What A Difference A Year Makes – Guest Post By Stacey
Stacey is mother to two lovely daughters, ages six and three. She works full-time in finance and lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. She never thought this would ever be the case, but her favorite hobby is now cooking.
School started last week. My daughter’s first grade teacher asked parents to write her a letter describing their child. For most parents, this is a simple request. For me however, this sparked a deep reflection of who my child was, and who my child now is. If asked to write this letter a year ago, I would have had a very different description of my daughter. Therefore, our story begins:
“A” has been a challenge since the day she was born. She was a horrible sleeper, and colicky in every sense of the word. It was clear from the beginning that she was sensitive to the world around her. Loud noises, bright lights, and textures irritated her. A stranger saying hello in the grocery store could trigger a crying fit. (Until the age of four, I made sure that we were one of the first to arrive at a party, as walking into a room full of people was overwhelming to her. When “Happy Birthday” was sung, I had to remove her from the room as the clapping and cheering would scare her.) Change and transitions have always been difficult for her. I was never successful in redirecting her attention when she was throwing a fit about something. Her persistence in her stubbornness was like no other. She could be incredibly exhausting, both mentally and physically.
It was a challenge to say the least, but it was all we knew. When my second daughter arrived 3 years later, at every stage, she has been different. Fireworks could be going off around her and it would not faze her. She loves walking into a room full of people and jumps right into whatever the action is. Change is easy for her. If she is upset, she can be easily consoled or redirected within a few minutes. “C” is now turning three, and even though she is starting to go through the typical three-year-old phase of seeking control, I often have to keep myself from giggling when she throws a fit. I say (in my head of course) “is that all you’ve got kid?” because dealing with the same phase with “A” was 1000 times more extreme. I remember the first time I had to put “C” in a time-out. When I sat her down and she actually stayed for the allotted time, I thought to myself, “Oh, this is why parents use this tactic. Because it actually works on most kids!” I remember turning to my husband and asking “did she actually stay?”
“A’s” challenging behavior escalated last year. She was 5 ½ and had just started Kindergarten. As I mentioned, she experiences quite a bit of anxiety around change, so we knew this was going to be a difficult transition for her. She was in a new school, with a new teacher, new classmates, and a new after-school program. It proved to be her tipping point. She began to have EXTREME tantrums. She would be set off by something (sometimes it was when we had to leave a party, other times it was her asking for something and being told no), and then she would proceed to go into a somewhat trance-like state where she would say the same sentence repeatedly, in a droning voice. This could last for over an hour (the worst clocking in at almost two hours).
For a parent, her behavior was scary. I have told people that if we lived in the 1800s, they’d be performing exorcisms on her because that’s the best way I could describe it. It was almost as if her anxiety level would rise to the point where her brain would get stuck, and nothing we did could help her snap out of it. It began to happen every weekend, and then almost daily, and seemed to get more severe with each instance. She could also be aggressive during these tantrums – hitting, clawing, kicking, and growling. We began to avoid being in social settings because we just did not know when something might set her off. The strangest thing about it was, when I asked her teacher and the director of her after-school program whether she had displayed any of this behavior at school, they were quite surprised. They said that, although she could obviously be slow to warm up to new things, she had never done anything like this at school. It was almost as if she was holding it in and then it would all come spilling out. I would talk with her about the tantrums when she was calm, and she told me that when she starts, she doesn’t feel like she can stop. I could tell it scared her too.
Her school was throwing a carnival. We decided to be brave and attend. It was a big mistake, but would also turn into a blessing. Within fifteen minutes of our arrival, “A” fixated on the large pumpkin being raffled off. She started to throw a tantrum about wanting the pumpkin. Then the repetition began. She began to say “I want pumpkin” over and over again in her droning voice. I had my younger daughter with me, and my husband was working the class game booth. I was on my own. To top it off, I was in a public setting at her new school, with a bunch of parents we did not know yet. I physically pried her hands off the pumpkin and gently dragged her to the other side of the playground, hoping that I could find something to divert her attention. The minute I would loosen my grasp, she would make a beeline across the yard, right back to the pumpkin.
