Spiderman. Elsa. Pokémon. Batman. Halloween is always an exciting holiday for kids, dressing up as their favorite characters and heading out for Trick-or-Treating. All that candy! For any parent, managing the bag of candy that comes home that night can be challenging. But for parents whose children have ADHD, with all of that candy comes extra stress. For years researchers have been studying the effects of sugar on kids with ADHD. If you’ve ever attended a child’s birthday party then you’ve witnessed the surge of energy that fills the room after cake and ice cream have been served. So, it may seem like a no brainer that kids with ADHD, who already have a lot of energy, are going to be even more hyperactive after eating sugary food and drinks– which may leave you wondering why researchers even need to study something that seems so obvious! Well, the results from this research may surprise you. Many studies have found no causal relationship between sugar and hyperactivity in kids with ADHD, while others suggest that only a subset of kids with ADHD experience a negative reaction to sugar. Another line of research indicates that certain food dyes, which are often found in sugary foods and drinks, only modestly increase hyperactivity in kids with ADHD, and may have the greatest effect on kids who are very sensitive to food additives.
But wait, you know your child, and you know their ADHD gets worse when they eat sugar. You’ve seen it! Well, your child may simply be more sensitive to sugar or food dyes than many of the kids in these studies. Or, maybe there are alternative explainations that published research findings have not yet addressed. For starters, kids with ADHD are often more emotional than kids without ADHD, and when they get excited they are bursting with energy and enthusiasm. So, on holidays like Halloween they may get caught up in the excitement and their hyperactivity may shoot through the roof regardless of what they eat. Alternatively, when any child (or adult) eats way too much sugar in one sitting – far more sugar than has been examined in any studies – they become more hyperactive, inattentive, and irritable. Impulsive kids with ADHD are less likely to have an “off” switch when it comes to eating candy, and in fact some researchers have shown the kids with ADHD eat more sugar than kids without ADHD on a regular basis. In practice this means that they will continue to eat more candy long after many other children have stopped, especially when presented with a nearly bottomless bag of Halloween treats. And since they have eaten so much more sugar, it wouldn’t be surprising if they experienced greater side effects than kids without ADHD.
If Halloween candy causes problems for your child, either because they eat too much or because they are very sensitive to the effects of sugar and food additives, then there are things that you can do to limit how much candy they eat without taking the fun out of Trick-or-Treating. The Switch WitchTM www.switch-witch.com is a great option that kids love. The night of Halloween, kids leave a pile of candy next to an adorable stuffed witch, who magically trades it out for special non-sugary gifts while they sleep. Kids still get treats, like small toys or healthier fun foods like popcorn, which helps them feel okay about giving up their candy. As an alternative, some parents simply allow their kids to trade their candy for money, 10 cents for each piece or a dollar per pound, which usually goes over pretty well too! Not sure what you would do with all of the candy that your child won’t be eating? Consider donating to a local soup kitchen or to troops stationed overseas through a candy buy-back program at a local dentist’s office www.halloweencandybuyback.com or through Operation Gratitude www.operationgraditude.com.
Sugar can be “tricky”, not wanting to deny your kids the fun and connections to friends that happen around birthday cakes, ice cream and Halloween candy. But moderating the sugar intake of all kids – and especially those with ADHD and sugar sensitivities – can actually help keep your child’s energy and emotions in balance so they can connect with friends and enjoy the parties and holiday that they look forward to all year long.
Mary Rooney, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California San Francisco. Dr Rooney is a researcher and clinician specializing in the evaluation and treatment of ADHD and co-occurring behavioral, anxiety, and mood disorders. A strong advocate for those with attention and behavior problems, Dr. Rooney is committed to developing and providing comprehensive, cutting edge treatments tailored to meet the unique needs of each child and adolescent. Dr. Rooney's clinical interventions and research avenues emphasize working closely with parents and teachers to create supportive, structured home and school environments that enable children and adolescents to reach their full potential. In addition, Dr. Rooney serves as a consultant and ADHD expert to Huntington Learning Centers.
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