670: Anxiety in Kids and Breaking the Stress Cyclone With Jess Sherman

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Anxiety in Kids and Breaking the Stress Cyclone with Jess Sherman
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The Wellness Mama Podcast
670: Anxiety in Kids and Breaking the Stress Cyclone With Jess Sherman
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I’m here today with Jess Sherman, who has her master’s in teaching, and is a Functional Diagnostic Nutrition Practitioner and board certified in Practical Holistic Nutrition. She helps kids experiencing anxiety to feel better in a very comprehensive way. Jess actively works to help doctors, therapists, teachers, kids, and their parents understand and apply a whole child, whole body trauma sensitive approach.

This approach also focuses on nutrition and lifestyle factors to help kids from the outside in and the inside out. With anxiety at an all time high for our kids, Jess has a great take on how we can help. Jess has online programs, virtual coaching, and a book, Raising Resilience to help parents take the stress out of feeding their family. We talk about why nutrition is so deeply linked to mental health and anxiety.

Jess goes over everything from adventure therapy to her definition of resilience: being adaptable in the face of stress. And we go over how the the nervous system is very hungry and how we can nurture and nourish resilience. We’re often told how kids are so resilient, but often the damage from situations can just go unnoticed for a while. By feeding our children’s nervous systems they become much more resilient and able to adapt to the stressors of life.

I had a lot of fun talking with Jess and I’m sure you’ll enjoy our talk as much as I did!

Episode Highlights With Jess

  • How she trained in adventure therapy and learned to race dog sleds
  • What adventure therapy is and how it can be helpful
  • Resilience is being adaptable in the face of stress and how to nurture this
  • The nervous system is very hungry
  • What biological resilience is and how to increase it
  • Lack of nourishment sends a signal of being unsafe to the body and can deplete resilience
  • How focusing on the root cause specific to anxiety can lead to parents and children feeling stuck
  • What she means by the cyclone of stress
  • Her model for nervous system health
  • Understanding the five core nourishment needs and limiting the five core stressors
  • The hidden stressors that send messages of threat to the nervous system
  • How genetics come into play in mood and behavior and how understanding them can help parents
  • Sleep issues are also connected to safety and nervous system health
  • What a lack of sleep can indicate and how to help kids through it
  • Importance of approaching these factors with curiosity and help kids take agency from their own health as they get older

Resources We Mention

More From Wellness Mama

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Katie: Hello, and welcome to the Wellness Mama Podcast. I’m Katie from wellnessmama.com, and this episode goes deep on raising resilience in our kids, dealing with anxiety in kids, and breaking the stress cyclone. And I really enjoyed recording this episode. It was a really cool take on a lot of these common issues that are facing a lot of kids today. And I’m here with Jess Sherman, who helps kids experiencing anxiety to feel better so that life can settle down. And she does this through a very comprehensive approach that we get to go deep on today. Along with being a certified teacher, she’s also a functional diagnostic nutrition practitioner, a board certified practical holistic nutritionist. With anxiety and kids at an all time high, she is working actively to help doctors, therapists, teachers, kids and parents understand and apply a whole child, whole body trauma sensitive nutrition and lifestyle focused approach of helping them from the outside in and the inside out. We talk a lot about those approaches in this episode.

Her book is called Raising Resilience, and it takes the stress out of feeding your family. And she has online programs as well as virtual coaching that have reached families all over the world. And in this episode, we go deep on a lot of these topics. We talk about everything from adventure therapy to her definition of resilience, which I love, which is that resilience is being adaptable in the face of stress and how we can nurture this in our family, how the nervous system is very hungry and actually, biologically, to nurture resilience needs a lot of different nutrients. And how to actively do that.

We talk about how lack of nourishment sends a signal of being unsafe to the body and can deplete resilience, how focusing on the root cause specific to anxiety can actually lead to parents and children feeling stuck. This is a really unique perspective, and I think a very valuable one. We talk about what she means by the cyclone of stress, her model for nervous system health, understanding the five core nourishment needs and limiting the five core stressors, the hidden stressors that send messages of threat to the nervous system. We go deep on sleep issues and how to those, what lack of sleep can indicate, and how to help our kids through it and so much more. I really love so many of the things she says from a health perspective and also from a parenting and mindset perspective. This is a really fun episode. If you are a parent as well, I know that you will enjoy it and learn a lot, just as I did. So let’s join Jess. Jess. Welcome. Thanks so much for being here.

Jess: I’m excited for this conversation, Katie. This is exciting.

Katie: I am excited, too. And as a mom myself, I’m very excited to talk about resilience and stress and anxiety. But first, I have a note from your bio that you spent a winter training with a dog sled racing team, and I would love to hear a little more about this because I got to do dog sled racing only once when visiting Finland. And it was such a cool experience, though, freezing, because I’m used to Florida, so I would love to hear what led to that and what that experience was like.

Jess: Oh, yeah, no, it’s fun. Hey, it’s so much fun. And I had done dog sledding before. I was working in adventure therapy at the time, so I was taking kids mostly, but also adults as well, on outdoor experiences. And my job had ended, my relationship had ended, and I was like, I got to go do something different. And I found out this is a thing you can actually go. You’re called a handler when you’re helping with the dogs, and it was a sprint racing team, and they needed someone to help with their dogs, and they had like, I think, 52 dogs or something in their yard. So I went up to Alaska. I really wanted to go up there, and I loved dogs, so it seemed like a great opportunity to get up there in the winter. I’m not sure why I wanted to go to Alaska in the winter, but it was an amazing experience, and I wasn’t very good at it. Let’s just leave it at that.

Katie: I love that.

Jess: I was so small. Like, I’m a small person, right? And these dogs are huge, and they would whip around the corners and throw me off the sled, and it was humbling, for sure.

Katie: That’s such a fun story. When I got to try it, one of the dogs had just had puppies and it took everything in me not to sneak in there and bring the puppies into my Igloo and cuddle them and keep them warm. But they explained to me that if I did that they’re actually meant to adapt to the cold and that they’re very resilient. Which is ironic because that is a theme word for today. But I had not heard that called adventure therapy before. I love that as a concept, I feel like that’s maybe a thing I without knowing that was even a thing, intuitively did for myself when I was working through various phases of healing.

