Saturday, December 28, 2013

Therapeutic Parenting: Dietary Changes

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.


  1. Pamela's pancake mix is wonderful! It's not grain free but no gluten or sugars added.
    I feel adjusting our adopted daughters diet along w super food supplements has aided in her healing. It seems to give her a clearer head and she feels much more energetically grounded. I believe vegetables HEAL! Obviously it won't take away the trauma but a clean diet is a great tool when your trying to learn to cope. Good luck in your journey. All the recipes on the back of the Pamela's bag are great especially the banana bread!
    Amanda from Asheville NC

  2. Pamela''s is my favorite gluten free pancake mix. I'm so glad gluten free living is helping. I know it makes a huge difference for me.

  3. I just left a long comment and it disappeared. Basically- we went a year and a half no G. Back on it since school this year and only a few symptoms are back. My momma gut says to try and go back GF and see how these symptoms effect classroom experience. His 'ability' is far increased over the 'unable' from before. So time and positive experience has helped as well. But I think this buys our kids time and a little easier time in their days. Also- I'm glad I'm not the only one who notices this subtle yet amazingly huge effect. (my first writing was more clear... sorry)

  4. Thanks for giving me something to think about.

  5. First, thank you for making the distinction between different beliefs about therapeutic parenting. I think this is what some of our anon commenters miss. I too find holding therapy disturbing and think it can be abusive in some instances, but we are lumped in with its proponents.

    Second, this is fascinating to me as someone who is gluten intolerant with clear physical symptoms. My son also has a very physical reaction to gluten. I was quite skeptical about gluten and behavior when I started reading things from other parents, but I've heard enough now to really make me wonder. I wonder too how much of it is linked to early gut damage from malnutrition and starting cereals too early. I only hear this from parents who are talking about their adopted kids who had very deprived starts. (And I believe my son and I both have gluten intolerance from being fed cereals at six to eight weeks of age, which is documented for both of us. We've both been tested by doctors and while we do not have genetic celiac disease, we do both have test results that say we have a food intolerance. So that's my bias!)

  6. Yay gluten free! We had to go gf after my second son refused to transition to solids and we realized he would vomit when accidentally exposed. But the blessing was my 3 year old. After taking gluten out of the house our first son's whole demeanor changed. He'd been colicky, then prone to tantrums, unhappy, hard to separate from me, and had real difficulty

  7. Ugh. Stop it. Seriously.

    I know I need to be gluten free because I feel a million times better and have zero migraines when I'm off gluten. I know that it would probably do wonders for my kids. We've also been researching the possible impact of chronic lack of sleep on our kids.

    I don't wanna make big hard life changes! It's not fun! I wanna let my kids eat what they want and sleep whatever hours they want and not see negative effects on them and our family!

    Being an adult is really no fun sometimes.

  8. I enjoyed reading this post! Going gluten free (or maybe just gluten light?) is something I think about frequently. Food allergies run in my family (my dad and sister are bot gluten intolerant) and I know that certain foods do impact my daughter's behaviour (cutting out dairy improved her sleep, for example.) I wonder if eliminating gluten might help her to regulate her behaviour and lighten some of her epic tantrums. But then I also wonder if she's just three and a half and tantruming because it's hard to learn to be a human when you're just three?

    I'm hesitant to give it a try, because so many of the easy, simple things that we eat are gluten-ful! Also, now may not be the best time as we're expanding our family in a few weeks.

    Still, I'm curious, how long did it take before you noticed significant behavioural changes?

    And, just note...if you're thinking of going dairy free and want a great ice cream sub, using coconut milk to make home made ice cream is an excellent alternative! I bought a super cheap ice cream maker (about 30 bucks) and mix a can of coconut milk with a sweeter and cocoa powder, and then 10 min later, lovely chocolate coconut ice cream!

  9. This was a huge bump and percentage in healing in our home. I was not ready to "go there" until just over a year ago. We have a naturapath who has helped us and done some testing and in our house, it is gluten/dairy/corn free that works best for our girls. One got off of psych medications and the meltdowns are so very few and far between and absolutely less intense. I got tested myself and am gluten and dairy free. We saw results in 2 weeks for our most extreme acting out child. She did not want to "cheat" because at age almost 9 realized how much better she felt. There are grumblings about going off diet now and I am prepared for her to do so. It is a journey - we all feel much better. Some great websites for this diet are grass fed girl and elana's pantry.

  10. I have problems with PTSD-induced emotion dysregulation, and it would be helpful to me to know more specifics about your experience with a gluten-free diet before I commit to trying it. How long were you on it before you noticed results? What exactly were the results (better emotion regulation, calmer moods, increased ability to process memories or respond to triggers, better sleep)? Did you go completely gluten free or just reduce gluten intake? Did you taper off or go cold-turkey? Also, you mention that Zinashi ate gluten in "special circumstances" and had a return of difficulties--how much gluten did she eat or for how long? How quickly after the return to a gluten-free diet did you notice improved results returning?

    Thanks so much for sharing your responses to some or all of these questions--I realize this is a lot! I LOVE baking and it would be a big sacrifice for my family to go without gluten, so I want to have some solid evidence for its potential benefits before I give it a try. My acupuncturist already recommended it. My husband however is convinced this is yet another dietary fad.

    1. I'm not Mary but I can give you my experience. I noticed that my migraines stopped within a week. My emotions were better regulated within two weeks and I was sleeping better than I had in years. But if I so much as ate a slice of bread the migraines would come back hard and fast and much worse than before.


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