Ask An Expert / Behavior Problems

My son gets angry easily and is anxious about it. Will a safe, over-the-counter remedy or a gluten-free diet help?

Understanding what's behind anger is the first step to helping a child who's anxious about it

Ron J. Steingard, MD
Ron J. Steingard, MD

Associate Medical Director; Senior Pediatric Psychopharmacologist

Child Mind Institute

My son gets angry easily and is very anxious about it. Is there anything over the counter (like Saint John's wort) that is safe for children and would help with this? I have been told that a gluten-free diet may help also. Is that true?

A child who is unusually angry and is anxious about it should be evaluated to understand the cause for his anger and anxiety. Interventions like behavioral therapy may be effective for him without thinking about altering his diet or using a compound. That’s what would I would recommend first.

There is very limited literature about most of the over-the-counter compounds that would support a recommendation for their use. There are a lot of stories, but there’s not a whole lot of research. Some over-the-counter remedies have side effects like medications do. So you need to be very careful if you’re going to consider using them. It’s not our recommendation.

As for a gluten-free diet, that has a meaningful effect only for people who have problems handling gluten. There are people with what’s called Celiac disease who really have difficulty with gluten and it results in intestinal damage. That’s something that can be tested. In the absence of evidence of that your son is gluten-intolerant, the likelihood that a gluten-free diet will do anything to affect his behavior is small.

If his anger is causing him trouble, you really should see a mental health professional. Anger can be the result of a lot of different things, and understanding where it’s coming from is the first step to treating it.