And the concept of resilience is one we talk a lot about in my house and my kids. We have a motto that you are made to do hard things. And I’ve tried to communicate to them since they were very little that I believe they are infinitely capable and resilient and strong. And I know that you have done so much work around here. You have a book called Raising Resilience I believe, and I would love to hear you give some background of that concept and what led to that before we jump into specifics.

Jess: Yeah, well, it started with adventure therapy, because that was the whole thing. Our whole premise with that work was taking people into new environments and helping them experience new things, hard things, quote unquote. Mostly it was perceptively hard. It wasn’t actually dangerous. We had this big thing between actual risk and perceived risk, right? So we would put them into perceived risky situations that we actually had total control over, or not total control over, and it would allow them to shift and find new parts of them and themselves and expand their resilience. And so I didn’t know it as the word resilience at the time, but that’s where it started.

I was really, really interested in what makes people tick, what makes people grow, how do people put limiting beliefs on themselves and how can we remove those beliefs? And when you put someone up a climbing wall or you take someone down a river or they’re camping for the first time and they never thought they could do this without their cell phone, for example, right. They see different sides of themselves. And so it was really rewarding work. And it took me into teaching, and I went into the classroom, and I kind of wanted to do the same thing in the classroom. But classrooms have have a whole bunch of limiting factors. But it was still about helping kids develop resilience and learn new things and try new things.

And when I got burned out of teaching and I started studying nutrition, then I learned a whole different dimension on what resilience is as well, which is the whole biological piece of what allows a nervous system to self regulate and to grow in the face of stress. And that just blew my mind, because I was like, wow, it takes a heck of a lot of energy and stamina and nutritional resources to actually have resilience and to be capable of being adaptable in the face of stress, which is really what my working definition of resilience is, being able to go through a stressful situation and grow from it and learn from it rather than be crippled by it and have it not defeat you, but go into a depression or go into a panic attack.

Katie: Oh, so many things I love about what you just said, and I love that definition. That was something I realized for myself as well as even in physical healing. In the early phases, I was on a much more restrictive diet and I had a very dialed in protocol. And at some point I realized to me, this is not the optimal definition of healthy. If I feel great, but only in this very narrow, limited set of circumstances that I have to tightly control at all times and adaptability or resilience to me. I realized became that my body could handle whatever inputs I put into it, still with the goal of putting good inputs most of the time, but that I wanted to be much more adaptable. And I guess resilient would be a great term for that.

And I love that you touched on the idea of actual versus perceived risk. And it seems like from a mindset perspective, this is something kids also have to learn sort of trial by doing, in a way. And I know other people have talked about how maybe kids aren’t getting enough of opportunity to learn that on their own at an early age because we live in such a safe society. But are you seeing that as well? Do you think there’s an aspect of kids not having enough opportunity sometimes to be able to develop their own ability to evaluate risk and to learn from it and to become resilient? Because it seems like this isn’t a thing we can give them exogenously in a sense, they have to sort of be able to develop it themselves.

Jess: Yeah, I think as this brings up a lot of the parenting aspect of it, as things have gotten busier and stressful and I think things have kind of narrowed for kids. They don’t have as much time to play. They don’t have as much space to play. We’re really prioritizing reading and learning. We’re having them sit, we’re having them listen. We know that that’s not really what kids need. We know kids need to move and they need to play and they need to get outside, they need to experiment. So yeah, I do think it’s getting harder for kids to access those kinds of situations.

When I worked in adventure therapy, we were literally constructing those situations for inner city folks who really had no resource for that. Like they had no accessibility, so they’d have to travel for a couple of hours to get to us and get plopped in the middle of the woods. But there are also various programs now that are really geared for how do you open up that experience within a city, for example, there’s all kinds of cool experiences you can have without going out into the woods. So yeah, it’s getting harder, but it’s worth finding for kids. I think it’s made a big difference to my kids having we’ve just incorporated that into our into our child raising, to our parenting.

Katie: I love that. And you also use the term biological resilience and you mentioned that it takes a lot of resources. I would love to hear what some of those factors are and maybe some of the ways we can kind of nurture or support those resources within ourselves from a biological resilience perspective.

Jess: Yeah, I think one of the things I realized when I started to understand nutrition and understand the nervous system is that the nervous system is very hungry. It needs a lot of nourishment. And in the model that I use, I call it Raising Resilience. And I talk about five ways that we nourish our kids. And one of them is food. Like they need real food because our nervous system can’t first of all, it can’t function well, it can’t self regulate well. It can’t respond to stress appropriately if it’s not well, nourished.

But second of all, when you have a lack of nourishment, your nervous system is going to perceive threat. That’s its sole job. When the body is threatened, the nervous system responds. So kids are stuck in this vicious cycle when they’re really stressed because they need more nutrition to support their stress response. They’re often not getting it. And then the nervous system is responding with the stress response because it’s getting, not getting the right nutrition. So I call it the stress cyclone that the kids are in. Stress begets stress begets stress. And it’s really about how messages of threat and worry cycle through the body and how can we translate those into messages of common safety. And it starts with nourishing, the nervous system with the right nutrients.

Katie: That makes sense. It makes sense to me that all of these things are obviously so connected. And I learned this firsthand too, of seeing the physical and nutritional side makes a huge difference and also the emotional, mental health side makes a huge difference, even on the physical health. And I think they all either create positive or negative feedback loops depending on how we nourish all of those different things.

But you’ve also talked about from the nutrition side or the physical health side that often functional practitioners can put the focus on root causes, but then when it comes specifically to things like anxiety, this can often lead to parents and children feeling stuck. So can you explain that concept a little bit more?

