Seven Year Old
Why Can't My Child Behave?
Unraveling the Mystery of Autism
Living with Intensity
Misdiagnosis: Dual Diagnoses of Gifted Children and Adults
The Highly Sensitive Child

On Homeschooling:
Creative Homeschooling*
The Big What Now Book of Learning Styles
Discover Your Child's Learning Style
Ending The Homework Hassle*
How to Get Your Child Off the Refrigerator and On to Learning*
The Ultimate Guide to Homeschooling*
Free to Learn*
How Children Learn

On Parenting:
Resolving Everyday Conflict
Duct Tape Parenting
Good and Angry*
Parenting with Scripture
Making Brothers and Sisters Best Friends
The Blessing of a Skinned Knee

1 comment:

  1. This is so fascinating. I'm so pleased to hear that you finally may have found a way to improve Tommy's behavior after all your research. I hope it continues to work!