Hell Hour tantrums don’t happen at our house. Yes, I am showing off. And yes, OK, maybe about three or four times a year we’ll get one, but we don’t have the regular Hell Hour that so many people speak about.
It seems like a myth or a dream to some people, but for us it’s truth and our daily life. It is attainable and all it takes is 28 days of doing the same thing and you have the new routine in place.
The most important thing we do, to avoid Hell Hour, is manage our children’s blood sugar levels. This means (first strategy) we feed the kids when they are hungry. (Exceptions mentioned later.)
In societies where children have little variety of foods available they are generally left to monitor their own food-intake and it can work well. In the west we have the issue of the constant availability of highly-processed foods and children will naturally gravitate to the sugar, fat and salt because that’s what was rare in the olden days and our bodies and brains L-O-V-E them, crave them and struggle to stop eating them. Foods full of sugar and fat are capable of increasing our levels of hunger and over-riding our natural feelings of fullness.
While we tend to let our children graze, we have no crisps or sweets and rarely any baking in the house. There is chocolate and ice-cream, and the older children understand that it’s not appropriate to eat these things all day long. (The 19 month old Butterfly keeps bringing me the ice-cream scoop… so he’s not quite there yet!) The older boys also know that it’s highly likely that they will get to have an ice-cream and/or bite sized chocolate bar during the day, which they enjoy and appreciate because it’s not something they have all the time. They can access fruit and fruit-yoghurts pretty much whenever they want if they need a sweet fix (exceptions here for the bigger boys: not minutes before the evening meal or when out as guests of other people). They also can eat olives, avocados and nuts if they want a fat-fix. (They’re the good guys in the world of fat.)
We have three sit-down meals together a day on the weekends, and two a day during the week. I usually have a fair idea what they’ve eaten in the past hour so regulate how much I serve. In our house truly full children are not expected to eat everything on their plate. I am constantly aware of what and when each of the kids has eaten.
The second thing we do to regulate blood-sugar levels is we spread their protein intake throughout the day. Protein has a bad-rap in many circles, but we need a decent amount each day to function properly. The only substance we have more of in our bodies is water. Even our immune systems are fundamentally made of protein. To be clear: I am NOT recommending a high-protein diet, I am recommending that instead of having a giant portion of meat at night you consider feeding your kids a poached egg with breakfast, a bit of tuna with lunch, some low-fat dairy with their snacks, and a small portion of meat with the evening meal. All as low in saturated fat as possible.[Remembering that children need to have a certain amount of saturated fat...so don't go to the extreme!] The recommended amount for the day in small and regular servings.
Protein, especially if eaten first, aids the feeling of being full and slows the rate of glucose (from carbohydrate) release into the blood stream. It acts like a brake. Facts here: carbohydrates are any food that was once plant life. That means veges and fruit are as much carbohydrate as bread, sweets and pasta, more so in a way because they are usually fed to us unprocessed. Dairy, in this situation, is considered to be half-protein and half-carb…grass and cow combo?
It’s the rate that glucose is released into a child’s blood-stream which is key. There are many great books about the Glycemic Index (GI) which measures this rate of release and these often have tables telling you which foods are slow release and which are quick release. The slower carbohydrate is released into the blood stream the better.
When children (and adults) eat high GI foods glucose is released quickly into the blood-stream, automatically insulin is released to bring those levels down. This is a good thing, it helps keep our bodies and brains in balance and that means people find it easy to stay calm. If, however, there is a huge load of high GI carb, the amount of glucose in the blood is greater, so the levels of insulin are larger too and then as insulin works too well (in this situation)…the blood-sugar levels become too low. It’s the LOW levels of sugar (after a quick crazy rush) which create the low-blood-sugar out of control tantrums. This is also what happens when a child who is normally fairly rational, but hasn’t eaten lately and cannot eat (for whatever reason) has a Hell Hour tantrum.
During my last few weeks of zen, the Hare came home one day decidedly not zen-like. He was angry and fixing for a fight. Luckily I was in a zen phase because he needed me to be calm. I looked in his lunchbox and sure enough he had suffered from nine-year-old-boy-itis (too busy playing to eat lunch at school). He’s not allowed to eat on the bus home, so by the time he walked from the bus-stop he was a mess.
He ate and ate and ate. He was still cross and angry when he went to sleep. He did this for three days. In the end he heard what I was saying about the cause of his anxieties and he now eats enough to get through the day.
Why do blood-sugar levels matter so much?
It’s our brains. Except during starvation, the only food they can access is the glucose they get from carbohydrate. The needs of the brain make up half of our energy requirements. If you go without carb for too long(yes even being ‘good’ and not eating between meals or waiting for a meal) you initially use the small amount of carb stored in your liver, then your body starts stripping muscle mass to feed the brain. The greater the need for the brain to function at a high level (as in learning and problem solving, which children do constantly) the greater the need for a steady supply of glucose. When the brain doesn’t get the glucose it needs the very basic parts of it (the bits which manage the four f’s…feeding, fighting, fearing and having sex) are triggered and the rational brain can’t keep that section under control. It’s not a reaction children can manage or stop. The person experiences sensations like panic, anxiety, agitation, aggression and/or confusion. They are desperate to get glucose to the brain and will do anything to get food. Sounds like Hell Hour to me!
Incidentally if you want to see a really great insulin reaction try this (I did by mistake). Feed your kids a plate of tinned spaghetti on a slice of white toast with a drink of apple-juice…Juice is also uncommon in our house because eating the pith in fruit and veges is like protein – it acts as a brake and slows down glucose-absorbtion, making it a more steady process. Juice is like a dose of sugar straight into the blood-stream. The dentists are right in more ways than teeth: milk and water are the best drinks.
[Be aware of any changes in behaviour and health that are negative. They may be signs of food allergies.]
In summary: food that is the least processed as possible; feed when hungry; protein spread through day rather than all at night; get a GI book with food indexes and learn to use them; no juice.
Some of the other things which we do to avoid hell-hour: rarely rushing in the door to fix dinner at what
should could be bed-time; and we don’t have a small colicky baby to manage at the same time everything else is happening. (We’ve done that and it isn’t fun.) We also don’t try to make gourmet food for our kids. If we have a busy night – homemade hamburgers or tacos for dinner are just fine. And I’ve always been organised about meals and clothing…even in my most chaotic stages of parenting. We also spread the homework/instrument practise load throughout the day…some straight after school, some at bedtime, some in the car as we drive around and some first thing in the morning. I am convinced that it helps to have the quietest house we possibly can with no TV, computer games, or radio on and no battery-run toys available to the children.
Our kids go to bed early (the two youngest asleep by 7.30pm at the latest – the nine-year-old Hare takes until 8.15pm sometimes, but more often is snoring by 7.30pm as well), this means less chance of a hell-hour too.(Pre-schoolers giving up their last sleep are a different kettle of fish…I must write a post about them…) A quote from my new favourite book: “The more you learned during the day, the more you need to sleep at night.” (Nurture Shock, 2009) On the same page the writers discuss how sleep deprived brains are less able to access blood-glucose. Tired kids have less impulse control than those who’ve had a good night’s sleep. (Ain’t that the truth!)
Avoiding hell-hour is not difficult. Truly. Give some of these strategies a shot. Your life will be easier for it.
[These bits have been added since the original publication thanks to two reminders from blogging buddies Li-ling and Laura. Thanks for that ladies. ]
References and great books to read on the subject:
Nurture Shock, Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, Ebury Press, 2009
Enter the Zone, Barry Sears Ph.D, Regan Books, 1995 (No I’m not recommending ‘dieting’ for children, I’m recommending using food in a way that works with our brain and this book is great about explaining all that.)
The New Glucose Revolution, Prof Jennie Brand-Miller, Kaye Foster-Powell and Prof Stephen Colagiuri, Hodder Books 1995 (To tell the truth this is one of their early books, there are probably more up to date ones around.)
(This is officially how I help put food on the table. If you’ve found this article useful, please feel free to use the Koha button just above my blogroll. Even the smallest amount is appreciated. )