If You Have a "Spirited" Child, Read This!


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When becoming a mother I had many dreams, expectations, and thoughts on what it would be like. Turns out, nothing could have prepared me for the insanity that was my beautiful daughter. She started out life deciding that sleeping more than 45 minutes was just simply a waste of time and I swear she spent most of her time crying for no apparent reason. I was at my wits end and I kept thinking that if I could just get past babyhood that it would get easier but the challenges just changed. Stubborn does not begin to describe my precious child.

A stranger once told me that he had never seen a child who laughed with so much of their soul as my daughter, Maile (my-lay). Several people have told be that they won't be surprised if she takes over the world someday. A friend said that my daughter was an "intensity of emotion" and I think that this is actually the best description I've heard. When she is happy, her whole body laughs. When she is sad it's like a piece of her soul dies, and when she's upset, well... let's just say we have had to replace her bedroom door during a time-out because she peeled all the laminate off it at age 2. It was for some little thing like her favorite dress not being an option because it was in the wash. My husband and I tried so many things- strict routines, strict diet, time-out, talking, taking away privilege, rewarding good behavior. While part of us just felt like this must be the way a small child was suppose to behave, the other part of us knew that all the euphemisms people were using were just covering up what we knew- this child is just more challenging than average.

Over the years, though, I've begun working with a number of similar children and I've found some interesting correlations at a genetic level between the majority of cases.

1) Children with mood extremes, difficulty focusing, and other attention issues often have gut issues. Why isn't totally clear to me but I definitely find most parents discussing GI concerns, whether the child is having too many loose stools a day or not going for a week solid, it's a common theme. Perhaps it has to do with genetics, but most likely it's multifaceted. What I have seen is that fixing the gut can help with the first layer of what I perceive as discomfort, which may present as defiance or frustration. Eliminating foods that they are sensitive to, as well as artificial colorings, preservatives, and generally inflammatory foods like gluten, sugar, and dairy can often result in significant changes, as well. Sometimes there aren't obvious gut concerns, but working with the diet still has a profound effect.

2) There are often common gene variants in these children, specifically something called a CBS upregulation, where they have a process that goes too quickly, leading to high sulfate levels in their system. Short-term programs to eliminate excess sulfur (and ammonia, which is also made in excess with these variants) levels can help and this is often the first time that parents are able to see what their child is like when they are feeling truly good. Personally, I've watched closely how my daughter's mood changes with different foods and on the days she has eggs for breakfast she is much more likely to burst into tears for no apparent reason. For her, high sulfur= emotional fragility.

3) There is another gene combination (MAO A and COMT variants) that can cause serotonin (your "happy hormone") and dopamine levels to have a more difficult time finding balance. Children with these variants are at risk for issues down the road, such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia, although for many of them it is just a lifetime of feeling frustrated, short-tempered, or just not as relaxed as the majority of people around them. As a child, they appear, from my experience, to be more moody and volatile overall.

So, what does all this mean? After all, we can't change the genes we are born with, right? Well, yes, that is true, but by optimizing digestion and working on a genetic level to optimize pathways that help make neurotransmitters and detox byproducts that can be harmful in excess we can help these children find their balance and help parents find even more joy in parenthood. Childhood is suppose to be such a magical time and the more we can do to make sure that our children aren't having unnecessary stress and anxiety put on them from their internal wiring the better. After all, they have very important jobs to do- building fairy houses, playing kickball, and making mud pies.

Hi, I'm Dr Sarah Strong, a naturopathic doctor in Hilo, HI. I love my daughters more than life itself but I also understand the challenges and frustration of raising a "spirited" child. I love my oldest daugher's fire (we call her our spicy pickle) and, on one hand, it makes her who she is. However, having recently tested her and discovered that she does, in fact, have the expected genetic pattern, I'm embarking on a journey to see if we can keep her fire glowing without burning down everything around us. Keep in touch and please share any tips that you have found with your own intense littles.


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