Help me with my five year old.
November 21, 2005 7:20 PM   Subscribe

Help me with my five-year old son. Please.

[Apologies for all of this...]

He's bright, intelligent, articulate, learns quickly, inquisitive, has a good memory, caring and kind, and most of the time he's wonderful fun to be around. But he's also constantly fidgeting (biting nails, fiddling with his hair, wobbling his leg, etc); often runs around the house shouting nonsense; cannot be still for a moment; and gets into states where he just gets wild - will not listen if told off, or will stomp off, slam his bedroom door, throw things around and shout and scream. When he has friends around, he often gets even worse and very loud. And his friends don't - either at our house or at theirs, they may be lively and run around, but not shouting silly words all the time and in constant motion. It's like he has this well of energy and something inside him that has to be spouted and forced out. He's too far the wrong side of lively. Yet he can concentrate - he can sit and draw or write on his own at times; he can play with cars or trains. But then at some point, the craziness can well up again. Maybe four or five times a week or more.

He certainly loves to be active - running around outside, playing soccer or tennis, going swimming, bike rides. He gets to run around at school at playtime, plays sport outside of school a few days a week, gets plenty of activity at the weekend. He loves school and he's not bored there at all. It's a private school and we're very happy with it. He is a big kid - probably the size of someone 2 years older than him - which can make it all seem worse.

Is he just letting off steam? Is it something he'll grow out of? How should we handle it? Discipline? Time-outs? Punishment? Distractions? We've tried all of the above and haven't got anywhere with them. The problem isn't constant... some mornings (like today) he will be worse than others - unable to sit or stand still for a second. Others, he'll be rather calmer (though always fiddling with something). He gets a good amount of sleep and his television watching isn't anything out of the ordinary.

I've looked at common symptoms for things like hyperactivity, autism, tourettes, adhd, and so on, and he really doesn't fit in any of them. I really, really, really, really, really do not want him on medication unless it is for his own good. If it's just so his parents can have an easier life, forget it. I'm not giving a give year old who is still growing and developing medication unless I can be convinced it will help him.

Family details: two parents, both well educated. Standard kind of middle-class home, I guess. One two-year old brother, well behaved (apart from general 2 year old fits); they get on well. Mother takes him to and from school, and with him when he's not at school. Father helps out a lot - sensible working hours, always there at breakfast and dinner and baths, bedtimes, etc.

I will try and respond anonymously to any comments or questions. Thanks for any help. I really appreciate it.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (39 answers total)
I think the most pertinent question is what do medical experts think about it? Child psychologists? Even if you're afraid they'll prescribe, it's worth getting their opinion.

What's more, I once heard a group of ADHD support professionals say that not medicating the child was tantamount to abuse, because of the stunningly productive results it has on the child's ability to learn and develop without the hindrance of their problem. One said "it's like taking an inhaler away from an asthmatic then making them run".
posted by bonaldi at 7:44 PM on November 21, 2005

This might sound stupid, but maybe it's sugar? Diet is an obvious but underrated factor; some people react quite severely to varying blood sugar levels. Also a lot of processed food is absolutely loaded with high-fructose corn syrup. An easy start is to find any possible patterns with his meals/snacks and the behavior.

Just thought I'd point something out before you begin looking at psychiatric/psychological causes, as the underlying causes could be that simple.
posted by hodyoaten at 7:46 PM on November 21, 2005

You should take him to a psychologist - not a psychiatrist - for evaluation. This way you know that you can get "triage" from someone who is unable to dispense medication. And you can get an objective evaluation from someone who knows what's normal and what isn't.

Objectively, though, it sounds like you can't go wrong with a kid who likes to run around outside. He likely doesn't appreciate the difference between inside behavior and outside behavior, which needs to be learned.
posted by Saucy Intruder at 7:47 PM on November 21, 2005

From my wife, who owns and runs an afterschool program for gifted children:

"Some of the children I work with are like this. The need for constant motion can be a attribute of not being able to express what's going on inside their heads. Parts of their brains are highly developed, but other parts (verbal, etc) haven't caught up leading to issues such as overactivity, hypersensitivities, peer difficulties, trouble sleeping, etc.

