Let's face it, kids have a lot on their plates today and so do parents! Stress at school and home can really build, and children of all ages may experience crankiness, bad mood, and dysregulated behaviors. There are some practical tips that anyone can use to help regulate their child's mood.
When young kids have behavioral problems, such as temper tantrums, emotional outbursts, or withdrawn behaviors, every parent is worried about their child's behavior. One may wonder about the source of their child's “bad behavior” and how to help their child not only improve positive behavior, but also feel good about themselves.
The good news is that every parent has the power to encourage their child's behavioral self-regulation and cultivate desired behaviors at home and school. You are already teaching your child so much about how to function well in the world. The next level includes finding ways that get their brain to learn better and helping them find the tools that work best for them to reduce their stress and the friction at home too.
Natural Ways to Improve Behavior and Mood
#1 Exercise to Improve Behavior
We know through research that getting kids moving is a great way to improve how their brain alerts and how they remember things and take action. Kids who do regular exercise perform better in school and show fewer ADHD symptoms.
In a meta-analysis of 30 studies that looked at short-term and long-term studies supporting the clinical benefits of physical activity for individuals with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Ng et. al (2017) found, “Physical activity, in particular moderate-to-intense aerobic exercise, is a beneficial and well-tolerated intervention for children and adolescents with ADHD.”
Kids with ADHD benefited so much from moderate-to-intense aerobic exercise, that in fact, the cognitive, behavioral, and physical symptoms of ADHD were alleviated in most instances. The kids with the greatest symptom relief participated in mixed exercise programs, which likely provided an extra benefit of stimulation.
There are many neurological and physical benefits of exercise on the brain and behavior, but ultimately, it improves neurotransmitter function and calms sensory needs. These benefits lead to a calm brain, regulated behavior, and better mental health.
#2 Physical Activities Help Sensory Needs
Some children can be either hypersensitive or hyposensitive to sensory input, which can lead to dysregulated behavior.
Sensory needs include areas relating to the five senses, taste, touch, smell, sight, and sound. Additionally, there are sensory needs relating to motion and balance, known as our proprioceptive and vestibular senses. When one experiences sensory sensitivity, they have a hard time modulating information from the senses, and this results in some kind of responsive behavioral output.
Sensory issues can cause your child distress when exposed to too much or too little stimuli. Hypersensitivity can cause some children to react to loud sounds by putting their fingers in their ears. It may also lead to a behavioral outburst, for instance, when clothes don't feel right.
A child seeking sensory input may pull furniture or get very close to people because they are under sensitive (or hyposensitive) to touch and are seeking sensory output.
Many other specific behaviors are associated with sensory needs. However, sometimes hyper or hypo sensory responses are not so apparent to you or your child. The best person to advise on sensory needs would be an Occupational Therapist (OT). An occupational therapist can help them handle their visual, tactile, balance, motion, and auditory needs.
Managing these sensory needs has a positive impact on regulating children's attention, behavior, and mood. Sensory exercises at home or with an OT help children to regulate the input they are receiving, so they aren't so affected by what should be benign information.
Sensory Integration Exercises for Behavior and Attention
Sensory integration exercises help children with SPD, attentional, or behavioral issues interact more successfully with their environments by making activities fun and by gradually introducing inputs.
- Playing with mud, clay/dough, sand, water, or bubbles enhances tactile processing. Kneading bread dough is a fun and challenging activity.
- Lifting heavy objects. Children with proprioceptive challenges may benefit from heavy work activities, including lifting grocery bags, moving chairs, stacking books, and digging and raking in the garden.
- Expanding their visual vocabulary by introducing different colors through new toys and clothes.
- Balancing activities and jumping reduce vestibular dysfunction. Indoor or outdoor trampolines, ride-on or rocking toys, swings, and seesaws are all fun and helpful activities.
- Reducing visual sensitivity with light exposures. Different types of lighting can have different effects on kids. Lava lamps, for example, can help them adjust to intermittent light. On the other hand, Dimmer switches let parents dim or brighten lights in a room.
- Blocking too much auditory stimulation. Headphones can help children with auditory processing disorder by blocking out noise or providing calming sounds. Natural sounds such as wind, thunder, rain, bird songs, and waves can be played through headphones or experienced in real life.
- Diffusing essential oils. Aromatherapy can help with olfactory sensitivity. Older children can be given a small bottle of essential oil, like peppermint, to cover up unpleasant smells.
