Dialectical Behavior Therapy

Is Food Influencing My Child or Teen’s Mood? Using the DBT Skill, PLEASE

In times past, when a child or teen was suffering with anxiety, depression or other mental health issues we would just consider counseling and medicine. Now, we know how critical healthy, nutritious food is to the brain and it’s role in our mood. The truth is, what we put in our body directly affects how we feel . . . emotionally and physically.

I know for myself when I eat processed or highly sugary foods, I feel bad. I feel sluggish, tired, and want nothing more than to take a nap. And for me, It takes approximately 4 hours to get to the other side of those effects.

It is well known that repetitive, unhealthy eating causes mood swings. Processed or sugary foods cause blood sugar to rapidly rise and fall –along with our mood. Another culprit of mood swings occurs when youth skip meals or avoid certain food groups all together.

The other day I received an article from The Amen Clinics, run by Dr. Daniel Amen. I have followed his work for years; he is a pioneer in the studies of the brain and SPECT imaging. SPECT imaging is a way for doctors to look inside the brain, studying an individual’s brain activity and it’s resulting effects on the person’s mental health. In other words, they can view the brain and see if a person is suffering from depression, anxiety, autism, ADD, addiction, memory problems, sleep problems as well as other issues. Not only is this revolutionary, it is so cool!

Dr. Amen’s work aligns with the value of healthy foods on youth’s emotional functioning. He endorses a clean diet which can actually boost a child or teen’s mood. On the flip side, food allergens which are typically gluten, soy, corn, dairy, sugar, and MSG can cause mood problems.

In particular, the article reports that a client eliminated all these potential allergens from his diet. He slowly added them back, one by one. When he added corn back into his diet, “he almost immediately got an image of putting a gun in his mouth and pulling the trigger.” (Find the full articlel at the Amen Clinic website.)

Yes, you read that right. Eating corn led to suicidal thinking for this individual. Now, this does not mean every person will have the same reaction to corn. At the same time, it is worth investigating how your child or teen responds to different foods and how it may directly affect his or her mood.

One way we can educate youth and get them on board to the importance of their body and mood is through the DBT skill, PLEASE. This emotion regulation skill can be found on pages 155- 160 in DBT Therapeutic Activity Ideas for Working With Teens. Each letter in the skill refers to a different step leading to a healthy body and maintaining a balanced mood.

The PL means treat physical illness, reminding youth to take their medicines and see a doctor when they are ill. We have all experienced the grumpiness of a sick child or teen. If a person is not feeling well, it is challenging to keep their emotions in check.

E is balance eating. This encourages youth to eat healthy, clean food; and to eat three meals and two snacks each day. We do not want them getting too hungry as this leads to imbalanced mood, also known as “Hangry.”

A or avoid mood altering substances. Alcohol and drugs make youth, or anyone, more vulnerable to dysregulated moods.

S stands for balance sleep. Youth need their sleep! They need sleep for their bodies to grow and develop. Youth need from 7 to 9 or even 10 hours of sleep a night; a tired, worn out child or teen has a extremely hard time keeping their mood in balance.

E indicates the youth’s need for daily exercise. It is imperative for youth to identify fun ways to exercise; this can include jumping rope, running, taking a pet for a walk, skateboarding, swimming and the list goes on and on. The important message is: find a fun way to get your body moving for your mood and overall health.

Carol Lozier is a therapist, author, and blogger specializing in trauma; and adoptive and foster kids, teens, and adults. Ms. Lozier is in private practice in Louisville, KY.

2 thoughts on “Is Food Influencing My Child or Teen’s Mood? Using the DBT Skill, PLEASE”

    1. Hi Melissa, great question as youth can often be resistant. Start where the youth is at in the skill, reinforce that choice or behavior, and then slowly work on adding the next steps in the behavior to ultimately reaching the end goal (this is referred to as Shaping behavior).
      For example, let’s say your child often refuses or argues about brushing his or her teeth at bedtime. Maybe the first step would be the child holding the toothbrush while you put on the toothpaste and brush the child’s teeth. Reinforce this behavior verbally and you can add non verbal rewards (sticker, chart) as well.
      Once this behavior is gained, then add the child holding the toothbrush and putting on the toothpaste while parent brushes the teeth; reinforce this behavior, and so on until the child is brushing his or her own teeth at bedtime.


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