Every ADHD Mama Story starts like this, but I truly love being able to share stories of other mamas on this ADHD parenting journey. I am always humbled and completely riveted by these stories and immediately find a kinship with these gals who fight like a mother to find lots of natural solutions for ADHD that ease, treat, and even erase, the symptoms your child may be struggling with.
Our latest ADHD mama story features Shawna Hughes, a nutritionist and ADHD Mama of two girls, living in Canada. I was drawn to her IG account with lots of yummy, healthy food ideas, including tons of killer ideas for school lunches.
You’re going to love this ADHD Mama Story!
Shawna, tell us about your life as an ADHD Mama
Shawna Hughes: One of my two daughters has an attention deficit (inattentive type without hyperactivity) and anxiety. She is also highly sensitive to stimuli such as sounds, touch, smells, and she startles very easily.
She is “that child” who notices and feels everything. For example, it took us years (and thousands of dollars) to teach her to swim because the sensation of water in her nose, ears and eyes sent her into hysterics.
Her main struggles are with distractibility and hyperfocus, and we never know when and where which one will strike! This combination means a typical day for us involves a constant collection of projects “on the go” which will never be completed – a book she’s writing, a picture half-drawn, a structure half-built, etc.
What have you found to help with distractibility?
Shawna Hughes: A lot of reminders to clean up are necessary.
We’ve implemented a daily “big sweep” cleanup at the end of each day to deal with it. Just having that in the routine now is a big help – we still do a lot of reminders before bedtime but now it’s becoming routine.
She is also easily distracted by her own daydreams and worries – she might not hear my question (or her teacher’s instructions) 4 or 5 times because she’s “not there”.
We are very fortunate in that she is in a great school with very supportive staff, so she has, for the most part, felt comfortable and done well in school.
We also have benefits that allow us to utilize a child psychologist who specializes in both ADHD and Anxiety. Through Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), she has been learning how to change her thought patterns that lead to anxiety.
She has also been able to identify some habit forming strategies to stay organized. It is an ongoing battle with me (I am also inattentive ADD and disorganized) so helping her to stay on top of things is also helping me to model that behaviour.
My own professional expertise has allowed us to maintain a very balanced diet and a lifestyle that has helped. Minimal screen time (except when school is online!), blue blockers, supplements, etc. have all led to improvements.
“Our routines are rock solid”
When things go “off”, during times when I’m sick, stressed, vacations, etc. there is a definite devolution. Her focus, sleep, and mood all suffer.
So, our life involves making sure our routine is solid. A day without structure is an absolute nightmare. I really cannot emphasize this enough.
Pretty much the only days I yell are the days without structure.
I have to ensure healthy foods, adequate activity, daily time outdoors, and a rock-solid sleep routine. Sleeplessness has been a big issue for her as it really affects her focus (like any of us!).
“I wouldn’t change a thing!”
Shawna Hughes: Some people feel sorry for me, saying “oh, you have to be so on top of things to keep her calm and functioning well” but I wouldn’t change her for anything.
Everything has two sides to it: sure, she’s distractible, but she’s also open to trying anything; She is hyper focused, but that helps her develop certain talents she is passionate about like drawing. She’s highly sensitive, but understanding her own feelings has helped her become the most empathic person I know.
Plus, our life is so routine now, it just feels like that’s the way any typical family would function.
What were your earliest challenges with your kiddo?
Shawna Hughes: From almost birth, my child has always been very sensitive and needy. She was extremely sensitive to noises or other kids touching her. She was a fearful child, and was very uncomfortable in groups of children (more than maybe 3-4 children).
I’ve dealt with anxiety for basically my whole lifetime, so I just assumed she was anxious, which she was, but I didn’t realize there was more to it.
I decided to homeschool her after preschool as she was not adjusting well to preschool…it was too much stimulation for her to handle. She would avoid the other children for much of the day and when she returned home, it was meltdown city. Even after months, she was very nervous being dropped off (and it was only half days!).
She did extremely well with homeschooling. We followed a Waldorf curriculum which I supplemented with math and language worksheets. It was actually ideal because there was only her baby sister to distract her and because of her hyperfocus, we could get a ton of work done each morning. Then our afternoon was free for starting her endless projects or meeting with a local homeschool group of 6-8 kids.
