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10 Tips: How to Handle Children with Emotional Fits/Tantrums Due to Gluten Exposure

I got an email from a mom yesterday asking me how I handle my child when she has an emotional fit or tantrum due to being glutened. That’s a really loaded question, and one I get incredibly emotional over. I don’t mind people asking, and I’m very glad this mom reached out to me for help. But… that question also hits a very, very raw spot that I haven’t quite opened up about. Until now. 

When our daughter, Abbi, was about 14 months old, she started throwing tantrums that included crying fits of rage that went on for hours. At first my husband and I were very confused. We discipline our children. We do time outs; we take away toys… where were we going so wrong that our child would exhibit this horrible behavior? Anything and everything would set Abbi off – from her sister looking at her weird, to not getting to drink out of the right cup for the day, to a cartoon on TV… And of course, she was so little she couldn’t communicate with us or tell us what was wrong. 

How to Handle a Child with Emotional Fits Tantrums Due to Gluten- Allergy Free Alaska2

At that time, Abbi was still sleeping in her wooden crib. When the tantrums escalated to the point where I needed a break, I’d put her in crib. Until I discovered she started trying to physically harm herself. Abbi would throw herself up against the crib; bang her head against the crib… there would be bruises… I was horrified. I would sob out of sheer emotional pain, exhaustion, and desperation. We ended up buying a pack and play, so when Abbi would throw a tantrum I could put her in it; it was soft, so we both could get a break and I knew Abbi couldn’t physically harm herself. 

Months went by of this behavior. It was a very ugly and dark time for my family. We all suffered. We didn’t want to go anywhere with Abbi because she was such a loose cannon. We walked on egg shells around her. Everyone thought we were exaggerating or just not disciplining our child properly. We were judged. We were talked about. We felt embarrassed and shamed.

It wasn’t until my husband made the comment to me, “I wonder why Abbi’s stools are so loose?” that something clicked. As a mom, sometimes you get so used to seeing your child’s stools day after day that what’s normal and what should be get mixed. Abbi’s stools were never really, really watery, but my husband was right, her stools were most definitely very loose.

I still feel guilty that I didn’t recognize my own daughter was having diarrhea on a daily basis. If only I would have paid attention more. If only…. but nothing will change what happened. I’m trying to let go of the guilt, but some things are simply easier said than done. In short, I’m still working on it.  

Since I had already been gluten free for a number of months due to my own health issues (you can read more about that here), I started researching celiac disease, particularly in children. I wish I could find and provide the link to the actual article I found back then, but basically I found an article pointing to evidence suggesting gluten can have an effect on the brain, thus making some with celiac disease or gluten intolerance highly volatile emotionally. It was a no-brainer (no pun intended). My husband and I both agreed we immediately needed to put Abbi on a gluten free diet to see if it helped. So that’s what we did, and within a week Abbi’s emotional fits/tantrums improved. They didn’t disappear, but there was an undeniable improvement. 

How to Handle a Child with Emotional Fits Tantrums Due to Gluten- Abbi and Thor- Allergy Free Alaska

A week and a half after we removed gluten from Abbi’s diet I took her to see the pediatrician for her well-baby checkup. I shared with the pediatrician a few of Abbi’s symptoms and how removing gluten from her diet had helped, yada, yada, yada…. Our pediatrician in not so many words told me I was crazy and that, “I couldn’t possibly know what a gluten-free diet consisted of.” She also said if we’d like Abbi to go under and have an endoscopy to test a portion of her small intestine she’d be happy to schedule it. But she wasn’t being kind in offering that… she was throwing it in my face knowing full well I didn’t want to put Abbi through that. I left the appointment sobbing, and vowing we would never return. And we haven’t. 

After I collected myself from the appointment with our pediatrician, I made an appointment to take Abbi to my natropathic physician (Dr. Amy Chadwick of Soaring Crane Natural Health Center in Palmer, Alaska). She was kind, understanding, and she agreed Abbi probably did have issues with gluten, so we continued with the gluten free diet. Over a few more weeks there were more behavior improvements, and her stools gradually started to firm up, but Abbi was still reacting to something, so my ND suggested removing corn. The change in Abbi was nothing short of miraculous. She went from being a very unhappy and emotional little girl, to a little girl that was happy and playful. Abbi was thriving, and hardly ever threw anymore tantrums, or if she did, they were the normal ones you would expect from a healthy toddler. 

Words can’t adequately describe the pain that still lingers from what we experienced with Abbi, and there’s a big part of me that wants to hide it away not to be shared. But… that won’t help anyone else, will it? Nor will it help me. Writing is cathartic for me, so in writing this I hope part of that very painful and raw place will start to soften so healing can begin. 