Jess: Yeah, I think I have a lot of parents who are like, what’s the root cause we’re looking for the root. Is it the root in the gut? Is it the additives? Is it the gluten? Is it the sleep? What is it? And it causes a lot more stress and pressure. Right? Because I don’t think there is a root. I think it’s a bit of a losing battle to find the root because stress begets stress begets stress. I think it’s a lot more helpful for parents to think of it as a cyclone. And I don’t know, I think in images so I literally think of a cyclone that just gets bigger and bigger and bigger and the child’s at the center because, yes, it’s the gut, yes, it’s the additives, yes, it’s the foods, yes, it’s all of those things.

But the beauty of seeing it as a cyclone is that it means there’s a lot of different entry points. You don’t just have to work on the gut. And I’ve had several cases now where parents have been doing a ton of gut work. They’re like, oh my God, there’s candida and there’s parasites and we do it all but they’re not getting anywhere. It’s not sticking. They’ll do it for a few months and then the parasites came back. And if the nervous system won’t let the gut heal, then you’re going to get stuck in this vicious cycle. So yes, you got to do the gut work but you also have to retrain the nervous system to allow the body to heal and rest. And that’s where I get to these. Like where are the messages of threat and worry coming from? What is sending those messages to the nervous system and how can we ease those and translate them into messages of common safety? Does that make sense?

Katie: It does. And it lines up with my personal experience very strongly. I’ve talked about this some on the podcast but that for years I was doing all of the things, I mean truly as by the book, as you could imagine on the physical health side. And I had spreadsheets of supplements and I had nutrition dialed in by all these experts and it felt like I wasn’t getting anywhere. And it wasn’t until I addressed the other kind of underlying emotional trauma factors that I felt like my body actually could shift into parasympathetic for the first time in probably over a decade. And it really stood out to me just how strongly that impacted everything and the physical health resolved very easily without having to do all of those extensive things that I was doing.

And so I love getting to have conversations like this because I think to your point, this is very much a both/and but that if we hyper focus on those factors, we can lose sight of the big picture. And I had not heard that analogy until I learned from you. But about the cyclone of stress, it makes so much sense and it seems like there’s a beauty in the power of a cyclone and if you get that going in a great direction, that can actually probably build resilience and build physical health and build better nervous system factors.

Jess: These are superpowers that kids have. I mean, anxious kids also tend to be very perceptive, very empathetic, very caring and we just have to unleash those superpowers so that they’re positive and they don’t get in their way.

Katie: And even that just reframing those things as superpowers and helping them understand in that sense probably sends a signal of safety, I would guess, to them and to not view that as a deficiency or something wrong with them. But I love those words you used about retraining the nervous system. So I would love to go deeper on some of the factors that come into play with retraining the nervous system and how we as parents can help our kids develop those foundational skills and I would guess also learn ourselves through that process how to develop nervous system safety.

Jess: Yeah, the question to ask if your child’s struggling with anxiety and moodiness and anger and temper and those sorts of things. The question to ask is, where is the stress coming from? What is keeping their nervous system so stressed? So they can be social things, they can be environmental things, they can be biological things. And those social things and those environmental things, I feel like they’re more talked about. Like kids need good, strong peer support and mentorship and a positive environment. It can be hard to access sometimes, but those are important factors. But it’s these biological pieces, these stressors that are going on inside the body that are putting pressure on the nervous system and sending messages of threat to the nervous system that’s keeping kids stuck. That’s what I really tend to focus on. And over the years, I’ve seen patterns, and I feel like as busy parents, you and I are both busy parents with lots of children. And we need frameworks. We need a container to put all the information in because parents are notorious like information gatherers and you listen to this piece or you read this book or whatever, you need a container to put them in. So the model that I put them in is that kids need five core nourishment needs, and there are five core stressors. And if we explore those things, we need more of the nourishment needs, we need less of the stressors. That’s where in the middle, where they intersect, that’s where we get resilience. That’s where we get a kid who’s adaptable in the face of stress and who can learn from their mistakes and really grow through life’s pressures. So do you want to go into what they are?

Katie: Yeah, if you’re willing, let’s go through those.

Jess: Okay. I did write about them in my book, but I’ve expanded on them since I wrote the book in 2017, and then I relaunched it in 2022. And so some of this was in the new chapter that I wrote. But more of it is like I’m talking about it sort of on social media and things like that. So the five core needs, I mean, these are the things we need to teach our kids that their bodies need. These are non negotiables. We need these things for health. And you probably already know what they are. You’ve had lots of people come and talk about them because it’s not rocket science, but having it as a framework, like I tell the parents that I work with, this is the conversation to have with your family. Hey, everybody, we are going to up level our health. Which of these five things do you want to focus on first? And back to the cyclone thing, there’s no right or wrong. We need them all. So just pick one that makes sense.

So they’re real whole food, clean air and water, movement and play. Did I say air and water? Yeah. Restorative, sleep and connection and sense of purpose. So these are the things that I have found they’re biological necessities. Like as human beings, we just need them. They’re simple. But as life has become so fast, it becomes harder to put them in. So stick them on the wall, talk about them, which makes most sense for us as a family or you as a kid or you as a parent or whatever to focus on first. So that’s the model that I call the five core needs for nourishment five core nourishment needs.

And then if you’ve got all those things dialed in and you’re like, okay, we’re doing all the things. We’re doing it all, but we’re still struggling, then you move over to the five core pressures, and these are those hidden stressors, the things that are going on inside our bodies that cause threat, that send these messages of threat and worry to the nervous system. And keep it stuck, keep it revved up, keep it shut down, keep it from finding that parasympathetic state that you referred to before. And those ones are, and I’m sure there’s more than this, but this is the pattern that I’m seeing. So those ones are nutrient imbalances, food reactions, toxins, stuff going on in the gut and infections. And so if we explore those things, we’ll find that answer to that question of what’s causing the stress, what’s keeping the kids stuck. So this is where we try to narrow it down and find the doable strategies for parents and then we’ll have a more resilient kid in the middle.

