What's Behind That Irritable Behavior?

You might have a kid with low blood sugar.

photo by John Roman | Dreamstime.com

When my now 17-year-old son, Ben, was in middle school, I began to notice a pattern in his behavior. During his basketball games, it was as if a dark cloud descended. As the game progressed, his countenance turned angry and he slowly began to shut down right before my eyes.  

I often scolded him after the game; I thought it was just teen attitude. “You’re letting the team down,” I would lecture. But by the end of the season, I noticed something else: as soon as Ben took one bite of food, he returned to his upbeat, smiling self. Suddenly, a light bulb came on: my son had low blood sugar. 

“Low blood sugar, or hypoglycemia, is a legitimate condition that can affect kids’ behavior,” says pediatric dietician Patty LaFratta. “Sometimes it surfaces as dragging, half-asleep behavior where they have trouble keeping focus; other kids tend to be irritable, cranky, or will begin to shut down.”

Parents who suspect low blood sugar should watch for patterns of irritability or sluggishness and at the first sign of hypoglycemic symptoms, offer food. “Not just any food,” says LaFratta, “but a balance of carbs, fats, and protein to avoid a rise and crash.” That combination isn’t as complicated as it sounds: peanut butter, cheese and crackers, or a meat and cheese sandwich are all good choices. 

Another option is to contact your pediatrician and request fasting blood work for a more conclusive diagnosis.

Melissa Doughty recently had a low-blood-sugar scare that went beyond the norm. “I went to wake up my 3-year-old, Ike, for church one Sunday morning and he was unresponsive,” says this mom of two. “His eyes were open but rolled back and I could not wake him.” Doughty immediately called 911 and the paramedics checked his sugars on the way to the ER. “His blood sugar was 35, alarmingly below the norm of 75 to 100.”

Ike had recently had a brief stomach virus, so his doctors concluded that instead of becoming dehydrated, the virus caused a sudden drop in blood sugar, resulting in hypoglycemic shock. “For now we just make sure he eats every two to three hours and has a high protein snack right before bed,” says Doughty. She also watches for symptoms of irritability, sleepiness, mood swings, sluggishness, or hyper-activity.  

When my own 5-year-old son, Silas, began a pattern of bursting into tears for no reason, I started offering him food, remembering my previous experience with Ben. On one occasion, Silas’ response was dramatic. “I love you, Mom,” he said, before eating. I now make sure he has breakfast as soon as he wakes up and a snack when he gets off the school bus. What’s more, when his teacher told me halfway through the school year that he was having trouble focusing, I told her of my suspicions and began sending bigger snack portions. 

“Parents should also note how much sleep and activity their kids are getting, as these also impact blood sugar,” says LaFratta. Kids with a higher level of activity will benefit from a high protein snack before bed to carry them through the night.

By monitoring what kids eat and keeping meals and snacks as routine as possible, parents have one simple solution to an otherwise complex problem.


Freelance writer Margie Sims is the mom of 10 and lives with her family in Virginia. Read her blog at margiesims.com


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