I began to feel overwhelmed with the time and responsibility of homeschool. I also knew she was getting more comfortable socializing. I slowly exposed her to larger and larger groups of kids at a time and by grade 2, she was ready for “the big school”.
The term, “Attention Deficit” was introduced to us
Shawna Hughes: This notion of an attention deficit was brought to my attention by her teachers when we were considering moving her into a French immersion program. They told me they were concerned because she is often inattentive in school and they notice they have to repeat things multiple times.
I didn’t really believe this (she had always received good grades!) However, when schools shut down due to COVID, this distractibility was evident to me when school was online. She would seem to be paying attention, then would ask immediately “what are we doing?”.
Simultaneously, her anxiety peaked because of online learning; I had avoided screen time and she had a hard time navigating the online classroom. This is when we sought help for both issues from a psychologist.
The ADHD revelation came as a shock because she has never struggled in school. Her challenges have mostly come from social situations (fear of doing new things, new places as a young child) and forgetfulness (now we know it’s more than likely she didn’t notice the thing she was supposed to remember).
However, hindsight is 20/20 and I realize she was very distractible and overwhelmed in preschool. She has also been extremely hyper focused since toddlerhood. She never struggled academically because she’s naturally bright and remembers easily. I have since learned of many cases, mostly girls, whose attention deficits were not recognized because they had always “done well in school”.
Looking back, what’s something you’ve done that’s had a huge positive effect?
Shawna Hughes: I think homeschooling her for two years was helpful – it slowly got her accustomed to bigger groups, noises, etc. I also provided specific instructions on how to socialize (ex: “find another quiet kid and go say hi”).
She thrived with those very specific instructions for how to handle situations, because as you know ADHD kids often struggle socially.
It seems basic, but having a daily routine has also been hugely important for years. Even though I didn’t recognize the ADD, I knew from very early on that she was not functioning well without solid structure every day. The Waldorf curriculum also was so helpful because it follows the rhythm of the seasons, so not only did she have a daily routine and a weekly routine, but an annual routine of seasonal activities.
Does your kiddo have an official ADHD diagnosis ?
Shawna Hughes: She does not.
When seeking help, the psychology clinic director told me that getting an official diagnosis was a long process and given that she was the inattentive type, with no major behavioural issues, like aggression, that would warrant medication, it was not necessary.
I was told “you can go get that label if you want but the treatment whether she gets diagnosed or not is exactly the same – counseling to help with her organization and anxiety”.
In the end, we opted to just get started with counseling and I’m glad because it’s helped her so much already. She knows that she “thinks a bit differently” but there is no official diagnosis.
How did your clean eating journey begin?
Shawna Hughes: My passion for nutrition started when I was pregnant with my oldest- I started researching to make sure I was eating the right nutrients and I found SO much conflicting information. This seems to have triggered an obsession of sorts.
I began learning more and more on my own and figuring out how diet relates to pretty much any childhood health concern. Eventually, I ended up going back to school to get my Registered Holistic Nutritionist designation.
I focus on ADHD because, of course, it’s close to my heart. So, I went down a rabbit hole that I still seem to be trapped in lol.
So, in my case, I was always very careful with my kids’ diet. I was never very strict about completely eliminating things like gluten and dairy, but I always made sure they were eating lower sugar, adequate protein, adequate fat, and more whole vs packaged foods, etc.
The main thing I look out for with my girls is their digestion.
Digestion and mental health are SO related and I find whatever makes her digestion suffer also affects the ADHD adversely.
How do you know if your kids’ digestion is not okay?
Shawna Hughes: Digestive issues are sometimes obvious like abdominal pain, bloating, and flatulence.
Also, watch out for constipation and/or diarrhea (this might require you asking your children about their bowel movements, which can be awkward, but most kids are willing to talk about poop!).
Also, pain during a bowel movement is something to watch for. Another sign of digestive distress is frequent heartburn.
What other natural remedies do you find useful?
Shawna Hughes: I always give both kids an Omega-3 supplement and probiotics – I know that without probiotics, their digestion can get a bit wonky and as mentioned above, it is so closely linked to mental health.
Omega 3s are shown to be lower in people with ADHD and they are crucial to cognitive health, so we always take a Mercury-tested Omega 3.
I’ve recently taken an interest in adaptogens, which are natural substances considered to help the body adapt to stress. Specifically, I’m finding Tulsi tea (holy basil) is helping her relax at night so sleep is easier. And I love it too!