Katie: I really like the approach of bringing them into that discussion and letting them have some agency as well and choosing which of them to focus on because I think that is also a huge key when it’s not coming just from the parent as an external force that we’re trying to manage for them. But letting them have some ownership in that process probably makes a huge difference in their mindset and their ability to adopt it. And I also love that you start with those five core needs in the foundational aspect because I’ve seen this trend in the health and wellness world now for almost 15 years where there’s always this shiny new biohack or supplement or fancy thing which I think they can all have their place and they can be helpful. But to your point, if you don’t have those foundational things dialed in, you’re not going to get the same benefit you could from those things.

And I always love to go back to those things that are inexpensive or free or we’re going to eat anyway. So if we can just change what we’re eating or we know that we need sleep, we need sunlight, like these basic core things that we actually need. And when we get those foundations, it’s much easier to build on them than trying to just like you’re talking about just go straight to the infection. But we haven’t addressed the foundational things to begin with.

Jess: Yeah, and also keeping a child inside their environment. Right. I think that’s one of the pitfalls that we’ve come up against as well is like, okay, I’m going to fix my child’s gut, or I’m going to give them amino acids and fix their neurotransmitters or even medications. We’re going to medicate the child and fix the problem without thinking of them in the context of their environment. You’re only going to get so far with that. So to your point, pulling in the conversation and sticking this up and say, hey, guys, we’ve kind of lost our way right now. Everybody is feeling tired and snappy and anxious and so and so’s skin is a mess, and so and so’s poops are a mess, and, like, we’ve kind of lost our way, so let’s just regroup. These are the things our bodies need. So where do we start? Yeah, it makes all the difference. Yeah.

Katie: And it sounds like we’d probably be aligned on this as well. I’ve noticed that when we give kids the education around that and trust that they can actually understand so much even at a young age and build that into the family culture and into the way we educate them, they’re so capable of taking ownership for themselves within those different areas. And like, I talk often about I don’t limit my kids food choices, especially when they’re not in my house. I view it as my responsibility is to make sure we have nutrient dense food available when you’re hungry at home, your responsibility is to eat when you’re hungry, to learn how to listen to your body, to make sure you’re nourishing yourself. But you know that better than I would what your body needs. And I feel like when I give them that ownership of that, they often amaze me in just how attuned they are to themselves. And I feel like that helps them develop that foundation that will carry them long after I’m not in their day to day life in the same way. And when they do have to make those choices.

Jess: Yeah. And it depends on what stage your kids are at, right? So it depends on their age, but it also depends on if they are struggling with anxiety or mood disorder or the oppositional defiance disorder. I see a lot, too. Then it depends. There’s an element of trust between parent and child that sometimes is missing and also between child and their body that they don’t trust their own cues or they don’t trust what you’re saying. So there is a relationship that piece there that really needs to be taken into account. What you described is ideal. If you’re at a point with your family where really you just want to teach them the life skills, you want to teach them how to take care of themselves, you want to teach them how to preventive measures, or you have some burgeoning issues that you just want to kind of nip in the bud. It works beautifully. Sometimes you have to take the reins and say, this is what we’re doing, so it’s really going to depend on the situation.

Katie: That’s a great point. Do you have any tips for navigating that? If there is an element of that relationship that needs to be built or before that can be handed off to the kid, are there any tips that help in that process?

Jess: Yeah, I think fundamentally, just having, I love the word curiosity, right? I love the words curiosity and I love the word nourishment. If you open yourself up to just getting curious about what your kid is doing with what’s triggering them, what is making it so hard for them to cope. I always come from this foundation that the body knows how to be well, the body knows how to be resilient, the body knows how to function in the face of stress. We’re programmed for that.

And so if there are difficulties, something is interfering with that innate wisdom, whether it’s social stress, pressure, whether it’s these biological pressures and stress, I come from that. Like, kids are not manipulative. They’re not trying to just get their way, they’re just responding. They’re wonderful responders to their environment, but also to their biology. So first of all, just get curious about what is making it so hard for your child to cope? What is interfering with your relationship? Why are they not trusting you? Because that’s another thing that we develop at a very early age, is trust in our caregivers. So if that’s not there, what’s happening there?

And then the other piece is to focus on nourishment first. I’ve worked in this field for 20 years and I’ve done all kinds of diets and therapies and all kinds of things. And I keep coming back to when we’re dealing with kids, focus on nourishment instead of restriction, it’s going to go so much more smoothly. And yes, there might be food reactions. Yes, maybe they’re gluten intolerant or something like that. And I’m saying this like barring allergy and stuff, but taking things out is probably going to cause more stress than adding things in. So just start by shifting up what’s for dinner, just put some more carrot sticks on the table, like little pieces to create this culture of nourishment.

And sometimes it’s not even going to be food. Sometimes it’s we’re just going to sit together as a family or we’re going to play a game after dinner together, or we’re going to go for a walk together. So there are different ways we nourish our kids, right? There’s those five core nourishment needs. And sometimes, especially if you have a super defiant kid or oppositional kid, sometimes you can’t start with the food. You got to start somewhere else. Maybe you start with getting them a really nice water bottle and having them drink more water or getting a water purifier or there’s so many different ways you can start. So that’s the beauty of it.

Katie: Yeah, that’s great perspective. And I would guess a question that comes up probably for you a lot, and one that people might have in mind while they’re listening is the curiosity around what role genetics play in this. I know that we have more access to being able to test genetics and have more information about our own genetics than we ever have. So how much of a role does that play in mood and behavior for kids? And is that a valuable tool for parents to have in understanding what’s going on with their kids?

Jess: Yeah, I love genetics. Genetics really opened up a whole new perspective for me in understanding what it helps in the context of parenting. What it helps with most is figuring out where your strongest levers are going to be, because as parents, it’s like with so many things, like should it be organic food or should I get a water filter or should I get a better mattress or should we work on bedtime? Like, there’s so many pieces to this that genetics, knowing your child’s genetics can help you understand the environment that’s going to be most conducive to your child, and then you can make strategic decisions.

So an example of that is one of the things that I like to know about kids is what’s their genetic capacity to detoxify? Right? Because detox and toxic load was one of those pressures. It puts an immense amount of pressure on the nervous system and it keeps kids in a sympathetic or a dorsal vagal parasympathetic state, like stuck, that keeps them stuck. And so, thankfully, we have amazing mechanisms to detoxify, but in some kids, they’re not working great. And we know that genetics are not our destiny. They don’t actually tell us what’s happening in the body. They just tell us what our tendency is when we’re under stress. So if we’re seeing all kinds of symptoms of high toxic load, and then we find out, oh, my gosh, look. There’s so many genetic variants in the enzymes responsible for detoxification, then a parent knows. Okay, it’s well worth my time, energy, and money to go through the house, do a chemical audit, make sure the cleaning products are clean, make sure the cosmetics are clean. Whatever you can do to keep that toxic load low, that’s going to be a really big lever for you. Whereas another kid yeah, it’s not good for any of us. Right. Let’s get that clear. Toxins are not good for any of us, but for some kids, it’s just more important than for other kids because of their genetics. So I really like to know genetics just to focus parents in on the pieces that are going to be most helpful.

Katie: That makes sense. And I would guess that there’s lots of levers that show up when you get a report on something like genetics. And there are now great reports available that kind of give you insight into your own. I know for me, I learned simple things like, oh, I need vitamin D from the sun. That’s the mechanism by which my body best handles vitamin D. And I could probably benefit from getting more sunlight. And that was really helpful to me. Or I have a lot of genes that are dependent on choline. And at the time I was avoiding eggs because I just didn’t tolerate them super well. And I realized getting more choline, even in supplemental form, made a huge difference in how my brain felt. And so I feel like small levers there make huge difference often.

Jess: That choline one, all the nutrients are really important because there are particular nutrients that our nervous system requires to mount an appropriate stress response, tolerate. So I call it like our stress capacity is our body’s, our nervous system’s capacity to tolerate stress and mount an appropriate response and then come out of the response. So like I was saying at the beginning, that requires a lot of nutrients.

And one place that I’ve seen genetics be really helpful is for kids who want to become vegetarian or vegan. I see this a lot in the very empathetic, very anxious, very caring kids for whom anxiety is just getting in their way. And they learn about meat production, and they’re like, I don’t want any part of that. I’m going to become a vegetarian. Like, okay, now you have a conversation with the kid because becoming a vegetarian is not just all about taking meat out. It’s about how are we going to get your nutritional needs met, right? And those nutrients that I’m talking about, the B vitamins, the zinc, the choline, they’re most abundantly found in meat. So it’s not that you can’t be a healthy vegetarian. It’s just if you find out that your child has genetic predispositions to being low in those nutrients that the nervous system needs, and they have high anxiety and they need more of those nutrients because they’re in this stress state and they’ve got genetic variants there and they want to become a vegetarian. Okay, well, now we’ve got to have a real serious conversation about how you’re going to get those needs met, right? So that’s another place where it can be really helpful.

Katie: Yeah, that’s a great reframe and something just like you said, not that it’s not possible, but it’s going to require more intentionality and focus just to be aware of that going in to make sure you’re not going to miss anything or have these big pitfalls. I also to circle back, loved your focus on the positive versus taking something away, but adding it in. And from what I’ve seen in my kids, kids brains do respond really well to that, more of that type of mindset. And I’ve also noticed this shift in myself as well, is I learned to shift away from thinking of just like food related to calories, for instance, or weight or anything like that and really look at nutrient density for the volume of food that I was eating. And I’ve seen that sort of permeate with my kids as well and in our family culture. And it’s great because they now keep each other accountable on how much protein they’re eating and did they take their vitamins and all these things.

But I feel like even for adults, that can be such a powerful reframe. Instead of trying to think of like, oh, I shouldn’t eat these foods because they’re bad, focus on how do I best nourish my body with the food that I’m going to eat today. And it seems like I said, kids respond really well to that. Do you see that as well? That when you give kids this understanding and let them build it in a way that works for them, that they respond well to that mindset?

Jess: Yeah, absolutely. I think the last message that we want to give kids is, there’s something wrong with you? Because that in itself is going to initiate a stress response. And for kids who have anxiety in particular, anxiety is often about control, right? Whether it’s like the obsessive type of anxiety or generalized anxiety or oppositional defiance that has an anxiety edge, kids like to have a certain amount of control. So if you can frame things as you can actually have more control over yourself, more control over your actions, more intentionality about how you react in certain situations so that maybe you don’t get in trouble next time or you don’t hurt someone next time, or something like that, right. If we are intentional about what we put in our bodies and how we take care of ourselves, that is extraordinarily powerful for kids. And what a great message as they grow up to be caring adults, that they actually can make conscious choices about their health and their well being, both emotionally and physically.

Katie: Yeah. And like you said earlier, I do think each child is very individual in this process, and there are factors that make that harder to be able to hand off, especially at early ages. But it was something to use kind of extreme examples that I noticed in myself and then was at least aware of going into parenting my own kids. In that, for instance, as a silly example, I wasn’t allowed to get my ears pierced until I was 13. And I so badly wanted to be able to make the decision to get my own ears pierced that when I was 18 and I had that choice, I went through a phase where I had 33 piercings because I was allowed to. And I realized that while that wasn’t actually appealing to me and piercings actually hurt and they take forever to heal, it had become appealing because I didn’t have the ability to choose it. And so I tried to be aware of that with my kids, of like, when there’s not something huge at stake. Where can I give them that control or that ability to make their own decisions so that I’m not creating a false dichotomy where something’s appealing only because they’re not allowed to do it.

And like you said, I know there are cases where we do have to step in and make sure that, especially in safety cases, but it seems like when we let them have, to the degree appropriate, that control and that agency over themselves, that they then tend to not have that sort of pendulum rebound. And I would guess that applies in nutrition and in all these other areas as well that we’re talking about.

Jess: Yeah. And I think what you said was key is when there’s nothing major at stake. Right. This phrase is one that I use a lot with my kids, is that it’s my job to keep you healthy and safe until you show me that you can take that over. Right. And so if they’re not making healthier or safe choices, then I know that that’s still in my realm, that’s still my job. But I got to teach them how to do that because ultimately I’m not always going to be there. But that’s how our conversations go around health and safety. Right. And it’s not happiness. My job is not to keep you happy. My job is to keep you healthy and safe.