- Tasting games with fruit or other foods can be enjoyable for younger children, as they often like guessing the flavors. Encouraging children to help prepare food can introduce them to new tastes and textures. Serving food on a plate and playing games with it may encourage children to sample it.
Parents can boost youngsters' intellectual, social, and emotional development and help them improve self-esteem by assisting them with sensory integration exercises.
#3 Balance Blood Sugar and Insulin Levels
Dietary intervention can go a long way in improving behavior. Types of diets such as Paleo, GAPS, anti-inflammatory, and Intermittent fasting have benefits such as regulating blood sugar and insulin, which helps prevent conditions like type 2 diabetes and improve emotional health.
High blood sugar or unregulated insulin levels can affect cognition, mood, attention, memory, and stress. When your blood sugar is high, your behavior is affected. As a result, you may struggle with motivation, agitation, and thinking. Getting through the school day, finishing homework, or remembering to bring down your laundry will be much harder.
Adding foods higher in nutrients and swapping out foods for healthier alternatives is a great starting point to help regulate blood sugar and insulin levels.
Starting gradually by swapping out healthier versions of foods already enjoyed and adding in more healthy fats is where I recommend my families to start. We all want to dive in or maybe not do it at all, but a gradual approach is best for kids and families.
#4 Build Resilience
In order to raise strong children, they need good coping skills and loads of problem-solving experiences. That means not expecting perfection and letting your kids make mistakes without running in and saving them all the time.
Letting young children make age-appropriate decisions and respecting some of their preferences fosters self-confidence and a healthy amount of independence. And it is through these experiences that kids develop grit and self-confidence.
Guiding your kids during tough times with encouragement and an emphasis on independent problem-solving and decision-making is how to support the development of resilience.
It's also good to be a role model by showing them how you problem solve and manage stress, as well as how you manage a healthy life balance.
Building problem-solving skills should be woven into everyday life. Exposing your child to the world through music, art, puzzle, play, and storytelling is the best way to evoke their sense of wonder, as well as build a variety of skills.
Social development is important, too, and that is how they learn to “figure stuff out” in life. Encouraging them to build solid friendships and giving them optimal guidance, without being a helicopter parent, helps them foster their talents and develop social skills to become an independent adult.
Set clear expectations for your children's behavior so they understand appropriate boundaries and develop a good balance of responsibility and personal freedom. Let your children explore the world and experience the natural consequences of their actions. Establish a reward system where children's efforts are rewarded with certain privileges, depending on what they enjoy, including extra social time with friends or family, movie time, or family board game fun.
Without hovering over your child, make sure you spend enough time with your children to make them feel seen and listened to. When your child feels truly heard and understood, they are more likely to listen to you.
#5 Explore the Secrets of the Gut-Brain Connection
Healthy gut, happy brain! There is a connection between our gut and brain, and it is connected through the vagus nerve.
The gut microbiome is essential for good mental health, as it helps produce vital neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine that are associated with feelings of elation and satisfaction, and are beneficial to your mental health.
So, exploring ways to maintain a healthy and happy microbiome through supplementation and a healthy diet is essential for behavior and mental health, and should be a priority for all parents of kids with behavioral issues.
Diets such as intermittent fasting, Paleo, GAPS, etc. enhance your mental health by improving digestion, balancing hormones, and increasing the gut microbiota levels that keep anxiety and depression at bay. The prescribed foods in these diets are full of nutrients that can contribute to healthy gut flora.
Maintaining a diet of healthy, anti-inflammatory, nutrient-dense food is the best thing for a healthy brain and gut. Sugary and unhealthy food dysregulates blood sugar and spikes insulin levels, affecting mood swings, memory, stress, and attention.
Optimal connections between the gut and the brain boost overall mood. Dr. Roseann's BrainBraviorReset Program™ considers family and children's diet a vital mental health component, which is why we show parents how to weave healthier foods into the family diet.
Food fuels the brain. That is exactly why loading your system with the right fuel unleashes the best version of yourself.
Eating the right food enhances your mood and emotional balance, and that is why it needs to be a priority when addressing behavior and mental health. On the flip side, a diet high in sugar impairs the brain and triggers symptoms of depression, decreases motivation, and makes it harder to listen and focus.
I think we can all relate to the post-indulgence food coma! The same thing happens to your child when they have breakfast cereal, muffins, or pizza. These are brain-drain foods.