How to Handle a Child with Emotional Fits Tantrums Due to Gluten- Allergy Free Alaska

Abbi is 5 1/2 now and completely gluten free, corn free, and dairy free. We try our best to ensure she doesn’t come into contact with gluten, but it still unfortunately and accidentally happens from time to time.  When it does happen, Abbi still has emotional breakdowns and tantrums. These are some of the ways our family has learned to handle Abbi during the time she is glutened, and some of these are more generalized. I hope sharing these suggestions might help another family out there. 

10 Tips: How to Handle Children with Emotional Fits/Tantrums Due to Gluten Exposure:

1. Do the best you can to ensure your child isn’t exposed to gluten. Be a food nazi. I literally pack and take food everywhere we go. I even have a stash of treats in my purse when a store owner or someone wants to reward my daughters for good behavior. No one is allowed to feed my children anything unless I okay it first, and I’ve been incredibly vocal and overbearing about this, while being as polite as I can. In a medical situation such as this, it’s imperative you protect your child and draw healthy boundaries with others, whether it be a teacher, Sunday school teacher, family, friends, etc., or all of the above. People (mostly) mean well, but just because something is labeled gluten-free doesn’t mean it’s safe for my daughters to eat.  It’s hard for others to understand that. 

2. Give lots of extra love, time, and attention. When Abbi is glutened, she mostly just wants her mom. We spend more time than normal just sitting, cuddling, and being. She gets emotional about everything, but the smaller things she gets frustrated with (which normally wouldn’t be a big deal to her) I try to make better – like her hair, or not being able to build the Legos like she wants, or not being able to find her favorite stuffed animal. 

3. Try not to lose patience. This goes hand in hand with #2. It’s so easy to get frustrated with a little one who is highly, highly emotional and has been crying for hours. Believe me, I totally get it. But try to remember they are “sick” in a sense, and often don’t even understand why they are crying. During one emotional breakdown with my daughter several months ago I asked her why she was crying. She couldn’t even give me a reason. She continued to cry for a good 20 minutes before the crying turned to laughing for 5 minutes, and then she switched back to crying again. Bottom line, Abbi was not in control of her emotions, and couldn’t regain control even if she wanted to. 

4. Acknowledge they are “sick,” but don’t use it as an excuse to let bad behaviors slide. We have rules in our house, and the girls know what is acceptable behavior and what is not. I don’t let Abbi get away with bad behavior when she’s glutened. She still has consequences, although I find those consequences don’t have to be nearly as strict when she’s so sensitive and emotional. Generally, a verbal correction will be all that is needed vs. a time out or taking a toy away, etc. But, there are always exceptions, and each child is different. You should always do what you think is best for your child. 

5. Make sure their bellies are full with good food. Hungry children are generally cranky children, and I think this is amplified x’s 10 when they are glutened. If Abbi cries uncontrollably near dinner or lunch time, I know that she’s “crashing,” and needs nourishment ASAP, so I give her another healthy snack, such as apple slices, almonds, a banana, etc. and quite often her crying miraculously stops. I also make an added effort to make sure Abbi gets plenty of bone broth, probiotics, ginger, and other gut healing/detoxifying foods to help speed up her system ridding itself of the gluten. 

6. Make sure your child gets sufficient sleep. Just like hungry children are cranky children, sleepy children are also incredibly cranky. If your child naps, try to make sure that nap isn’t skipped. Or if you child doesn’t nap (like mine), try to put them to bed a little earlier than normal. 

7. Use animals as therapy. 25-30 minutes into a gluten-induced crying fit I made our 100 pound lab, Thor, come and sit in front of Abbi and I told her to pet him. I didn’t ask if she wanted to pet him, but I told her to pet him. Thankfully she listened and within just a few short minutes of petting Thor she became calm. Animals are incredible beings and can sometimes reach people when other humans can’t. When all else fails, try using your family pet to help calm your little one. 

8. Be a little more lenient with TV, games, or other electronic devices. Not something I would normally recommend, but let’s face it: when your child experiences emotional fits/tantrums due to gluten exposure, your house goes into automatic survival mode. If watching two movies back to back will give you and your child some much needed down time, then go for it! Sometimes you have to allow them time to indulge simply because you need a break… and there’s nothing wrong with that.

9. Your mental health affects theirs, so make sure you also take care of you. When Abbi is glutened the effects can last anywhere between 2-6 weeks. After days/weeks of dealing with it I become incredibly drained and irritable. I can’t properly take care of my children when I’m emotionally running on empty. Let your spouse take over the parenting for the evening. Take that super-long door-locked bath. Go out to coffee with a friend, or if you’re super desperate, at least try to get away to go grocery shopping kid-free. Your mental health is just as important as theirs, so make sure you get some personal time to relax. 

10. Don’t knowingly give your child gluten. This is my biggest pet peeve. If you know your child has an outright reaction to gluten, do not knowingly give in and let them have that doughnut at the grocery store, or the cupcake at the party because you didn’t have time to make any that are gluten free. Buck up, parents, and protect your child. Let them throw a tantrum because you wouldn’t allow them the doughnut and use it as a training opportunity. If we are at a party and I forget their treat, I let my kids know they can’t have a treat at the party, but as soon as we get home they get to have it. Or we’ll stop at the store after the party to pick something up. Do I feel terrible about forgetting their treat? You bet! Are my girls upset? You bet! But dealing with a minor disappointment is SO much better than dealing with 2-6 weeks of emotional hell. And really, in the grand scheme of life, it’s just a slice of cake or a cupcake, right?! 

What about you? Do you have a child that experiences emotional fits/tantrums due to gluten exposure? Is there a special way you’ve learned how to handle it? I’d love it if you would share your stories with me; please feel free to leave me a comment below. 

xoxo, 
Megan

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Mary Keberlein

Tuesday 29th of December 2020

Reading this and now writing this with tears in my eyes. Our daughter is 7 and her Pediatric Hemotologist has given an initial diagnosis of Celiac Disease. We go to Pediatric Gastroenterology in 2 weeks. Meanwhile, we are being torn apart emotionally by my daughter's aggressive outbursts. I don't know how much to discipline/what to accept at this point. We can't even start a gluten free diet until we see the GI doc. It is bad enough i feel like my husband and I are "battling" with our daughter..but we are now short with each other over how to discipline. I'm the softie. He is rhe disciplinarian. HELP!

Maura Anand

Tuesday 18th of February 2020

I'm so happy I came across this article randomly. My daughter is 20 and we had a lot of behavior problems, meltdowns etc. while she was growing up. About 3 weeks ago she asked me if we could do gluten free at home and, although I know it can take a good few months before an improvement can been seen, I feel positive about the results so far. I wish I had seen your post in 2014 - I probably could have helped her way earlier! I hope your daughter continues to do well.

Sandra

Thursday 22nd of August 2019

I think I might have just found the answer to what has been going on with my daughter, she had actual corn this week and she has been a nightmare. We are artificial dye free, because my kids cannot handle food dye, but something is still setting off my daughter. Gluten and corn will be my next step!! This needs to be figured out! THANK YOU for sharing!!

Shaunna

Wednesday 14th of August 2019

Thank you thank you thank you ! We have been gluten free for a few. I this and haven’t had anymore tantrums. Today was my sons second day of kindergarten and the teacher accidentally gave him pretzels, he ate two of them. I can tell a change in his demeanor .... how long will it last ? Not a good start to school

Megan

Wednesday 14th of August 2019

Hi Shaunna, I'm so sorry to hear your son was glutened! It's hard to say how long it will last for him. For my girl, it's generally pretty bad for a few days, and then her symptoms aren't as bad the rest of the week.

Miley

Saturday 30th of June 2018

I have been banging my head against walls, locking myself in bathrooms, sobbing for hours staying up all night for the past 3 years and 11 months with a baby boy I can NEVER please. He is emotional and sensitive, vomits ALL of the time, I’ve spent countless nights in emergency rooms because the crying and vomiting, the face of pure agony and grimacing faces he makes screaming his legs hurt and can’t feel his feet are never ending. Every single doctor every nurse every front desk worker has looked at me like I’m insane and have all told me my son is perfectly fine and I need to change MY behavior because it’s 99% the reason HE is sick because I am inflicting all of my stress into him. Granted I’ve become emotional for sure because my gosh I AM SO TIRED. My husband left us 10 months ago and hasn’t been heard from since. His sister is only 13 months younger than he is and I’ve been alone believing I must be the problem. I’ve spent thousands on therapy for myself and self help books and parenting classes, yoga for toddler and mom... I am so embarrassed and I feel so horrible and stupid for not realizing every single symptom matches this diagnosis to a T. I don’t know how I’m going to forgive myself for knowing in my gut something was wrong and they were missing it and not advocating more diligently for my child’s health. I actually started having talks about lying about being hurt and in pain because so many doctors told me he was perfectly ok. My poor baby hasn’t been an affection child since he was 5 months old I started to believe he just didn’t like me and this was going to be our lives. Yelling and crying, never sleeping always cleaning up vomit and poop... never being able to make him smile or play for more than 5 minutes before whipping right back to full blown meltdown status. I am rambling but what I wanted to say is THANK YOU fornsharing your start because I have hated myself condemning myself and punishing myself and my poor sweet boy for things that were not husband or my fault. If I could go back I would have stayed at children’s hospital that very first night...they literally handed me pamphlets for Postpartum Depression and Colic after waiting 11 hours to be seen.. I would not leave until they had checked for everything under the sun. I’ve been telling people since he was 6-8 mos old, when the horrible nights of screaming rashes vomiting and pool discos became horrible nights AND even worse days with all of the same on top of the emotional rollercoaster he was riding every waking moment, I have said there’s something off there is something wrong and I am missing it but no one wouldn’t listen and no one else saw it. I am thankful I’m not alone in this and I am thankful we finally know the problem doc I can be part of the solution. Anyone struggling with any of the things this can bring on know that you are not alone!