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.
(Related post: Why I Do What I Do)
Kids Are Biologically Predictable
Children are reactive. Reacting is what they do best. It's their biological programming.
Their behaviours are reflections. We just need to figure out what they are reflecting and reacting to.
Do they need less of something? More of something? 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.
Is Aggression Actually Anxiety?
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).
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.
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?
(Related (video): What Is Raising Resilience All About?)
If you think your child's aggression is the expression of anxiety, keep in mind that anxiety can be exacerbated by:
Here are a few ideas that can ease the underlying anxiety that's triggering the aggression...
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
(Related post: The Trifecta For Resilience Health )
- Make sure they are getting a good breakfast that's full of healthy fat, fibre and protein.
(Related resource: The Breakfast Formula)
Is Aggression A Symtpom of Nutritional Imbalance?
Some nutrient imbalances that have been shown to contribute to aggression 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 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.
(Related post: Dietary Strategies For Postpatum Mood Disorders)
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.
(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
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 a 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.
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4688029/ (review of 65 studies)
General nutrient therapy and aggression:
Gluten/Celiac and aggression/OCD/fear: