The active child – natural ways to help maintain focus and calm
Every parent, at some point, thinks their child is overactive and concerned that they might have ADHD . And who hasn’t blamed sugar or chocolate or sweets for kids acting out of control ? Most parents blame misbehavior on their child being either overtired, hungry, or getting sick . The next question invariably is “what can I to do to prevent my child from being hyper?”
From a medical and psychological professional’s perspective ADHD needs to be treated properly and is considered a true disease with multiple treatment modalities not just magic pills. These methods include psychological family counselling, behavior modification, parenting education, medical and psychological evaluation, and comprehensive testing. The whole family has to participate to change the household dynamics and ingrained patterns of reactive behaviors when interacting with the active child as part of the comprehensive psychological work. Being the Pediatrician, I am fortunate enough to develop a good relationship with my families and have gained unique insight into the personality of each child and the parents sincere efforts to use whatever of the available non medical modalities they could to manage their often disruptive child. When all these efforts have not been successful in improving behavior, self-esteem, or their ability to succeed then the parents and I feel that medication is the correct treatment option.
It is always recommended to have a Medical exam before beginning any therapy to rule out any treatable sources for changes in behavior like poor sleeping, sleep apnea, allergies, stomach upset , and pain . It is also recommended to include a blood exam for thyroid , anemia, proper organ functioning, and other medical and physical causes .
[Please consult your physician before trying any remedies to alternative therapies for any behavior issues.]
ADD and ADHD evaluation and treatment is well described by many other resources. That is not my goal here. My purpose here is to offer guidance to some of the remedies promoted by many non medicine proponents.
While changing the diet of your child is not the end all for diagnosed ADHD children it can be part of a comprehensive and constructive plan to effectively treat a child with many of the characteristics of an overactive child.
Food and behavior There are many things you can do to modify your child’s diet that might help them not be as reactive. Managing their diet is something simple that might have an impact on their behavior..
There are no comprehensive double blind studies to show that particular foods tend to overstimulate children who have a tendency to be overactive or have ADHD, but it has become an accepted anecdotal notion by most Pediatricians and parents that many foods hype their children up. It is worth keeping a log of foods your child eats and correlating their behavior to these foods.
The foods listed below are commonly accepted as foods that make even the average child excitable and should be the first foods you eliminate in their diet management plan.
Chocolate – particularly brands with more processed sugar. Dark chocolate with high percentage of cocoa over 85% and less cocoa butter and sugar is much less likely to cause over activity.
Processed sugar in store bought products and packaged foods is also considered overstimulating in many forms for children.
Candy not just chocolate has a lot of processed sugar and fillers.
Baked goods like cakes with frosting, cupcakes especially with icing and sprinkles . Drinks – soda, juice with sweeteners, fruit drinks, sports drinks.
Cereals- most of the store bought children’s cereals are packed with artificial sweeteners and sugar even the ones deceivingly marketed as healthy.
Food coloring particularly red dyes in candy, drinks, colorful cereals, snow cones, slurpees, colorful icing, colored sprinkles.
Fatty fried and sugary food – fat seems to make the effect of the meal even worse for hyperactivity. Donuts are a perfect example of fried with sugary coating.
Big carb meals generally makes everyone tired but also causes a “hyper” child to have less control over impulsivity and lose their focus.
Foods and natural means to improve behavior
Foods, supplements, and natural products that are popularly accepted to help with focus and calm excitable behavior
Low glycemic foods particularly high fiber healthy whole foods maintain an even sugar level without the resultant highs and lows of high glycemic low quality foods. Keeping their sugar and insulin level stable tends to also maintain an even behavioral response to diet. You don’t get the initial jump in energy from sugar and avoid the follow up drop in energy from the precipitous drop in blood sugar.
High fiber food assist in stabilizing blood sugar in addition to keeping constipation another distracting problem from exacerbating the unwanted behavior.
Zinc has been shown in some studies to help improve attentiveness and calm children with hyperactive behavior
Zinc rich foods -seeds include pumpkin seeds, watermelon seeds, squash seeds,and sesame seeds. Also dark chocolate, garlic wheat germ chickpeas or hummus have good amounts of zinc.
Magnesium is considered a good mineral for calming nerves and some studies have shown it to be particularly low in ADHD children.
Magnesium rich foods include dark chocolate , seeds particularly pumpkin seeds, nuts especially almonds and cashews, bananas , avocados, deep sea fish, legumes-beans,lentils, chickpeas, peas, tofu, whole grains – barley, wheat, oats, and of course lots of healthy greens.
Choline is considered important to nerve development and function. Good healthy diet with plants as a main food offers more than enough choline .
Choline rich foods – Soy products including soy milk and tofu, quinoa, broccoli, cabbage, kale. Animal products having higher levels of choline include yogurt, fish, liver, and eggs. Egg as a source is controversial for it’s true value versus negative health impact. And liver comes with it’s own heart health cost.
Omega 3 rich foods have been shown to help with attention in children – including fish oil, ground flax seed, deep sea fish – salmon ( limit the amount due to mercury contamination)
Teas- green tea has been shown to help with focus, other teas that might help include white and black teas, all purported to help with focus
Herbs have historically been used to bring calm -lavender , velerian,ginseng and green oats, and lemon balm are the most widely used herbs with some success in calming and helping focus. Also ginkgo biloba, licorice root, brahmi, gotu kola, and pine bark have been used for centuries by many eastern cultures. [AvoId kava due to liver toxicity and other side effects ]
(Once again consult your physician before trying any remedy )
calming teas and other herb teas are more for sleep and slowing down at bedtime, they really are not useful for waking hours, chamamille, passiont flower, lemon balm
Essential oils- lavender, rosemary are most commonly used to help active children with focus. Others include peppermint oil, Ylang ylang, Frankincense, which have been reported to calm, and may help with focus.
[Essential oils are not for oral ingestion and are only to rub on the skin. Be careful with redness, rashes, and allergies. Some anecdotal discussion also include the value of scents of these same oils for calming effect.]
Supplements – zinc, magnesium, green tea supplements are purported to help quiet an overactive child. I am generally not a big believer in supplements instead of the natural plant source for benefit. It can be worth a try with problematic children particularly if they will not eat many of the healthy sources for these supplements.
Activities and other tools to help your child develop a sense of control over their own behavior
Sports– exercise has many benefits for a very active child. It has been proven to have positive effects on self esteem, overall health, learning ,and improves nerve function and helps release their pent up energy. Team sports in particular teaches a sense of camaraderie and teamwork often lacking in a very active child’s life. Teamwork also helps with their self-esteem by working with others to a common goal and form friendships outside of the classroom.
Channeling energy – creative stimuli and focus adaptation on tasks such as – artwork- painting, pottery and sculpture; music- playing an instrument ; puzzles and constructing- building blocks and legos; projects- science, design, and gardening.
Games – board games can help the active child learn to take turns and focus on the tasks without the stress of school work. Family game time with a set of rules should be fun and an opportunity to learn the structure of cooperating with positive reinforcement of acceptable behavior working with others.
Limit screen time and video games- both these modern day habits have led to what has been called the ” dis-tractable generation” possibly contributing to the rise in ADHD diagnosis.
Shorten Work and activities which require a lot of focus and concentration.They are much more successful with intense brief focused tasks and homework, rather than sitting for hours and not getting anything done while fidgeting and their mind wandering.
Movement – whenever your child takes a break from work try to find ways for them to move. Any form of movement activity helps calm the nervous system and the endorphins that are generated have additional calming benefit. It helps them re-focus their energy .
Meditation and mindfulness – teaching your children the art of breathing to refocus their energy and calm both their active mind and body is a vital part of non medical means to helping then develop staying power and a better focus.
Music particularly classical music calms the brain and can be helpful in bringing focus to a task. I tell parents of newborns to play classical music for a sense of peacefulness for newborns and the family household and they will respond to it for the rest of their lives.
Pets are beloved family members and elicit a lot oxytocin production just by interacting with them. This can makes you happy and also has a calming effect. A sweet dog can be an important asset to manage erratic emotional behavior for any family member but in particular for an energetic over active child. In addition the bond and satisfaction in caring for a pet is a bonus for self-esteem and character building
A good caring non judgmental family is the best resource for any child. Particularly those children dealing with the difficulties and frustrations of ADHD and Hyperactivity.