Both of my sons were diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and severe learning disabilities. No, they weren’t victims of the current tendency to diagnose the majority of active or misbehaving children with ADHD; my boys truly met the criteria and then some. But much to the dismay of the physician who diagnosed my eldest, I was unwilling to put a preschooler on Ritalin. Instead, though the doctor said I was wasting my time, I experimented with dietary management.
Two weeks later I visited the doctor and reported an amazing change in behavior. I also brought pictures my child had drawn—pictures so advanced from the ones he had been able to draw during testing, they were irrefutable proof that the diet was working. But the doctor had no interest in being proven wrong. He had decided diet management didn’t work, and he wasn’t about to consider changing his mind.
Artificial flavors, colors, preservatives, and MSG had a dramatic effect on my child’s attention and behavior. I became one of those militant mommies who cleaned out her pantry and stopped buying packaged, processed food. I began cooking from scratch. I packed healthy lunches, and from preschool years through grammar school told all of the teachers not to feed my kids candy or junk. I never questioned the diet. My sons’ behavior validated the diet every time they ate anything forbidden!
I’ll never forget the day my husband took the boys to the movies and fed them “plain popcorn.” Soon after their return I heard a rhythmic thumping. I found my eldest bouncing on his bed, flying three feet into the air. But he wasn’t jumping. Like a scene fromThe Exorcist, he was lying flat on his back and somehow propelling himself into the air! I called the theatre to find their plain popcorn was dusted with a powdered flavor enhancer—a seasoning full of additives including yellow dye number 5, my son’s worst nemesis.
A few teachers who liked to reward kids with food were supportive, buying special treats for my boys or asking me to bring in acceptable handouts. A few didn’t believe in diet management. One teacher, in an attempt to prove to us wrong, bought our son school cafeteria lunches every day for more than a month. Not only did his behavior immediately deteriorate and continue to worsen, he learned how to lie. He became so unmanageable, I considered medication. And then the teacher began complaining about his behavior, through she was still feeding him cafeteria food!
Even knowing how important their diet restrictions were, I felt guilty when Halloween, Easter, or Christmas rolled around. Having been raised on Kool-Aid, Pixie Sticks, and Twinkies, I was filled with an unreasonable fear that I was denying my children a “normal” life. Initially all bets were off for those holidays and we all suffered the consequences: atrocious behavior for a week or more and often a cold or flu as well. Over time I realized if I filled Christmas stockings and Easter baskets with their favorite healthy foods, acceptable treats, and toys, the children were happy. Halloween remained the big stumbling block.
I made a deal with my kids. I told them they could stuff themselves with all the candy they could eat for that one day. Anything left over, we trashed. One day of eating all the food coloring, sugar, and artificial crap they wanted was still followed by at least 3-4 days of out of control behavior, but at least they experienced Halloween.
Looking back I wish I had handled it differently. I wish I had taken my eldest son’s later approach. He raised my granddaughter on organic foods. Though she had no symptoms of ADHD, he packed her lunches for preschool and limited her exposure to anything artificial or made with refined sugar. She preferred the taste of healthy wholesome foods and could taste the difference—even in treats.
When Halloween came around, her father left nothing to chance. She was allowed to trick or treat, but she was never allowed to eat the candy. Instead Daddy traded the “bad stuff” for the “good stuff.” He didn’t just trade one bag for another, they negotiated. One piece of organic chocolate candy made with raw sugar was worth at least five pieces from her bag. She so wholeheartedly agreed organic candy was better tasting and better for her, she threw away the “bad stuff.” When asked if she wanted to give the candy to her friends at school, she said, “No,” with a scowl. She knew it was bad and she didn’t want anyone else to eat it either.
I wish I had been half as ingenious. I wish I’d never felt conflicted about denying my boys the foods other children ate. If I had it to do over, my sons would have known they deserved the best possible diet for the sake of their health and well-being, regardless of the challenge of ADHD. They would have understood the damage refined sugar and additives do to their bodies. And maybe, just maybe, they would have skipped Halloween altogether… Nah, maybe not.