I made one more attempt to remove her from the pumpkin and take her across the playground. Her after-school program was running a kids’ craft booth, so I walked her over hoping that the familiar faces might help break the behavior. It didn’t work. She continued. At this point, we were about 25 minutes in. I am not what I would call an emotional person. I rarely cry. Tears started rolling down my cheeks (thankfully I was wearing sunglasses that day). I looked at the director and said “I can’t do this anymore.” She offered to open up their building for us so that we could get through this in private, which I eagerly accepted. “A” continued to drone on for another 20 minutes. She finally snapped out of it when she was offered some ice chips to chew on. (With every tantrum, the thing that helped her come out of it was always different. Sometimes it was as simple as a hug, other times I had splashed water in her face, and in the worst case, I put her in the shower, clothes and all.)
The director then proceeded to tell me about her own son, who suffers from an anxiety disorder. Many of the behaviors seemed to fit, albeit on a much lower level, she said, but there were signs. She recommended we look into seeing a behavioral therapist. When we got home, I told my husband about the conversation, and that I was going to look into finding someone for her to see. And so began my internet searches – behavioral disorders in children, repetitive behaviors, tantrums, etc. I tried to think of any key words I could that would describe her behavior. Every search result pointed me either to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). However, when I would read the behaviors listed, nothing seemed to fit what we were experiencing.
Then, one day it happened. The AH-HA moment that forever changed our lives. I ran across an article regarding processed diets and behavioral effects on children. I began to dig deeper. I landed on the website of The Center for Science in the Public Interest. (CSPI is a consumer advocacy group trying to get the FDA to ban artificial coloring in the US.) They had set up a “Testimonials” page for parents to write in the behaviors their children displayed after eating synthetic-based food dyes. It was as if I was reading my own story. I also somehow landed on Lisa Leake’s “100 Days of Real Food” site and began to read her informative blog regarding processed food.
When I arrived home that evening from work, I told my husband that we were going to attempt to cut out as much processed food as possible and showed him the information I had read. He looked at me as though I were crazy, but said he was onboard if I thought it could help. Here is where I will step in and tell you that I have never liked to cook, and my motto was always “if it doesn’t at least partially come out of a box, I don’t cook it.” I am a busy mother of two who works full time. I thought I didn’t have time. And so, here I am, pulling out box after box from our pantry and refrigerator, beginning the daunting task in front of me of learning how to cook real food, from scratch.
Within one week, “A’s” behavior improved dramatically. A weekend went by with no tantrums. Then another, and another. She became a calm, rational person. The first few times she was denied something, I kept waiting for the behavior to start, but it didn’t. At this point, I didn’t really know what was causing it. Whether it was an additive, preservative, high fructose corn syrup, or coloring. All I knew was processed = bad.
We finally started to brave social settings again, which usually meant a birthday party. But every time we did, by that evening, we would be dealing with the “crazy girl” again. I started to put two and two together, that it had to be the food dyes. She could eat chocolate or other foods with high amounts of sugar with no problem whatsoever. But every time we went to a party, of course, she would eat very colorful candy, cakes, and cookies, and then bam, we were right back to the behavior. I did not want to be “that mom” that denied her child treats at a birthday party or brought special foods. Well, I am now proudly “that mom” and am proud of it.
Thankfully, “A” now knows that she has an allergy. She doesn’t like the way artificial coloring makes her feel. She has described it as “feeling really grumpy, like there are spiders inside of me that need to come out.” She now self-polices her own food choices 99% of the time. She is still 6 though, so occasionally something slips through either by accident, or because she just wants it too much. Then, when the “crazy girl” returns, we use it as a teaching lesson and reminder as to why we are so diligent about not eating it, not even a little bit.
So, here we are, one year later. My daughter has started first grade. She still had her fair share of anxiety the first week, but at a level where we can talk through it and find ways together to ease her fears. And that letter to her teacher? In it, I described “A” as delightful. I would never in a million years have thought I would ever use that term. But I did, and I was so proud to write it. I am, for the first time, truly enjoying being her mother. I am enjoying the fact that I can now work on developing a real relationship with her, rather than waiting for the next thing she might throw at me.
I want to sincerely, truly thank Stacey for sharing her story. I am moved by this because I can relate to that sinking feeling of being the mom of that kid (in public) whose behavior is just so odd when they ingest fake stuff. Please post any questions you have for Stacey in a comment below!