And then as my kids get old, if you know that your child has nonceliac gluten sensitivity, for example, and you know that gluten causes them to have a panic attack, I mean, I’ve seen this before as well. Like, gluten sensitivity isn’t always gut related. Often it’s neurological related. It can cause headaches, it can cause skin problems, it can cause panic attacks, it can cause all kinds of things. So if you know that about your child and they know that about themselves, they still ultimately have to make choices around gluten because they’re going to be at the birthday party, they’re going to be at Halloween, they’re going to be at the dance, all of this stuff. And gosh ten times out of ten, the gluten stuff tastes better than non gluten stuff. Right. So they have to make those choices. So as they get older, as if you’re working with a team, for example, well, what’s happening the next day? Do they have a big exam? Do they have a big soccer match? Do they have something that’s important to them or do they have a family obligation? Something that’s important to you and not necessarily for them? Right. What’s the context in which they’re going to make that decision? And how much control can you give them and how much do you have to pull in yourself?

Katie: Yeah, you’re right. That seems like such a balance. And I don’t know how old yours are, but I’ve noticed with teenagers, when you do build that slowly over time and work with the goal, with them as your partner in that goal of wanting to hand it off to them and to be able to trust them to make those decisions, at least for me. I’ve ended up with teenagers who, for the most part, are extremely responsible, who I have very little where I’m ever stepping in because we’ve built that, but it took years and years to build that. It’s not an overnight process, but a very rewarding one. I feel like when you get teenagers that are then willing to take that responsibility, it’s a beautiful thing to watch.

Jess: It is. And you know what the foundation of all of it is trust. Right. Your kids clearly have a lot of trust in you. And that trust starts from day one. It starts as soon as they’re birthed right, of just like, are they going to trust the caregivers? And there are so many things that we do unconsciously that interfere with an infant’s trust.

And then there’s trauma. We could talk about all of that and attachment trauma and things like that. But the bottom line is what you just described with your kids being responsible and being able to take control of their own health, we have to teach them that as parents because they’re really not going to get it elsewhere. And they’re only going to hear us if they trust us. So there’s an element there to work on.

Katie: Yeah. Well, briefly, I’d love to if you have any tips for maybe at different ages or just general tips for building that trust and establishing that early on. And then also maybe in the parenting years if it doesn’t seem like it’s really well established already, are there ways we can build it at that point? Or how do you encourage parents to build that foundation of trust?

Jess: Well, I think you’re right. It depends on where they’re at. If you’re starting from scratch, it’s a whole lot easier because infants and babies kind of instinctively follow their lead versus trying to fit them into your schedule because they know what they need. But most of us have older kids.

I think getting curious is really key. And kids don’t really like to be talked at. They’re talked at all day long at school. I learned this as a teacher. Inviting a child into a conversation versus telling them something is probably going to go better. So if you want them to eat less sugar, for example, starting that conversation, by gosh, I’ve really noticed you’re starting to break out, or I’ve noticed you’re not sleeping well. Can we have a conversation about it? Or can I share with you what I’ve been learning about soda? And they may say no, and if they say no, then it’s not the time to have that conversation because if you tell them anyway, they’re not even going to hear you. It’s a waste of everyone’s time. So getting curious and inviting them into the conversations, I think that’s part and listening, like listening to them; acknowledge their experience. Their experience is their experience. Whether you agree with it or not, whether you think it’s a lie or truth or whatever, it doesn’t matter. Just listen and get curious about their experience.

Katie: I love that. Curiosity is definitely a core value in our house. And actually one of the reasons I decided to homeschool was that curiosity was such a core value. It was like, what best nurtures curiosity? And I often think I don’t know if there are people listening, if anyone has seen this show, Ted Lasso, but one of my favorite scenes from that is when he’s in a dart match and he has this speech about curiosity versus judgment. And if we approach things with curiosity versus judgment, we get so much farther because we’re just in a different mindset to approach people. And so I love that that’s a core value for you and your work as well.

Jess: Oh, good. That’s such a good way to frame it. And judgment doesn’t usually go well with kids either. It doesn’t really go over well. So let them have the win. Like, if you’ve been telling them to stop drinking soda for like, four years and then one day they come to you and they’re like, I don’t think I’m going to drink this again, instead of saying, yeah, I told you so, and trying to be right, like, just let them have the win. Be like, that’s a great idea.

Katie: I love that.

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Well, and to go to one of the other of the five core things, I would love to get some context and any advice you have around sleep, because I know sleep is a big issue and potentially an issue of conflict, often between parents and children. And I would say of the almost 700 podcasts I’ve done, it is indisputably one I’ve never heard anyone say sleep is not important for health. I feel like experts, no matter their realm, agree that sleep is really important. And yet statistically, many people still struggle with sleep and it becomes a point of contention often in families. So do you have any tips for building that pillar of sleep?

Jess: Yeah. So again, it’s going to depend on the age of your child, right. And it’s also going to depend on how safe they feel. Right. And I say that without judgment. But honestly, if kids are getting up in the night and coming into parents bedrooms sometimes I’ve had kids as old as like 13, 14 years old, they’ll wake up, they’ll have a nightmare, they’ll come into parents bedroom. That’s significant. They don’t feel safe, and they need you to help them self-regulate. So it’s totally okay that they are coming into your room. It’s not okay for everyone, like not long term, but right now they’re responding to a need, which is to feel safe. And that they’re coming to you to help them co regulate so that they can feel safe is actually a good sign. It’s really good.

So ultimately we want them to feel safe in their own bed, on their own. So that’s time to look at those five core stressors and figure out what’s keeping their nervous system so stressed. But that’s one thing that I see a lot. Same thing with really little kids. Young kids can’t co regulate without parents, so it makes sense to co sleep with them and to have them really close.

