Web Only ArticleJanuary 1, 2008

Controlling Behavior through Diet

 

One morning last fall, my five-year-old threatened to kill himself. The day had started like many others. Following a hearty breakfast of a faux-fruity cereal, Ethan, the second of my four boys, asked for a toy he'd seen on television. I mechanically said "no" and continued reading the Sunday paper, unaware that Hurricane Ethan was brewing.

"I hate you," he screamed. "I'm going to kill myself. I'm going to get a knife and cut your eyes out while you're sleeping!" I wrestled him into my arms, trying to dodge his flailing fists and thrashing legs. His normally sweet brown eyes were wide and unfocused as he sputtered incoherent, but angry words. After more than 10 minutes of this explosive fury, his energy was spent. I held his exhausted body, all 40 pounds, on the floor.

"What happened?" I asked, my heart pounding. "I can't help it," he replied in a little voice. "My head hurts. I can feel the 'means' coming." The 'means' scared me. I could hold Ethan down when he was five, but what about as he got older, when he'd be bigger and stronger than me? What was wrong with my child?

Jekyll and Hyde

Colicky as an infant, Ethan had always had a challenging temperament. He often complained of body aches (which I dismissed as growing pains) and rarely slept through the night (small bladder, I thought). For years, my husband and I had managed his blow-ups with alternating doses of tough and tender love. We hoped that as he grew up, he'd learn to manage his anger. But, by the time he was four, he exhibited a hot temper that was more than a frustrated child blowing off steam.

We didn't consider seeking professional advice. We simply viewed his behavior as being at the more difficult end of the personality spectrum. Plus, I've never been a fan of labeling my kids. To me, each requires a very different kind of love and attention.

On some issues, though, they received the same treatment. Meals, for example. I knew the basics of nutrition and diet and provided balanced - if not always creative - meals and snacks. Everyone ate what I bought, and I bought what I knew. I followed the guidelines and assumed that my children's well-being would be secured from the inside out.

I was wrong.

Ch-ch-changes

Still reeling from my morning encounter with Ethan, I recalled a Living Without article titled, "Taming the Wild Child" (Spring 1999) and re-read it. The piece mentioned many of Ethan's symptoms and identified the Feingold Program - which eliminates artificial colors, artificial flavors and certain preservatives - as being one potential key to unleashing a happier, healthier child.

I realized that my son's symptoms were likely related to diet - what could contain more artificial colors and flavors than his sugared cereal? In that moment, I decided to try the program. We were on our way to a new way of eating and, hopefully, a new Ethan.