I would recommend having him tested (Wechsler test) and going from there if it turns out he is gifted. I'd also google for 'Dabrowskis theory of overexcitabilities' and see if it fits what you are seeing.

I talk to parents all the time about this, let me know if you would like to talk more."


Obviously these characteristics don't mean he is gifted, but these are the children she works with and this is what she knows. If you want to talk to her just drop me a mail (link in profile).
posted by true at 7:57 PM on November 21, 2005

I don't have a child and I don't really know anything about this kind of thing, but here goes. First, bravo for not wanting to give him medication...I imagine a lot of parents would put the kid on Ritalin or something similar. Once I talked to a girl, about 20, who had been on Ritalin for several years and was addicted to it. She had to detox, and it sounded exactly like the withdrawl than heroin addicts go through (tho i suppose not quite so bad).

This may seem trivial, but what about his diet? Does he get a lot of sugar? You didn't mention a doctor...take him to the doctor and explicitly point out you don't want him to have medication--American doctors in particular give out prescriptions like candy. Or maybe there's a doctor in your area that can diagnose and knows treatments without medication. A diagnosis is a good starting point.
posted by zardoz at 7:57 PM on November 21, 2005

I don't have any concrete advice but, I was just like this when I was little. (I swear, my mother ought to be canonized.) And I was unmedicated and grew up just fine. I think one of the hardest parts for my mother was fighting off all the well-intentioned people who tried to drug me. Other than that, it was the kind of thing that got better every year and by the time I was in high school, I was fine, if still impulsive.

The one thing I wish my mother had been better at helping me with was social stuff: I was okay at interacting with other kids, but I spent so much of elementary and middle school being a spazz that I missed out on some of the social learning other kids got. This was somewhat mitigated in high school because I was at a small school where everyone was appreciated for who they were; it's hard to hate people who you grow up with, even when they annoy you.
posted by dame at 8:16 PM on November 21, 2005

My 4 (almost 5) yr old does the same. My wife and I have eliminated a food additive from his diet with great success: Red #40. This stuff is in everything from candy to medicine, but it is possible to shop around it.

Sometimes boys will be boys. This behavior is not abnormal. Only in excess is it a problem. I hope you find a solution that doesn't involve prescription drugs. I understand your battle fatigue.
posted by kc0dxh at 8:26 PM on November 21, 2005

Move somewhere with a bigger backyard and give him his own little plot of dirt where he can dig holes and heave rocks about and set up Demolition Derbies where his new toys can march together in a line of destruction and break his old toys for the crime of being old and breakable, after which they can be buried 6 feet deep with full signal honours and exhumed the next day. And a large dog.

It worked for me, at any rate, and it strikes me as superior to whatever is the amphetamine du jour.
posted by ikkyu2 at 8:29 PM on November 21, 2005

I'm not a parent, but I've worked with kids a lot. I don't really see any down sides to this -- the kid sounds like he has a ton of energy. Aren't kids supposed to? Assuming you've crossed things like sugar off the list, he probably just gets this energy from his youth.

He sounds thrilled with school; presumably he's doing well. He sounds like he's enjoying his sports and extracurriculars, too. Yeah, slamming doors and refusing to listen is bad, but the kid's five; he's going to misbehave, and this sounds well within the range of normal.

Until his energy becomes abnormally problematic -- e.g. he physically can't sit (not just "doesn't want to"), he isn't able to concentrate in school -- he sounds fine to me.

What does he do when he has spare time? Play video games, or run around outside? If he just has too much energy, encourage him to do the latter. I see you have organized sports on his schedule, but if he has a lot of energy, that just may not be enough of an outlet. What's his environment like? A backyard to run around? Ability to get a dog he can romp with if possible? Woods to explore? Neighborhood friends to play games with? I'd try all of those as first resources.

I understand it's hard to deal with kids' energy when you don't have enough of your own. We haven't worked out a way to share energy yet -- but since this isn't "Harrison Bergeron" yet, don't try dragging down his energy level unless it's causing him real problems. I'm not seeing those problems yet.
posted by booksandlibretti at 8:54 PM on November 21, 2005

I've looked at common symptoms for things like hyperactivity, autism, tourettes, adhd, and so on, and he really doesn't fit in any of them. I really, really, really, really, really do not want him on medication

You're not a doctor, and you should not be doing diagnoses. See a specialist. I doubt they'd put him on medication at 5.

Also, when he goes nuts, physically restrain him in your arms. Hold him still, just sit with him, make it feel loving, but firm.
posted by Paris Hilton at 9:02 PM on November 21, 2005

This might sound stupid, but maybe it's sugar?

It most certainly does not sound stupid. A good friend of mine works with a variety of autistic kids, and the first thing her organization does with a hyper-energetic kid is try to get the parents to eliminate sugar from the kid's diet. She says it works *very* well very often. I'd hope a 5-year-old wasn't regularly taking in any caffeine, either, but if he is, I'd totally eliminate that, too.

If you want to test alternatives before looking at drugs, diet should definitely be one of your main focuses.
posted by mediareport at 9:06 PM on November 21, 2005

He sounds normal for an intelligent kid to me, but very frustrated. His smart parents want to guide him through life, telling him all the things they learned the hard way. He doesn't want to be told all that. He wants to learn everything for himself, just as you did. He wants to control his life, and when you try to do it for him (with good intentions, of course) he gets angry and shows you what he can control. Back off, and present things as choices or questions instead of commands. Give him things to build with his hands, but creative things, like a box of random Lego instead of a kit. Avoid drugs at all cost. Tell him you love him twenty times a day. And ikkyu2's advice, as usual, is spot on.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 9:12 PM on November 21, 2005

I've been composing a very similar question for about a week now - my son is 3 and just loses it too. He's been sent home from pre-school twice for it. He's polite, smart, sweet, always remembers please and thank yous, and will kiss anyone's boo-boo or give hugs to somebody who's sad. But sometimes, it seems for no reason, he hits. Not just a slap, but totally rages and loses it. He's been sent home from pre-school twice - I spoke to the teachers and said "you must have seen this before, how can I deal?" I was told, "well, we've never quite seen it without generalized behavior issues." It sounds like you're in a similar situation, anonymous. A lot of people have suggested diet but haven't gotten specific. After reading some of the suggestions, Red #40 sounds like a good thing to avoid - I vaguely remember hearing that years ago. I've also been told to see a psychiatrist for him - but really, the kid's 3! There have to be steps between "he's flying off the handle" and medication. Thanks to everyone for suggestions, and thanks to anonymous for posting!
posted by TTNoelle at 9:33 PM on November 21, 2005 [1 favorite]

Check about a specific allergy. My elementary school teachers reported to my mother that I would go nuts and but fairly uncontrollable, mostly after lunchtime. I had an allergy test done, to discover I had a peanut allergy that affected mood instead of physical sensation like rashes, that resulted in hot-temperedness and thrashing about like I was on crack or something -- because at lunch I would always eat peanut-butter-jelly sandwiches from home that I brought. I got switched to mayonnaise & ham, and the problem seemd to just fix itself like magic. The wife of a friend of mine has a wheat allergy that results in depression -- after having eaten something with wheat, there is just a tremendous sadness and discouragement, but after getting tested and finding the wheat allergy and eliminating it, she brighted up more often and quicker than ever before.
posted by vanoakenfold at 9:36 PM on November 21, 2005

true - I tried emailing, but the address is no good. Could you please drop me a line so I can pick your wife's brain? Thanks.
posted by TTNoelle at 10:04 PM on November 21, 2005

A lot of people have suggested diet but haven't gotten specific.

Sugar. Caffeine.
posted by mediareport at 10:25 PM on November 21, 2005

Sorry - meant in life, not in this thread. It's pretty clear here. Done the sugar, and caffeine is not an issue. Thanks for clarifying though - it certainly did come across like that in my post.
posted by TTNoelle at 10:28 PM on November 21, 2005

My brother had similar problems that were caused by the preservatives in lunchmeat. If he eats anything like bologna or hot dogs much, you might try cutting that out of his diet has any effect on him.
posted by clarahamster at 11:06 PM on November 21, 2005

Your description sounds similar to my son at that age. I tried everything short of tying him up and still he was this impossible ball of energy, impulsiveness and frustration. Finally when he was six we had him evaluated by our pediatrician who diagnosed him with ADHD. I was extremely resistant to medication, but decided to give it a try. Within a day I saw an amazing difference in my child. It was as if a curtain had parted and I was able to see his whole personality for the first time. Now at 10, he is still on meds, and doing very well. He just performed in a play for the first time, largely without any involvement from me, and did remarkably well - something I can't imagine him doing without the meds, as he is pretty much debilitated by the condition when not medicated.

Your son could just be a typical boy, or he could have something more going on. Have a full psych workup done, and consider all your options. There is an incredible knee-jerk reaction against meds these days, but you know your own child and only you can make that decision. For our family, Adderall has been a miracle.
posted by Biblio at 11:39 PM on November 21, 2005

+1 for Raising your Spirited Child and for looking at his diet. I am a bit sceptical, but I have also heard dramatic results with eliminating dairy and (to a lesser degree) gluten (grains). Fish oil (make sure you'll get farmaceutical grade) is also fashionable right now. If you are interested in a parenting mailing list I can recommend Positive Parenting Discipline. There are a lot of parents with children like you describe there. (It is not a chat group, but a group where you'll get specific advice).

I would be very wary of going the 'specialists' route. I read a very worrying case. It is in dutch, so that's not very useful, but undoubtedly there are similar reports in english as well. The case is about a five year old boy, that is classified as pre-delinquent (Yes: a five year old). The parents went for a second opinion to the professor who wrote this article. He concluded that there was absolutely nothing wrong with the child.

Appearantly five is a difficult age for boys (something to do with testosteron). I have also read that it is almost impossible to diagnose behaviour before the age of seven.

One other random thing: you did not say when the behaviour started. I would make sure you are absolutely certain it does not have anything to do with school. Even a wonderful school can be difficult for children.
posted by davar at 2:02 AM on November 22, 2005

I'd say it's likely something in the diet, since that's the one thing you didn't elaborate on at all in your description. Is he drinking soda, sugary fruit juices, eating cookies, candy, ice cream? Sugar, caffeine, additives, many with unknown side effects. Get him on a good, clean, nourishing diet and avoid drugs, clinics and doctors with big machines to pay for.
posted by ronin21 at 4:16 AM on November 22, 2005

Remember, too, that nobody can make you medicate your son.

Don't let your reluctance to medicate him keep you from getting all the advice and opinions you can. If you take him to a psychiatrist and the doc wants to give him Ritalin right off the bat, you can always turn around and go home.
posted by nebulawindphone at 5:44 AM on November 22, 2005

Though my memory is a bit fuzzy, it sounds a lot like me at that age too. I don't know if I acted out in the exact same ways, but certainly acted out with silliness and wanton dumbassed behavior. I turned out to be a "gifted" child, and have since grown up to be perfectly fine. Have him tested and move on from there.
posted by The Michael The at 6:16 AM on November 22, 2005

I was like this as a child, and still am to some extent [minus the tantrums]. Discipline was what helped me focus my energy. Not necessarily spanking and smacks, although I got those when I was wilfully disobedient, but lots of concentration type things. Time-outs ended when I was able to describe how my behavior was unacceptable. Sometimes I was rewarded for calm behavior. The rest of the time I was pretty much allowed to do my crazy energetic things. I'd get hosed off at the end of the day and that was that.

Only when that energy became a liability was it reined in. So eventually I was able to sit relatively still in church, listen to adults until they were finished speaking and basically behave as a civilized person in public situations. I still twitch my legs and fiddle with things though. I don't think the minor stuff should be considered a problem, I wouldn't want to rope off his energy by any means, just channel it, which pretty much has to be done through behavioral training rather than medication. Create a system that he will learn the rules of and that will keep him energetic but not wild. I don't think there is going to be a quick fix, but constancy on your part will probably rub off on the little guy.
posted by sciurus at 6:31 AM on November 22, 2005

I would point to a couple of good television programmes that have been on in the UK recently. Supernanny is about parents with uncontrollable children. The nanny teaches good routines and non-violent discipline. It's always interesting to see how quickly children respond to the techniques.

There's another programme, from ITV I think that has 2 child psychologists who do something similar.
posted by xpermanentx at 6:36 AM on November 22, 2005

Another vote for watching the red #40. My sister-in-law and her daughter and my brother-in-law are all sensitive to red #40. Surprisingly enough, my niece figured out the correlation on her own at age 5 ("when I eat this, I feel like I'm out of control").
posted by plinth at 6:53 AM on November 22, 2005

My son (turning 14 in 2 weeks) is like this; always has been, but, like you, I resisted medication and I resisted believing in ADD/ADHD. The Spirited Child, mentioned above, is really a good book, and the no sugar & no orange food (red #40 is in orange food) diet is also helpful. The other thing which helped us tremendously was eliminating TV - that was probably the single most significant factor. Kids like this get weirdly addicted to TV, I find, and they do so much better without it.

Then we just kind of managed through elementary school with lots of outdoor time, lots of love and a flexible home environment with a serious routine; kids like this need routines. Bedtime at 8:00 every single night, etc - and oh yes, learn to pick your battles. However, his school behavior got completely out of hand by the time he was in 6th grade and I took him in for full testing. Diagnosis: ADD. I then read a lot of books, sigh, and realized that yeah, he has it.

So I managed to find a very alternative school for him that has worked miracles: again, no TV, lots of physical excercise, lots of love and talking. We tried Straterra with absolutely disastrous results - but found that a very low dose of Ritalin, only taken on school days first thing in the morning - helped him concentrate and get his act together. He's actually been off it since last spring but after consultation with him, his teachers and his doctor, he'll be going back on it in January.
posted by mygothlaundry at 7:23 AM on November 22, 2005

For more on diet, you may want to check out the Center for Ecoliteracy. They're working on getting organic food in school lunches, and they've had amazing successes at schools for problem kids -- pretty much eliminating behavioral problems just by getting artificial junk out of the lunchroom.

Their Rethinking School Lunch program might be worth a look.

In other words, as others have pointed out, it may not just be sugar or sweets but other less-obvious ingredients that are contributing to the behavior.
posted by occhiblu at 7:29 AM on November 22, 2005

Posted on behalf of anonymous....
Thanks for all the comments. Much appreciated, especially true's pointers and booksandlibretti's comments. We've got a good sized garden but as winter starts to set in and it gets dark by 4pm, the outside option gets more limited.

A lot of you have mentioned diet and sugar. His sugar intake is very low, especially compared to his peers. He doesn't like chocolate. Non-sugar breakfast cereals. Eats *well* in the sense of good nutritional stuff. We haven't looked at additives specifically but try to get things without additives anyway.

Biblio, thanks for your positive comment about meds. I'm only opposed to them if they're not for his benefit but to calm him. He's a wonderful, wonderful child. He just loses it wildly sometimes and is in constant movement.

Weapons-grade-pandemonium, thanks for patronising me. All that advice you give? It's what we do and have done since he was born.
posted by TTNoelle at 7:46 AM on November 22, 2005

As an adult diagnosed with ADD, all I can say is, I remember elementary school being the most excruciatingly boring period of my entire life, full of me being frustrated and acting out (for a girl, going to the principal's office was pretty rare in my area but I certainly did it). Somehow I got lucky (really lucky) and survived, and didn't have *too* much trouble with boredom through college mostly due to an extremely busy and challenging schedule. Then real life hit, and I just couldn't handle it. Fast forward several years to an ADD diagnosis and medication, and wow, is my life better. I can concentrate like all my friends can concentrate, but other than that my personality is really unchanged. The drugs I'm taking are not addictive and have a very short half-life, so I can easily take a weekend off with no problem.
Why am I saying this? Well, I don't have kids, though I can certainly understand the reluctance to put drugs into a kid's system, but ADD is really a pretty shitty thing to live with untreated (for me, at least). It's frustrating, and if you really do have it as a kid and don't get diagnosed until adulthood you are *very likely* to have one or many other related mental problems due to it, like depression (from the constant feeling of frustration at not being able to live up to your potential), or drug abuse (to self-medicate). So obviously you want to be sure, but if it's ADD don't beat yourself up for treating your son. You are likely sparing him a lot of pain.
posted by ch1x0r at 8:36 AM on November 22, 2005

Really, really look into the additives one -- Red #40 is a common culprit (our daughter is sensitive to it in exactly the same way as your son may be) but also look for Yellow #5 and Yellow #6 (the latter may also be called tartrazine).

My sister has the same sensitivity, especially to tartrazine. You have to become religious about reading the labels on all foods, since colors don't just turn up in red foods -- purple, grape flavor, and so on. Even things that don't look colored may contain it.

I hope the answer is as simple as this.

About the dark back yard in winter -- how about a motion-sensor floodlight? It'll only be on while he's running around, it'll double as backyard security, and he can play with the motion sensivity of it too (stand still for long enough and it turns off ... try and move without turning it on again).
posted by 5MeoCMP at 9:04 AM on November 22, 2005

Can anyone post links to research about the dangers of these food colorings? I've never heard of this, and I just bought a small bottle of Red#40 to make Tandoori Chicken.
posted by exhilaration at 9:38 AM on November 22, 2005

Have a look at
posted by 5MeoCMP at 9:53 AM on November 22, 2005

I really, really, really, really, really do not want him on medication unless it is for his own good.

So refuse medication. People need to remember that the doctors work for them. If one proposes a treatment strategy that you do not like, tell them (wait for it here - it's obscure) "I don't like this treatment strategy."

If parents can refuse transfusions and transplants for their kids, don't you think you can refuse treatment that is at least moderately controversial?

See a professional.
posted by phearlez at 11:31 AM on November 22, 2005

Sounds like a slightly more intense version of my 5 y.o. son. I got him into a Kenpo Karate class, and he's doing a lot better at navigating the world. He's got an instuctor who's very good with kids, with emphasis on listening, focus and self discipline. Many of the other parents at the school tell me their kids began Karate for the same reasons my guy is in there, and are now assisting the instructor with teaching he class.

I'm also pretty strict with him, there are very clear boundaries he knows not to cross, with consistantly applied consequences. I believe that boys require a firm hand. That being said, being wild and crazy and talking nonsense are some of the chief benefits to being a five year old. I make no attempt to squelch these tendencies with my guy, and in fact I indulge in this with him as often as possible. I do however try to regulate the amount of this sort of activity. Events like visiting with friends or family begin with a little chat about the behavioral ground rules, which works pretty well for the most part.

Good luck, sounds like you have a perfectly normal little boy.
posted by Scoo at 12:37 PM on November 22, 2005

Lots of physical activity. More bike rides, running, soccer. Can he play on the playground before school? Turning off the teevee, or limiting it to specific shows, specific times, may help, too.

How's his ability to focus? If his hyperactivity can be moderated through exercise, great, but if he has an unusually difficult time paying attention, then medication may help. He may need help practicing ways to transition from active play to sitting in class.

Get an evaluation by a good psychologist. Public school is obligated to evaluate him, at your request, but you may have to insist pretty hard. Or your health insurance might cover it. You don't have to do meds, but you should get an evaluation so you can make informed choices.
posted by theora55 at 4:38 PM on November 22, 2005

I think the problem is that there is no problem. And that's not to criticize anonymous.

He's bright, he's energetic, he's out-going, and he's five. Oh, and he's happy and secure. And that makes him rather uninhibited in his exuberance. You have a handful.

Even bright kids need to act their age (or even younger) sometime. Sometimes more than others. It clears the head and gets you ready to tackle the next Great Mystery (remember, when you're 5, Great Mysteries are around every corner!) Cutting loose with silliness is an effective (only?) ready way to get the mind to disengage from the last Discovery.

Of course I'm just pulling this out of the air and your own words. But that is how it mostly sounds. Could also just be ADHD and/or Red#40 and gluten (which is not all grains, but wheat specific) and sugar.
posted by Goofyy at 10:51 AM on November 23, 2005 [1 favorite]

The other television programme (it was on last night) was the House of the Tiny Tearaways. That and Supernanny are both great programmes. Non-violent discipline, etc.
posted by xpermanentx at 4:46 AM on November 25, 2005

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