But then the older that they get, the more you want them to take control of their own sleep routine. And so I actually am really intrigued by the use of wearable sleep trackers right now, especially for teenagers because again, it’s getting curious, right? So if you notice that your kids are waking up grumpy or they’re staying up too late or they’re on their phone or their screen too much, like these are things that we know are not great for your sleep, right? Being on screen, staying up too late, having inconsistent bedtimes, like light and environmental light, like light from outside or light from nightlights, these things really interfere with sleep. But if you tell your teen that, what’s going to happen, I don’t care unless they do care. So you could have a conversation, say wow, I don’t think you’re getting a lot of sleep because I’m noticing that you’re waking up feeling really grumpy. What do you think? Right? Like is this of concern to you? Because it’s of concern to me, right? So getting curious.

And then one thing you can do with your older kid is have them wear a sleep tracker to say, okay, let’s experiment with this. Let’s see what happens when you’re on your phone late versus when you’re not on your phone late. Let’s see what happens when we unplug the WiFi versus have it in. Let’s see what happens if you eat before bed or not eat before bed. And you can make it a little experiment and just say interesting, right? You don’t have to pull out the scientific studies and be like, well, studies show that melatonin production decreases. That’s established stuff. We know that. But you have to communicate this to your kid in a way that makes sense to them. So experiment and see what happens.

Katie: And it does seem like, at least at all the ages I’ve been through with my kids, that kids are naturally they are enticed by the idea of experiments and that seems fun to them versus and it goes back to that mindset of the positive versus the negative. And it’s not restriction. It’s a fun experiment at that point. But like you, it’s been fun to see that data for me even and in my teenagers especially, and even my little ones have worn my Oura ring at different times. But it’s really cool because they’ll start to notice patterns themselves. And like you talk about then it’s not me suggesting these things, they’re figuring it out, which makes them much more invested in doing it.

But they’ve even learned little tips that might also be applicable to other parents listing for their kids things like if they get enough protein early in the day, they tend to sleep better. If they sometimes eat a little bit of healthy carbs at night, that helps with their deep sleep, things like that. Or if they get morning sunlight, it actually does make a difference in their sleep. And so now they do these things because they know it, not because I told them it. And so we’ve seen those tweaks. And then it’s great if you have multiple kids because as the older ones have started doing this, the little ones pay attention just because they look up to the older ones. And so it then becomes part of the culture without any real effort from me. For the most part.

Jess: Yeah, and then it can translate it to their friends, and then all of a sudden they’re talking about it at school. And then that’s how you shift cultures, right? One of the biggest pitfalls I see parents or they express to me is like, okay, we’re doing all this stuff at school, at home, but then my kid goes to school and it’s like nobody’s talking about it and nobody cares. So this is how we shift that. We shift the culture at home. We get the kids really interested, and then they start talking to their friends about it.

And you can do it without technology, too. Like, the tech piece is really kind of cool, but you can experiment without that and just give it a star rating. Like, how grouchy are you this morning on a scale of one to five? And then let’s see what happens if we spend a week without screens at night. Let’s see what happens. What’s the rating now? And let’s start directly so it’s a little bit harder to get the hard data, but you can do it without the tech.

Katie: I love that. I’m making lots of notes for the show. Notes, you guys, those are at wellnesswoman.fm if you want to check them out. You’ve also said that you feel like we’re kind of at a turning point when it comes to mental health with children. And I would love for you to explain the context of why you feel that way and what things you think are really important right now at that turning point.

Jess: Well, I think it’s really important for us as parents to recognize that there’s a lot that we can do to support our kids. And I don’t say I always, you know, I don’t I don’t want parents to feel shame or guilt or like they’re not doing enough. It’s not really about that. It’s really just about reframing. Right? Reframing things that you already know and just making it a priority in your family. And I know you’ve had people on the podcast talking about the culture of a family and developing a culture and things like that. It’s just making a decision and having a conversation with your parenting partner, if that’s needed, about shifting the dynamic in the home. So I think that’s very empowering for parents. I don’t see it as a guilt and a shame thing. I think it’s very positive.

I think that we need to start to consider that a different way of understanding mental wellness. I mean, it’s really not just the brain. The brain affects the body, the body affects the brain, the environment affects both. We affect the environment. We live in context and a lot of kids are not getting mental health support. They’re sitting on waiting lists or they’re getting mental health support, but it’s not really working. And some kids are getting support and it’s working and that’s fantastic. But that’s just a smaller group.

And if we can really with the kids, if we can get their mental and physical wellness in a good space, it’s going to completely change the trajectory of their life. Right. Most adults say that their anxiety and their mental health issues started when they were kids and maybe they didn’t recognize it or maybe they did recognize it, but they couldn’t get help. Or maybe they recognized it and they got put on medication and then just kind of spiraled into other issues. So if we get this right with the kids, it’s really going to shift things for the kids themselves, but also as a culture and with the medical system because we need to think differently about it. I think it’s well recognized now that we’re not moving forward in the realm of mental wellness.

Katie: Yeah. And to your point, many adults are also at the same time struggling with these things on their own. And so I think another point we’ve kind of touched on a lot in this is that we also get to figure these factors out for ourselves and that what we model also has a lot of an impact on our kids, more so than what we say. And so for any parents who are also struggling with these things, it seems like a lot of the same tips would apply. And that the more we do it in ourselves, the more they have an example of learning those foundational things from a younger age and have that benefit that we may not have gotten to have in childhood, but that we now are getting to learn and that they get to benefit from much earlier.

Jess: Yeah, I often get parents, they’ll come into my world and they’d be like, hey, my kid has issues and my kid has anxiety or they have learning struggles. And then as we start to unpack things about their kids, they’re like, oh, that’s me. That’s the same kind of thing that’s happening with me. And I wonder if I have some similar patterns. And yes, some of that can be genetics. A lot of that is just co regulating because we co regulate with our kids and they influence us, we influence them, we share microbes with our kids so all the stuff that’s going on in the gut is shared between us. So yeah, it makes so much sense to look at this in a family context while the kids under your roof, right, while they’re still in your care and you can work to keep them healthy and safe until you can pass those reins on to them.