The right foods can increase beneficial brain chemicals. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that encourages a wealth of essential bodily functions, including fostering restful sleep, a hearty appetite, and a positive mood while easing pain sensations. Your food intake influences the production of serotonin, 95% of which is produced in the intestinal tract.
A brain-boosting diet minimizes processed foods and sugars and focuses on foods that promote the microbiome, including fermented foods like sauerkraut, yogurt, pickled beets, kombucha, and kimchi. Kids can participate in choosing or making these, which makes them more likely to eat them.
Half of your plate should be fresh fruits and vegetables. The remaining half should be abundant in unprocessed grains, fish, seafood, meats, and healthy fats. Most kids with behavioral issues are especially deficient in healthy fats and protein, so prioritizing these in their meals can go a long way in improving behavior.
#7 Deep Sleep
Kids with behavioral issues almost never get enough restful or deep sleep. Some kids have trouble getting to sleep, and others wake up a lot. Some people have physical or mental health issues that impair sleep.
The question becomes why do so many kids with behavioral issues have trouble sleeping?
There are many reasons kids with behavioral issues have sleep issues, and looking at why your child is struggling with getting enough sleep is important.
Common reasons why kids have sleep problems:
- Medication Side Effects
- Blood Sugar Issues
- Night Terrors and Nightmares
- Sleep Talking and Walking
- Snoring and Sleep Apnea
- Restless Leg Syndrome
- Nighttime Seizures
- Mental Health Issues
- Poor Bedtime Routines
Getting to the bottom of why your child isn't sleeping is an important part of addressing their behavior. Sleep is a foundational component of mental health, and without good sleep, the brain can't detoxify, focus and learn, and regulate mood.
#8 Use Supplements to Regulate Behavior
We are all so busy these days, especially as we transition from summer to fall. This probably means we aren't getting enough sit-down meals and may even have to settle for grabbing bagels or chips on the go. Then you feel guilty… Ugh! Trust me, you aren't alone in this!
The problem is that your kid isn't getting enough of the proper nutrients to support optimal brain and body function. This can lead to low energy levels, brain fog, or even feelings of sadness, anger, or anxiety that you can't otherwise explain. When you don't eat right, it shows up in your unwanted behaviors.
Your diet directly impacts your brain and gut health, which can affect your mental well-being. If you're not getting enough of the proper nutrients, it can lead to problems like tantrums, emotional outbursts, and low motivation.
Fortunately, adding essential nutrients to your diet can help combat these issues by adding antioxidants that support a healthy nervous system. So if you want to improve your mental health, ensure you're eating plenty of nutrient-rich foods or adding supplements that fill in the gaps.
Nutrients play an important role in keeping the nervous and circulatory systems functioning properly. Nutrient deficiency can strain organs and increase the risk for chronic diseases, behavioral disorders, and mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, and OCD.
As your body may be missing specific vitamins, consider taking supplements that are associated with improved focus and behavior.
Supplements for Behavior:
- Folate is essential for producing red blood cells, which are necessary for proper brain and body function, as well as detoxification.
- Potassium promotes heart, nerve, and muscle function and helps to deliver essential nutrients to cells while removing waste products. Low levels of potassium can lead to mental health problems such as brain fog, memory loss, mood swings, depression, psychosis, and confusion.
- Calcium – Calcium helps transmit signals between nerve cells, promoting a calming effect on the nervous system. Low calcium levels have been linked to depression and stress. Calcium does a good work with magnesium, vitamin D, and potassium to support overall health.
- Dietary fiber is essential for maintaining a healthy gut and promoting mental health. The gut-brain connection is well-established, and a healthy gut is necessary for the production of neurotransmitters like serotonin.
- Vitamin D – Vitamin D receptors are found in every body tissue, including the brain, heart, muscles, and the endocrine and immune systems. Having adequate vitamin D levels is necessary for mood, anxiety, and immune function.
- Vitamin B12 is one of the essential B vitamins that helps the body to produce energy and fight off diseases. Low levels of B12 can make one feel unfocused, tired, mentally tired, or have brain fog, and it can interfere with mood and managing stress.
- Vitamin C is important for boosting immunity and maintaining healthy brain function. It helps neurotransmitters communicate and aids in developing and maintaining neural connections.
- Magnesium is involved in over 300 bodily processes, including regulating the stress response, supporting the nervous system and metabolism, and synthesizing antioxidants like glutathione.