How do you handle healthy food with your family?
I don’t believe it is ever a good idea to single out one child as the recipient of a “special diet” and I think the reasons for that are obvious. They feel left out and it’s also a pain in the butt to make multiple meals for everyone.
I don’t believe a strict elimination diet is for everyone – often it is just too much stress to follow and most importantly, it’s not necessary. We do really well with an omnivorous, low sugar, low refined food, minimal dairy, mainly organic diet.
The dairy is minimal because I’ve found it leads to digestive problems for ¾ of our family members. When I do buy dairy, it is goat or sheep milk based, as both are easier to digest.
I also avoid food coloring like the plague, lol, but once in a while, it finds its way in there anyway.
What have you learned about yourself during this parenting journey?
I’ve learned that I need to adapt my expectations and communicate better regarding expectations.
My daughter was feeling a lot of pressure surrounding school, and I thought “I never pressure her to get good grades”, but she was feeling that pressure so I think I was not communicating expectations well.
I’ve also learned to adapt to almost any situation – my job before was in Recreation Therapy, so I was constantly adapting activities for people with disabilities and I’ve learned to take a very similar approach with parenting. Adapting routines, instructions, etc. to help my daughter reach her full potential.
How do you tackle school lunches?
I LOVE Bento Boxes – I find it’s the greatest approach because there’s variety. A lot of kids get so bored eating a sandwich every day or they end up with a bunch of packages of processed foods because parents don’t have a lot of time.
So, I spend way too much time thinking about potential additions to bento boxes – things that are little to no prep work, that are nutritious, and will actually get eaten on a regular basis.
There are many options for brands of Bento Boxes now, but the two best ones I’ve found, in terms of durability and size are Yumbox and PlanetBox. Both will last years with typical use. If you don’t like Bento boxes, or find them too pricey, you can just use 5 little containers to hold lunch components. (Like these or these)
Tips for filling up your Bento Box
A guideline for filling up a typical, 5 compartment lunch box is to remember to include: 2 sections with fruit/veggies, 1 section with another carb (bread/sandwich, crackers, rice cakes, etc.) and 2 sections with protein.
Adequate protein is so important for little (and big!) ADHD’ers because they need it to make neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin. Protein also helps to stabilize blood sugar, which stabilizes energy and focus. The following is a list of examples of what can go in each compartment. These are all easy, minimal prep items.
- Fruit: berries – strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, golden berries, blackberries, cherries, clementines, grapes, pre-cut fruit like melon and pineapple
- Veggies: baby carrots, cherry tomatoes, mini cucumbers, green or yellow beans, peas in the pod, radishes, pre-cut veggies like cauliflower and broccoli
- Carbs/grains: wraps, sandwich, crackers, melba toast, low sugar, higher protein cereals or granola, rice cakes (in a separate ziploc or they go mushy)
- Protein: trail mix – Healthy Crunch Makes Nut-free versions, nuts (if allowed)…add a few chocolate chips for fun, hard boiled eggs, edamame, tofu (flavoured versions are available almost everywhere), chickpeas – plain or roasted (available at most grocery stores), bean salad, energy balls with a nut or seed butter base, cheese, yogurt, chia pudding (make ahead)
*2 big rules to remember when planning lunches:
1. Get your kids input – show them a list of healthy options that you’re willing to buy and have them choose a couple from each category. Kids are far more accepting of foods that they’ve had a say in choosing.
2. Always include some familiar things you know they’ll eat. One reason I love Bento boxes is that they are a great way to introduce new foods/brands – by filling 4 compartments with things you know they like, and using the 5th as a way to expose them to something new, you can easily encourage more adventurous eating.
Another thing to remember is that 4 big things that can influence how much your child eats at lunchtime.
1. Growth spurts – kids will often eat literally 2-3 times as much food during a growth spurt. Likewise, they might eat way less between growth spurts. They are not like adults in terms of needing essentially the same calories each day so don’t panic if you see a few days of full lunchboxes returning home.
2. Front loading – if your kid is a big breakfast eater, they might not be too hungry by lunch – especially if lunch is earlier (my kids’ lunch is at 11:15am!). Also, some days they might really load up on breakfast if it is a favourite so you suddenly get a full lunch box coming home.
3. Distraction – of course ADHD moms know about distraction – when there’s so much stuff to look at at school, kids can get too distracted to eat a lot.
