Do you know what's better than gluten? Hello Kitty press on nails, that's what.
It's been a long time since I've talked about some basics of therapeutic parenting, and in light of recent accusations coupled with reading The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog, I want to just pause for a second and tell you what I mean when I say therapeutic parenting. I mean just what the name implies, which is that our parenting style would be therapeutic, that it would help heal as well as minimize potential for further trauma.
Unfortunately, there have been people who have used the term therapeutic in the past who have done things that are actually the opposite of being therapeutic, things like holding therapy (which to me sounds just like torture) and coercion. This is not what we're after. I hope that's obvious, but I realize that some may simply read the term and make connections. Because the same people use the term "attachment therapy," I understand that there also may be some confusion when we talk about promoting attachment; again, I am not talking about the above-linked methods.
For us, therapeutic parenting has ended up including a hodgepodge of parenting practices and interventions; I think it's this way for most parents who are trying to help their kids heal. Each kid is different, and each family is different, so different things are going to work for different kids and their families. I think that many of us find that our kids have similar needs and that the basics are largely the same (attending to food, sleep, and nurture are always important, for instance), and that often what works for one kid may work for other kids with similar needs.
So when I started hearing a lot of parents of kids who have experienced trauma talk about special diets, I took note. I didn't do anything right away, because so much of what we were already doing seemed to be helping, and I didn't want to pile on too much at once. Making a change from doing things one way to doing them another can be stressful for both parent and child, no matter how positive the outcome may be. There will still be an adjustment period. This has been true in our case, as we moved forward with a gluten free diet for Zinashi.
I've known for some time that a gluten free (preferably grain free, but gluten free is close enough much of the time) is good for my own health. I didn't think it was worth it to try it for my kids when life was otherwise complicated, because my own benefits have been physical, like the disappearance of my adult acne and less bloating. But then I started reading about how gluten affects gut microbes, and not long after that, I came across this article about how gut microbes affect the brain. Not two days after I read that - and I am not kidding here - we had a very hard evening, as in so hard I had lost every shred of my patience and was having trouble getting any of it back,because the more I attempted to withdraw from my dysregulated child in order to try to regain my composure, the more she panicked and tried to follow me. "FINE," I thought, "I don't care how hard it is. We are going gluten free tomorrow." And we did.
Perhaps the most telling result is that now, when I need to regain my composure to come back calm and ready to help my girl get calm, she doesn't follow me. I say, "I need to go calm down so I can help you better," and she...lets me. She has never, ever done that before. EVER. I realize now that she was unable to do it. Physiologically unable, due to the physiological differences in her brain, exacerbated by gluten.
She is now also able to accept disappointment more easily, to change course when she has been making a series of bad decisions (whereas before we'd just have a downward spiral which led to lots of holding - and screaming! - on our laps and waiting it out until she could relax and talk about it), to allow for things to go differently than what she had planned. She says please and thank you to Jarod and me more sincerely and readily (this was rarely an issue with others, except in cases of shyness, as the stakes of allowing someone else any form of control aren't as high with others). Transitions from one thing to the next are easier.
Now, this is not to say that suddenly our lives are perfect and that we aren't still working through some of the effects of trauma. She still has a lot of difficulties when she is tired or not feeling well, for instance (don't we all?) or when something happens that echoes a negative experience she has had. But being gluten free helps. It helps enormously, and it helps all of us. When Zinashi is able to have self-control more often, it means that when she does need a little help, Jarod and I are more rested and able to remain calm. More importantly, it gives her a sense of mastery over aspects of her life that seemed utterly out of control before. This is huge for her, and I am so glad that being gluten free has been able to help her in this way.
I know that a gluten free diet doesn't work for every kid, but if your child is struggling to make good choices and manage transitions, I would recommend giving it a go. It won't hurt, and when it helps, it really, really helps.
To ease the transition, I found that it helped to make a list of foods that Zinashi loves that are naturally gluten free (like fruits and vegetables, meats, eggs, etc.) and stock up on those, plus get some gluten free substitutes for things like bread, cookies, and crackers. Trader Joe's has both frozen waffles and pancakes that are gluten free, as well as bread. At first, it was really tough for Zinashi, which made it tough for us to say no to things in special circumstance. We saw the results of going back to gluten, though, and now we are being much more careful about what is considered to be a "special circumstance."
In the future, we also may try going dairy free, as that has been recommended for us as well, but for now we are sticking with this challenge. It has helped immensely, and we are so happy that we decided to do it. Zinashi may not say that out loud just yet, but I see the look of pride on her face when we praise her for how well she handled a transition or for saying please and thank you without prompting. It's worth it for certain.