Hell Hour: You don’t have to have them. Nope. Not at all.

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. 🙂 )


About Karyn @ kloppenmum

kloppenmum is me, Karyn Van Der Zwet, mother of three and ex-teacher. I'm part of a revolution in parenting, with the aim to raise mature (not sophisticated) and self-assured children. I also know some stuff about adults. I have also had articles printed in The Journal for The British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (Children and Young People) and the US parenting magazine, Pathways to Family Wellness, as well I regularly write for World Moms Blog (named as one of the Forbes 100 most useful blogs for women 2012 &2013). You can follow me on facebook (kloppenmum) pinterest (Karyn at Kloppenmum) and twitter (@kloppenmum). I'm also vaguely on LinkedIn (Karyn Van Der Zwet). Thanks to Joe (Mr Hare) for taking the photo. Cheers, son: xxxx.
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31 Responses to Hell Hour: You don’t have to have them. Nope. Not at all.

  1. writewizard says:

    Wow this is a great post packed full of helpful information. We call it “zero hour” in my house but I’d wager it means the same as your “hell hour”. I cut out the Kool-Aid a long time ago and just recently chopped out the fruit drinks and decided to stick to 100% fruit juice but it looks like I was on the wrong path with that. I’m a big proponent of kids getting enough sleep but lately my nearly 3 year old seems to be able to fight off sleep for hours at night. I will definitely be trying some of these strategies. Thanks so much for sharing your wisdom! I’m looking forward to some “zero hour” free days. -Meg

    • Hi Meg,
      I smiled when I read your comment, as we went through the same process with our kids…cut this type of food out…some change…cut this one…more change…etc until finally we are where we are today. Good luck with putting these strategies in place, as they say at our boys’ school – calm authority is the key. 🙂

  2. Li-ling says:

    Karyn, great post. We are so constantly bombarded with sweets (candy and chocolate) everywhere we go. We do have some in the house, but these are handed out on a very limited basis – one piece of chocolate? :O
    We had a similar experience to the Hare not eating lunch, and since then, it’s a given that she HAS to finish her lunch in school. A bribe treat awaits her at the end of the school day. Usually her one sweet treat of the day.
    I must say though, at their age, a limited amount of saturated fat is actually OK given the amount of energy they are burning with their activties. As long as it’s not overboard. (This is from the chemist in me, point of view)
    I so need to get that book 🙂

    • You’re right about the saturated fat and children. It is hard for me to think of *all* the exceptions when I’m writing – so thanks for reminding me. I’ll put that in. 🙂

  3. QueenArtLady says:

    Thanks for this post. I agree with the idea of spreading protein throughout the day.
    We have also never suffered the Hell Hour, I contribute it to the kids and myself having our main meal at lunch time (as I remember my grandparents use to do). My husband commutes and would not be able to join us for dinner at a reasonable time anyway. It also gives me the freedom to judge how much food they have eaten during the day and to make a choice about preparing either sandwiches or a more substantial meal at dinnertime.

    • There are also people who have their main meal for breakfast. I think I like the idea of eating a main meal in the middle of the day, but logistically this is tricky with one boy at school and another at kindy. I will have to think about it for the holidays. Perhaps it’s worth a try.

      • QueenArtLady says:

        Of course we are lucky to still be at home during the day. It will all change if my oldest start kindy next year. The local Waldorf school provide nourishing lunches for the pre-scoolers, but I am sure it will have an effect on us. I will definitely keep this post in mind.

        • I am also conscious that we are very lucky to have Craig home by 5.45pm. Chatting with a friend today, she never knows when her husband is going to walk in the door – they make the effort to have a family breakfast.

  4. Laura Weldon says:

    Wonderfully explained. Let me add a caution. I’m a certifiable nut about healthy food and still had issues with my (normally sweet) child’s behavior back when he was in school. It turned out that he had serious problems with food allergies and food intolerance, reacting to many of the healthful whole grains and fruits I was feeding him on a regular basis. Here’s what happened to us:


    • I agree food allergies can be a problem. It is one of those things I tend to forget because I assume that most parents would monitor their kids…thanks for pointing it out. 🙂
      (I’ll get to the link at some stage Laura. Must feed children first!)

  5. changengrow says:

    Always love what you write – now, can you come to my house and be our cook? 😉

    Seriously, though, as a teenager I struggled with “hypoglycemia” and learned to watch my sugar intake. But I do still crave it so much.

    I did a great job with my son (breastfeeding until 15 mths, extra careful w/solids his first 2 yrs). And then once he hit 2 and 3, I gave in and “rewarded” him through food. We (my husband comes by it most naturally as his mother is extremely obese and has always “loved through food”), thankfully though, have awakened to this lack of focus in our parenting in the past few months and have been making much better choices for our son. The one battle I haven’t fought completely is juice before nap. I send it in his lunch box to school, and let him have some when he gets home (half juice (the veggie/fruit blends)/half water). I know I need to stop, but I haven’t yet. Funny, before I had children, I swore they would only drink water (and milk)…I don’t even drink juice myself. Good, ol’ “busy mom” excuse.
    You have inspired me, though, and I will work harder towards this goal. BTW, we don’t experience hell hour either. The few times he acts up, though, it is always because he’s hungry (me, too!).
    Thanks again!

  6. No temper tantrums?! Something is amiss in the Kloppenmum home! {I tease.} Sounds like the overall management system, of which healthful dietary options and practices are a part, serves toward balance and the minimizing of warfare and chaos. I believe more parents could learn from your example, particularly around the importance of nutritional foods, elimination (or near so) of crap junk food and dedicated family mealtimes.

    My father insisted that dinner be free of distractions (so needless to say, TV is off (and if mobile devices existed at that time, you can rest assured he would not have tolerated a cell phone, texting etc. etc. etc. at the table!!!) Dinner was at 6. And no one began until everyone was seated. And late-comers – me because I’m the rebel – were punished. No one left until everyone was finished. And we (kids) had to ask to be excused. And of course cleared the table, did the dishes, etc.

    The point in sharing that tidbit is it set a standard of family time and discipline that are so lacking amongst parents today AND serves to quell chaos. So kudos to ya for the food-and-meal practices. They along are far more important and impactful than most parents know.

    • Thanks, it is nice not to have to face low-blood-sugar tantrums (some of the other kind do still happen, and are managed differently 😉 ). We’re not so strict on the everyone finished rule…yet, but may include that when Mr Butterfly is of an age where he can understand. Thanks fo the thumbs-up. 😉

      • There’s no age too young to learn basic manners. Except infanthood. 🙂

        • Totally agree. The Butterfly (19 months) says “taa” when he’s handed anything. The others were the same. It’s so easy to instill when they are young…yet keeping a toddler at the table when tired is not a battle worth fighting, when it all comes easily at an older age and stage. 🙂

  7. Our days go so much better when my sons have some protein with their breakfast like eggs or bacon. Even oatmeal is better than boxed cereal. The other meals are pretty easy to sneak in some protein. Off to make dinner now. 🙂

  8. Fiona says:

    Where was this post years ago when my kids were little? Hell hour was my oldest son but luckily with the younger two I had learnt some lessons. I never realised how true it is regarding what you wrote in this post until my husband was diagnosed several years ago with type 2 diabetes. We adapted our lifestyle accordingly and the change was huge, even though we are normally pretty big on healthy foods anyway. But things like juice etc definitely made a difference.

    Even know I can tell my hubby’s sugar levels are high by his ‘hell hour’ moments.

    I appreciated your comment on my blog – it made me look at things differently – thank you for that

    • Thanks for commenting here too, Fiona. Yes, I think that lots of modern health issues would become less intense if we all learned to work with our bodies and brains and stopped trying to bend them to our ‘will’. I guess that’s what I was saying on your post too…if parents can/do give their children what they truly need when young, then the crime rate and many other social ills would be less too. And think how much more pleasant life would be for everyone! We are definitely finely tuned machines, able to tolerate a lot of things and then there comes a point…

  9. hakea says:

    I have a kid who won’t eat at school. It’s a not-too-nice couple of hours when he gets home. Nothing we do or say convinces him that he needs to eat.

    Not too sure about milk being such a good food. I wonder about the health problems of our Indigenous people. There are lots of issues around Western foods and poor health. However, Indigenous people didn’t have dairy foods for 60,000 years. Now they have lots of problems with Otitis Media and I have to ask “why would they be able to digest dairy?”. Lots of non-Indigenous have difficulties with dairy also. And there’s the problem of sending little ones to bed with a bottle and the sugar in the milk rotting their teeth.

    • Some kids just have to learn in their own time and way, don’t they!
      Lactose intolerance can be an issue for many people. Barry Sears puts it something like this: Only with the domestication of cattle some eight thousand years ago did cow’s milk become widely available…Only those of Scandinavian descent have had relentless exposure to it and can still digest lactose as adolescents and adults. 80% of the world’s population have yet to catch up with the Scandinavians. Unless dairy is fermented as with yoghurt dairy products are a disaster. He then goes on to say a similar thing about grains. I hadn’t intended to get into all those details here – was more concerned about controlling blood-glucose levels, but always good to have these points clarified for people. 🙂

      • hakea says:

        I didn’t know this history. All makes sense. Dr Mehmet Oz, the cardiac surgeon, talks about how people should eat butter rather than margarine as the body has evolved to processing butter more efficiently than margarine.

        I guess I worry about some foods being classified as good foods when they appear to be the cause of health problems. Lots of Indigenous kids have hearing loss due to Otitis Media. On top of all their other difficulties, hearing loss could possibly be prevented by ensuring other sources of calcium. They probably don’t need as much as other races anyway. Another example of the imposition of white standards where it’s not appropriate?

        I’m being too political today. Think I’ll have a cup of tea (with lactose free milk).

  10. Lovely post, and great information.

    I always cringe when I see kids being handed a juice box and a stack of cookies… And though I have been researching and finding that there is *no* scientific study that corroborates the idea that kids get a hyper-active rush from sugar (which absolutely defies common experience, right?), there *is* a notable connection between the low blood sugar state caused by the insulin dumping that you describe and sour, painful, confused emotional states (in all humans, not just kids). So whether we are “making up” or “causing” the hyper-active initial response often touted as a reason to avoid sugar, or not, there is good cause to moderate sugar intake just for avoiding “Hell Hour”-type behavior any time of day.

    Also, I think it is worth clarifying that although veggies and fruits *are* carbs, they do act very differently in the body than processed carbs, and glutenous grain meals and flours. The bulk of our historical use of grains (particularly) has been with sprouted grains which act more proteinous than their un-sprouted, refined relatives.

    And with milk, my understanding is that *raw* milk *is* good for humans, and contains much less lactose. The heavy lactose content of pasteurized milk comes from the chemical changes in the milk brought about by cooking it down. And if it comes from cows who *aren’t* grass-fed, rbgh-free, and organic, then it comes with a host of other less than desirable aspects.

    Again, I think our Cro-Magnon antecedents had it more right than we do: mostly raw whole foods, nothing processed or pasteurized, no intentionally addictive food products or additives, and bed times that most coincided with the sunset. I bet they didn’t have Hell Hour either!

    Thanks again for another stellar post!

    • I agree Nathan, I don’t think the Cro-Magnons would have had Hell Hour. They also didn’t have the highly processed foods that we are constantly exposed to – whether that is sugar based or grain based. I agree that our bodies do react differently to processed carbs than they do to fruits and veges. It just does my head in when people tell me they don’t eat carbs – meaning they have given up the processed stuff and starchy veges not that they have given up all carbs; it’s as if they think fruit and veges are their own food group or something! I don’t know about raw milk. I’m sure it’s better for us than the high processed variety that we are usually served, but my interpretation of the information was that it was all milk product ( unless fermented like yoghurts – but then many of them have very high sugar content) that was an issue for most people.
      And as for the dawn to dusk sleeping – I love it during winter, but during the peak of summer our dark time is later than what I would want the kids up. Yet, I’m sure it would make more sense to our bodies, rather than torturing them with electricity!

  11. faemom says:

    I am always completely amazed how much food and sleep matter to mood. For the last couple months the teachers were telling us that Evan was near to falling asleep in the afternoons and he just was derailed by the smallest of problems. When we, as his parents, asked what we could do, the teachers suggested more protein at lunch and earlier to bed. So added an egg or cheese to his lunches and got him In Bed by 8, instead of starting to put him down at 8. It’s worked beautifully. It’s so easy too. Thanks for the post.

  12. kaet says:

    It’s not just kids, of course. If *I* go more than a few hours without food I get grumpy, whereas DH seems to manage on basically eating twice a day, so these days we eat together pretty much whenever he’s having a meal, and then I eat other times too. DD is still unscheduled and exclusively breastfed, but it’ll be something to watch in the coming months and years.

    • Hi Kaet,
      DH’s do like to keep things interesting, don’t they? I certainly am happier if I spread my food intake out over the day too…and slimmer (when not pregnant or feeding) for that matter. 😉

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