Finding the causes of a child’s hyperactivity and quick temper

June 6, 2011

Q. Our son, 4½, is a handsome, engaging child with a smile that lights up a room. That boy can charm the pants off just about anybody.

He’s cheerful, social, popular at school, quick to laugh and intensely curious. He adores books but is not as verbal as his 9-year-old sister. Instead, he is a physical learner: strong, well-coordinated, big for his age, good with his hands — a child who likes to build and construct and draw elaborate pictures. Although he sees about an hour of TV on the weekend, as a treat, he is happiest when he’s outside and free.

We have some worries, however. Our son is one of the most high-energy children I’ve ever seen — he never stops moving — and has a quick temper. He used to bite his sister and his friends when he didn’t get what he wanted, and this year he scratched two children hard enough to make them bleed. Now we keep his nails very short and tell him that scratching is not acceptable, and we intervene when he seems frustrated. We ask him to walk away or count to 10 when he’s upset, but we can’t watch him every second.

He also seems almost incapable of following direct orders, even though I give only one or two at a time, and is easily distracted. We wonder whether he is just a busy little boy who doesn’t pay attention or whether he might have a problem such as attention-deficit disorder, even though he can look at a book for half an hour and draw for an hour at a time.

How can we manage our son’s endless energy and get him to focus on simple tasks? We expect another baby in two months, and I want to encourage “big boy” behavior while acknowledging that he won’t be the baby anymore.


(Hadley Hooper/For The Washington Post)

And one more question: Am I helping him to mature and to grow as well as I should?

A. You must be doing a good job because your son is a great little guy. A 4-year-old shouldn’t explode so often when he can’t get his way, however, nor should he find it so hard to follow a couple of simple directions.

It’s time to ask yourself: Could you or his dad be catering to your son too much? Children have the right to try and the right to fail, and if they don’t get the chance to exercise those rights, they often regress and act younger than they are. If you think that could be the problem, you might look around for a good parenting class, such as the ones taught by the Parent Encouragement Program in the Washington suburbs. (They may be the best parenting classes in the country, perhaps because PEP uses an Adlerian approach, which posits that children will make good choices if they have to live with the consequences, and trains its teachers for a full two years).

Your little boy may also be acting up because he needs more sleep at night or less stress in his day. Experts say that a 4-year-old should get 11 to 13 hours of sleep every night and a few quiet times during the day so he can pull his thoughts together and dream about tomorrow.

And, of course, you have to consider his diet. Some children get angry, anxious, impulsive or hyperactive or have trouble paying attention because they’re allergic to a particular food or smell or because they can’t tolerate gluten, casein, dyes or preservatives.

According to pediatric allergist Richard Layton, a child who is only inattentive, impulsive and hyperactive in the spring and fall usually has a seasonal allergy, but if the problem comes and goes all year long, it is probably caused by the foods he eats — or doesn’t eat.

When researchers in Australia looked at the diets of nearly 1,800 children, they found that children who ate a lot of carry-out food, red meat, refined foods, high-fat dairy products and confectionary treats were more than twice as likely to have attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder as those who ate fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains and fish. The researchers don’t know whether too many dyes and preservatives caused the ADHD or too few micronutrients and omega-3s, but it really doesn’t matter. If a different diet can straighten out your son’s behavior, you really ought to try it.

To learn more, read “What’s Eating Your Child?” by nutritionist Kelly Dorfman (Workman; $14). Her research is solid, her insights are excellent, and her advice is just what you need.

Questions? Send them to advice@margueritekelly.com.

4 Kelly will take your questions during an online chat at washingtonpost.com/
advice
at noon next Thursday.

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