4. Medication – ADHD meds are notorious for ruining appetites. Oftentimes kids don’t eat all day while they’re medicated and they arrive home ravenous as their meds wear off.
What if a lunch box comes home full?
Whatever the reason for a full lunchbox coming home, try to get into the habit of offering them their lunchbox when they arrive home (rather than fixing a new snack for them). This reduces waste, and reduces picky eating habits – not to mention, it’s less work for you!
There are alot of moving parts when it comes to ADHD and lunch so try not to be too shocked or disappointed if a lot of stuff comes home sometimes. Try again. Use it as a snack for them or for yourself to avoid waste.
Do you have tips for picky eaters?
Shawna Hughes: My basic advice is 3-fold:
- Focus on repeated exposure – start bringing in new whole foods like fruit, veggies, good protein sources. Always offer them repeatedly without pressure. Kids eat what they’re used to, so if you just give up after one try, they won’t get used to the new foods and are not likely to ever eat them regularly. Yes, it can sometimes take 20 times for them to decide if they like something.
- Always offer the new food alongside something you know they like. That way, you know they will eat and not get panicked about only having the new food to eat. Also, it’s less pressure because it’s just extra food.
- Get them involved in food prep and planning. Kids need to feel a bit of power and letting them choose a recipe, a new fruit to try, or a new cereal provides them a bit of control and they are more willing to eat new things in a situation where they feel some control. Also, getting them into food prep helps with the exposure to new foods – even if they don’t eat it, they’ve touched, smelled, and seen it for a decent amount of time – that counts as exposure!
Read more in this post of Shawna’s about picky eaters!
Do you have any tips for staying in a food budget?
Shawna Hughes: Meal planning is the best way to stay on budget. Many people think healthy eating is expensive, but if you factor in the amount of money wasted on food waste, it doesn’t have to be.
Making a meal plan and sticking to it really cuts back on waste and will also prevent those last minute runs to the grocery store for pre-made convenience food and take-out trips, which can add up.
Also, don’t go nuts when trying out a new food. Buy one pint of green beans, not 3…you can never predict what they’ll like.
And, most importantly, shop around and take advantage of sales. Fancier grocery stores can sometimes charge more, especially for produce and meat. Trying a few stores and asking neighbours and friends can help.
As for sales, meal planning and sales can go hand in hand – if beef is on sale, you can plan a meal around that, etc.
Have you found any school interventions helpful?
Shawna Hughes: We haven’t really explored any specific interventions but my daughter’s teacher this year let her do her group work in a small private room to avoid distractions which helped.
During online school she was given extra time to complete the test and given extra instructions. We are so lucky to be in a great school with wonderful, kind teachers to take extra time to help their kids.
There have definitely been flexible deadlines too – I think they see her effort – she really does love to learn, so they provide some flexibility and it pays off.
We don’t have the same system in Canada – a lot of the time, “informal” accommodations are made for kids.
How do you help families dealing with symptoms of ADHD?
Shawna Hughes: When I meet with a new client, the first step is always balancing out the diet and improving digestion. We also try to look at trends, using a food diary, to pinpoint any trigger foods (gluten and dairy are common).
Balancing the diet includes reducing or eliminating chemical color, flavor, and preservatives. We also work on decreasing sugar and refined foods and ensuring adequate protein.
Introducing more whole foods is always a big part of the process. I help parents by providing recipe options, brands, quick tips, as well as practical advice on introducing new foods (how to do it to minimize resistance, language to use, etc.)
“I empower parents to be an active part in managing their child’s ADHD. “
Parents often think that only medication or a psychologist can help with symptoms. But parents have a lot of options they can use to help their children.
I often tell parents “don’t ever let anyone tell you that there’s nothing you, as a parent, can do to help. There is always something you can do to help – either with diet or lifestyle. You can make a difference”.
Where can people connect with you and find out more about the work you do?
My website is www.shawnahughesnutrition.com
My FB is @shawnahughesnutrition – and checkout her private Facebook Group, as well.
My IG is @shawnahughesadhdnutrition.
Thanks so much Shawna!! It’s so great to hear about your journey and all that you have done to help your daughter with natural remedies for ADHD. Your story will resonate with so many other ADHD mama’s – both those beginning their journey and the seasoned ones. We have so much to learn from each other.
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