#9 Create Joyful Moments
Daily life can be busy and stressful, and parenting a special needs child can be even more stressful. It's easy to get caught up in daily family life and forget to laugh a little. It is important to slow down and have those special fun moments.
Laughter and silliness can do a lot to defuse tense situations and moody or cranky kids. In my house, when our youngest is getting cranky, I always say, “Is that the Hulk coming out? Where is Bruce Banner?” Smiles and laughter always stop him in his tracks!
Making sure to stop and have fun has to be a priority at home. That means stopping and dancing, telling jokes, and just being silly.
Stress is a constant in every home and it has to be countered — and laughter is the best medicine. It helps kids reduce stress naturally and learn to identify when real stressors are present, as well as learn to manage whatever comes their way.
#10 Look At Why A Behavior is Happening
Kids will seek out attention any way they can, and when families accidentally give their child negative attention, that is paying most attention when a child is behaving badly, it will likely happen again. It is not helpful to think they are acting like this on purpose. You all are just stuck…behaviorally.
Instead of feeling upset about your child's behavior, flip that script and think about what could be improving your child's behavior. That means pulling back and looking at why the behavior is happening.
When a child has behavioral issues, or a child misbehaves, it means the child doesn't know what they should do, and parents usually say things like, “Stop touching your sister” or “Knock it off.” It is more helpful to show your child what it is they should do.
Think about what they need for that “good behavior” you all want to see displayed. Are they missing coping skills, an understanding of the task, do they need more practice?
When you take a closer look at why, I promise you, you will be surprised at what you find that your child actually needs to be behaviorally successful.
While this isn't a substitute for professional one-to-one support from a therapist, most parents can uncover a lot about their child's behavior when they just take the time to dig deeper. The next step is providing more explicit guidance and positive reinforcement to increase learning.
There are many neurological and physical benefits to all of the ways you can naturally improve your child's behavior, but ultimately, these actions improve neurotransmitter function and calm sensory needs. These benefits lead to a calm brain, regulated behavior, and better mental health.
Harvard Health Publishing (2019), More evidence that Exercise can boost mood
Ng, Q. X., Ho, C., Chan, H. W., Yong, B., & Yeo, W. S. (2017). Managing childhood and adolescent attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) with exercise: A systematic review. Complementary therapies in medicine, 34, 123–128.
Sleep Foundation (2022), Healthy Sleep Tips
Always remember… “Calm Brain, Happy Family™”
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Dr. Roseann is a Children’s Mental Health Expert and Licensed Therapist who has been featured in/on hundreds of media outlets including The Mel Robbins Show, CBS, NBC, PIX11 NYC, Today, FORBES, CNN, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Business Insider, Women’s Day, Healthline, CNET, Parade Magazine and PARENTS. FORBES called her, “A thought leader in children’s mental health.”
Dr. Roseann Capanna-Hodge has three decades of experience in working with children, teens and their families with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism, concussion, dyslexia and learning disability, anxiety, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), depression and mood disorder, Lyme Disease, and PANS/PANDAS using science-backed natural mental health solutions such as supplements, magnesium, nutrition, QEEG Brain maps, neurofeedback, PEMF, psychotherapy and other non-medication approaches.
She is the author of three bestselling books, It’s Gonna Be OK!: Proven Ways to Improve Your Child's Mental Health, The Teletherapy Toolkit, and Brain Under Attack. Dr. Roseann is known for offering a message of hope through science-endorsed methods that promote a calm brain.
She is the founder and director of The Global Institute of Children’s Mental Health, Neurotastic™Brain Formulas and Dr. Roseann Capanna-Hodge, LLC. Dr. Roseann is a Board Certified Neurofeedback (BCN) Practitioner, a Board Member of the Northeast Region Biofeedback Society (NRBS), Certified Integrative Mental Health Professional (CIMHP) and an Amen Clinic Certified Brain Health Coach. She is also a member of The International Lyme Disease and Associated Disease Society (ILADS), The American Psychological Association (APA), Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) National Association of School Psychologists (NASP), International OCD Foundation (IOCDF).
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Disclaimer: This article is not intended to give health advice and it is recommended to consult with a physician before beginning any new wellness regime. *The effectiveness of diagnosis and treatment vary by patient and condition. Dr. Roseann Capanna-Hodge, LLC does not guarantee certain results.