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.
I truly believe there is no such thing as a bad child. I've also worked with enough amazing, loving, deeply invested parents to know that a child's aggressive outbursts can't always be blamed on "bad parenting".
I believe what we have is lots and lots (and lots) of kids who are living with a very narrow window of tolerance to stress. In order to help them, we not only need to teach these kids skills and help them feel safe, but we also need to widen that window.
(Related post: Why I Do What I Do)
Kids Are Biologically Predictable
It might feel like you're treading on eggshells around your explosive child but actually, children are quite predictable when you know what you're looking for.
They are reactive. Reacting is what they do best. It's their biological programming. We just need to figure out what they are reacting to and, in some cases, why their reaction is on a hair-trigger.
In today's blog post I outline for you some of the research on the biological factors that narrow a child's window of tolerance to stress and, as such, can be contributors to their aggression. I also outline 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 contributors you might not have explored yet.
Anxiety And Aggression
We get anxious when our stress is too high and we are presented with too many unknowns. For a child whose stress response is on high alert a very natural response to anxiety is to lash out aggressively.
Anxiety-related outbursts 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.
But there's another side to anxiety you need to know about. We also get anxious when our stress tolerance is low.
You probably have seen this... your aggressive child has a low window of tolerance to stress and the littlest thing sets them off. Right?
Our window of tolerance to stress gets smaller and smaller when it lacks the nutritional building blocks it requires and the body is under stress.
Reducing stress load while boosting stress tolerance is at the heart of the Resilience Roadmap process.
(Related (video): The Biology Of Behavior)
If you think your aggressive child is prone to anxiety, keep in mind that the following will reduce their stress tolerance and aggravate their anxiety:
- blood sugar instability
- food sensitivities and allergy
- insufficient sleep
- constipation and other issues in the gut
Ways To Ease Anxiety
Here are a few ideas that can ease the underlying anxiety by gently widening their window of tolerance to stress:
- 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.
(Related Resource: Calm & Clear Kids)
- 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 behavior). 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.
- 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 anxiety, which then exacerbates their poor sleep.
- Make sure they are getting a good breakfast that's full of healthy fat, fiber and protein.
(Related resource: The Breakfast Formula)
(Related post: The Trifecta For Resilience Health )
Nutritional Imbalance And Aggression
Our stress response requires sufficient nutrition. Some nutrient imbalances that have been shown to contribute to aggressive behavior are:
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 neurotransmission. 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 behavior 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.
(Related post: Dietary Strategies For Postpartum Mood Disorders)
There are a few proposed mechanisms 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 agitated 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.
(Related: Top Nutrients For Your Child's Brain)
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.
More Potential Triggers Of Aggression
Some other areas I explore with aggressive kids are...
- other nutritional deficiencies like magnesium, iron and b vitamins
- infections in the gut like clostridia or systemic infections like strep,
- food sensitivities,
- celiac disease,
- pyrrole disorder,
- a build-up of metals (like lead or mercury) or mycotoxins from mold exposure,
- methylation imbalances (related post here)
Your child is amazing. They're probably incredibly sensitive to the world around them. Do you have some ideas for where to start digging to help them cope better?
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy techniques can be a big help, but when we include an understanding that a child's aggression might be a reflection of something biological and we look into factors like the ones you just read about, we can widen their window of tolerance to stress and start down the road of helping them truly feel and function better.
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4688029/ (review of 65 studies)
General nutrient therapy and aggression:
Gluten/Celiac and aggression/OCD/fear: