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Your Child's Aggression... what's causing it?

"I got the worst phone call from school today," a mama posted in a Facebook forum. 

"Continual aggression from the start of the day on the bus, right through the entire morning. By the time I picked him up he had so many marks on his arms from the teachers trying to restrain him. I'm heartbroken. I thought this year would be different."

So am I. Heartbroken.

This family, like so many I connect with, had tried what felt like everything and my heart felt heavy imagining what the family, this child, and everyone around them was going through.

A child's aggression can be rooted in many, many things. But I still truly believe, there is no such thing as a bad child.

Children are reactive. Reacting is what they do best. Their behaviours are reflections. We just need to figure out what they are reflecting and reacting to. It could be they need less of something, it could be they need more of something. The question to ask is what do they need?

In today's blog post I outline for you some of the research on the triggers for aggression and some nutritional strategies I've seen help. If your child is like this little boy I described, I hope it will point you towards some possible solutions you might not have explored yet. 

The first thing to wonder about is if your child's aggression is actually the expression of anxiety.

Anxiety could be triggered by...

  • sensory overload (too much busy-ness in the school, too many colors, too much light, too many people),
  • separation from you,
  • the unknown of a new routine or a new space,
  • a less-than-optimal relationship with a certain person at school/daycare.

We get anxious when our stress is too high and we are presented with too many unknowns. We also get anxious when our stress tolerance is low (when we lack the nutritional building blocks that our stress response requires).

Reducing stress load while boosting stress tolerance is at the heart of the Resilience Roadmap process (I explain it here) Could this be what's going on? 

If you think your child's aggression is the expression of anxiety, keep in mind that anxiety can be exacerbated by:

  • blood sugar instability
  • food sensitivities and allergy
  • insufficient sleep
  • constipation

Here are a few ideas to explore...

  • Amino acids like GABA, Tryptophan and 5-HTP can be helpful supplements to try. They work, in part, by enhancing calming neurotransmitters. The nice thing about them is that if they work, they work quickly (like, within an hour kind of quickly). If they don't work they get flushed from the body quickly.

If you want to do a trial of amino acids, I always suggest starting with only one and using a low dose; too much can have the reverse effect from what you want. Also know that they work best when dissolved on the tongue rather than taken as a capsule.

Do some research first to figure out which is the best one to start with for your situation and get familiar with safety precautions. If you need support with this, I walk through how to use them safely in my Advanced Nutrition For The Brain resource (find it on this resource page). We also go more deeply into them in my Resilience Roadmap coaching program. 

  • Inositol can be a very helpful supplement, particularly if the anxiety is of an obsessive nature (obsessive thinking, fear of the unknown, ruminating thoughts of disaster, OCD-like behaviour). Research has looked at using anywhere from 2g to 18g of inositol.  
  • "Bridging" is a parenting technique I learned from my attachment parenting colleagues. It works well to ease separation anxiety and involves giving your child something to hold on to.... an actual thing or an idea (like something you'll do together when you see each other again)... to bridge the gap in time when you're not together. I have more to say about the impact of connection here 
  • Sufficient, quality sleep. Anxious kids tend to be poor sleepers. They get caught in this vicious cycle of anxiety since poor sleep can exacerbate their anxeity, which then exacerbates their poor sleep. More on sleep as one of three critical factors for Resilient Health here and also here
  • Make sure they are getting a good breakfast that's full of healthy fat, fibre and protein. More on breakfasts here. (Got a picky eater who won't eat breakfast? Read this)

Next thing to wonder... is this aggression a symtpom of nutritional imbalance?

Some nutrient imbalances that have been shown to contribute to aggression are (see references posted at the bottom)...

Low Total Cholesterol. We actually have many, many studies that have associated low cholesterol levels (lower than 160) with increased aggression and irritability (see sources below). Sometimes this can be a dietary issue of not eating enough or not absorbing it well, but it seems also to sometimes be a genetic issue; one that has not yet been well explained.

One of the proposed mechanisms for why low cholesterol can affect mood is that cholesterol stabilizes serotonin and oxytocin receptors so in its absence these calming neurotransmitters don't function optimally. Cholesterol also keeps the brain's membrane fluid and is involved in every aspect of neruotransmission. You can ask your doctor to test total cholesterol to see if this is part of the picture for your child and bring them the references listed below. 

Low Lithium. Now classified as an essential nutrient for the brain, lithium deficiency is being looked at as a potential contributor to aggression, irritation, and conditions like ODD and DMDD and suicidality. Our typical source of lithium is tap water. Research on lithium levels and behaviour is mixed but I became aware of this micronutrient through the work of Dr James Greenblatt MD who has been using microdoses of lithium for over 20 years in his psychiatric practice with wonderful results. He writes about it in his book, Nutritional Lithium: A Cinderella Story: The Untold Tale of a Mineral That Transforms Lives and Heals the Brain. You can test your child's lithium level through a hair sample.

High copper has been associated in many studies with increased irritability which can translate to aggression. It has also been associated with depression, particularly postpartum.

There are a few proposed mechanism here. One is that when copper is high we can get a build up of dopamine. This might explain why some kids get aggressive and aggitated when they're put on stimulants while others don't; those who do poorly might have a pre-existing copper overload and the slowed-down dopamine re-uptake effect from the stimulants adds too excess dopamine in the synapse.

Another proposed mechanism for the copper-mood connection is that in the presence of high copper we can have trouble synthesizing dopamine and serotonin, in part because when copper is high zinc is low and zinc is needed in the creation of these neurotransmitters.

And a third possible mechanism is that copper is involved in the conversion of dopamine to norepinephrine. So when copper is high, dopamine might be quite low while norepinephrine is high because of rapid conversion.

Other potential contributors to aggression

There are other potential contributors to aggression. You can explore these with your doctor, naturopath or nutritionist. Look at...

  • other nutritional deficiencies,
  • clostridia in the gut,
  • food sensitvities and celiac disease, 
  • a build up of metals like lead

It can be tricky to tease out the root cause of your child's aggression but hopefully now you have some ideas for where to start digging.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy techniques can be a big help, but when we include an  understanding that our child's aggression might be a response to something biological, and we look deep into factors like these, we can start down the road of helping them truly feel and function better.

Have you figured out the roots of your child's aggression? Let us know below, because more and more parents are struggling with this and your experience can help them figure out where to look next.

Need support? Within the Resilience Roadmap framework I have parents systematically explore social, environmental and biological factors that could lie at the root of a child's mood and behaviour issues. Click here to learn more about it. 


Selected References:


https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4688029/ (review of 65 studies)
















General nutrient therapy and aggression:





 Gluten/Celiac and aggression/OCD/fear: 






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About Jess Sherman, M.Ed, R.H.N

Jess is a Registered Holistic Nutritionist™ and Family Health Educator, specializing in brain health & resilience for kids. She is the author of Raising Resilience: Take the stress out of feeding your family & love your life, a mother and an advocate for children’s health. Her book and online resources have helped families all over the world improve the lives of their children with learning differences, anxiety, ADHD, autism and mood disorders by fitting the food and feeding piece into their health puzzles. She is the 2019 recipient of the CSNNAA award for Clinical Excellence for her work helping families get healthier, and she continues to work at bringing an understanding of the power of good nutrition to the mainstream conversation about children’s mental health, learning, and overall resilience through her blog, courses and as a  contributor to print and online magazines. You can reach Jess at www.jesssherman.com 

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