Katie: That’s a great point. And while we of course often share genes with our kids, we also share habits and like you said, environment and lifestyle with them and those things are all within our ability to shift and understand much more than our genetics are. So I think that’s an encouraging part of your message is that there is so much within our ability to change and it seems like the more data we have, it’s even that the genetics is a smaller part than we thought it was in that it’s great to know and to be able to support, but it’s by no means our definitive destiny because we have so much control in all these other areas that impact it.

Jess: That’s true, although the expression of our genetics can change. So when we find out, one of the powerful pieces we can find out about kids is what’s going on with their COMT enzyme, the COMT enzyme which is responsible for pulling apart dopamine and norepinephrine and epinephrine. So it’s really interesting when parents find out that there is slow activity in that enzyme and their child is prone to high dopamine, those kids are not going to respond very well to mom knows best like definitive hard lines and no choice. They’re going to get their backs up. Those kids need conversation. There’s going to take them time to get out of their moods and shift their mindset. They’re going to need more tools for that. Kids with the fast activity there, they’re going to need to move, they’re going to need dynamic environments, they’re going to want to be in sports probably. Maybe they’re not going to do well like sitting in a super academic sit and don’t move and just use your head kind of environment. So these are the little pieces where if we can create the environment that is going to support their particular tendencies, then the ways those genes express themselves can actually shift.

Katie: Yeah, it’s so exciting to live in a time where we actually have access to that and can understand it at this level. And I know that you have a whole book that goes much deeper than we can in a podcast episode and I will link to that in the show notes as well as a lot of work online that people can continue to learn from. Do you have any other general tips when it comes to either environment or building the family culture to nurture that nervous system safety? In some of these ways that we’ve talked about?

Jess: Well, I think we’ve covered a lot. I think don’t underestimate the amount of control that you have over your home environment, even though there is sometimes a lot of tug of war between the kids and the parents. If you’re early in your parenting career and you’re coming across this podcast, take some time to talk to your parenting partner or anybody else who’s involved in creating the family culture and really think about how you want to structure that, because it makes a massive difference to think about what language are we going to use? What foods are we going to focus on, how do we feel about movement and activity and outdoor stuff or activities or sports or whatever, just have a conversation around those things.

And if you’re later on in the game and you feel like you’ve lost that capacity because your kids are kind of ruling the roost, so to speak, get curious about that and just know that it’s still something that you can pull back. You really can control things a little bit, but you have to be gentle with the kids because the body does not like change. The nervous system does not like change. So a child who feels like, no, I am in control of what we have for dinner, I am in control about what I go to bed. I am in control about all of my screen access. And you feel like you’ve kind of lost that. You have to be gentle around how you’re going to shift that child’s mindset about all of this stuff, but use all of the things we talked about, like invite them into the conversation. It’s okay if they think that it’s your idea when it was really if they think that it’s their idea when it’s really your idea. Right. All of those things. Figure out what makes sense to them, what is important to them. Is it getting on the sports team? Is it getting a boyfriend or a girlfriend? Is it academics? What is it clearer skin? What makes sense to them? Because I guarantee that somehow you can bring it back to the five core nourishment needs as a solution to whatever they perceive as their problem.

Katie: That’s a great tip. And for parents who are really resonating with this, what are some great next steps for them? I know you have so many resources. Where can people keep learning from you, and what do you suggest they do next?

Jess: Yeah, so my homebase is jesssherman.com three s’s in a row, and you can link to everything from there. I’ve got a free master class on there so that you can learn about your child’s nervous system and what keeps them stuck. So I talk about the core needs and the core stressors, and I’ve got lots on Instagram as well at askjesssherman. So there’s lots of resources, lots of ways you can get started and. Like I said at the beginning, the beauty of this approach is that there is no one starting place. You don’t have to start with the gluten or the food or the additives or the gut. You don’t have to start with anything. There are multiple places to start. And the most important thing is that you figure out what makes sense to you, to your family, to your kids, on where to start, and then you work at a pace that is manageable and makes sense to everybody.

Katie: I love it. Well, I’ve learned a lot from you in this episode and I’m excited to keep learning from you online as well. A question I love to ask at the end of interviews, that’s a very self serving question for me is, is there a book or a number of books that have had a profound impact on your life and if so, what are they and why?

Jess: Oh, gosh, I haven’t read a book in a while, Katie. I’m going to be honest with that. I listen to a lot of things, but I will say one that was really influential to me was Simplicity Parenting by Kim John Payne. I don’t know if you know that one, but I was very fortunate to have one of our early teachers, my oldest kid, one of his first teachers, gave me that book to borrow and it really influenced my parenting. It was so delightfully affirming for me as a parent, of what’s important for kids and what’s not important and how do we protect childhood so that they can really grow at their own pace versus imposing all the things we impose on them. So that was really influential and it continues to be a kind of core piece of our parenting toolkit around here.

Katie: I love it. Well, I will link to that in the show notes as well. For any of you guys listening on the go, those will all be at wellnessmama.fm. But Jess, this has been such a fun conversation and hopefully very helpful to many of the parents listening. Thank you so much for your time and for being here today.

Jess: Thanks for having me, Katie. Hope it was helpful.

Katie: And thanks, as always, to all of you for listening and sharing your most valuable resources, your time, your energy and your attention with us today. We’re both so grateful that you did and I hope that you will join me again on the next episode of the Wellness Mama Podcast.

If you’re enjoying these interviews, would you please take two minutes to leave a rating or review on iTunes for me? Doing this helps more people to find the podcast, which means even more moms and families could benefit from the information. I really appreciate your time, and thanks as always for listening.

Thanks to Our Sponsors

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Katie Wells Avatar

About Katie Wells

Katie Wells, CTNC, MCHC, Founder of Wellness Mama and Co-founder of Wellnesse, has a background in research, journalism, and nutrition. As a mom of six, she turned to research and took health into her own hands to find answers to her health problems. WellnessMama.com is the culmination of her thousands of hours of research and all posts are medically reviewed and verified by the Wellness Mama research team. Katie is also the author of the bestselling books The Wellness Mama Cookbook and The Wellness Mama 5-Step Lifestyle Detox.

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