Dana Kay’s son has ADHD. Frustrated with the effects of traditional medicine, she sought an alternative. The outcome changed her life – and that of hundreds of other families. Here, she shares her journey from a loving but desperate mother to thriving businesswoman, including her leadership lessons learned.
When Dana Kay’s son Oliver was a toddler, he seemed to have abnormal amounts of energy. “He couldn’t sit still and eat; he’d be bouncing off the walls,” she said. His teachers assured her he was a typical, energetic young boy. But the tantrums that arrived during his ‘terrible twos’ seemed much worse than those of his kindy friends, and never waned. By age four, Kay would wake each day with dread, unsure what mood her son would be in and what would trigger a meltdown.
Kay, born in Sydney, Australia, was then working as a director in an audit firm. As a child, she’d aspired to be a career woman. After achieving accounting qualifications and working her way into senior management, she thought she’d reached her dream life: a great job, marriage and a family. But behind closed doors, her home life was in disarray.
“I loved my son, but I didn’t like him or enjoy being a mum to him,” Kay said. She was devastated by these feelings and felt terrible guilt. Her siblings didn’t have this issue with their kids. “I thought, why am I feeling like this? Mums are not meant to feel this way about their children.”
When Oliver was four, Kay’s family moved to the USA for her husband’s work. Here, Oliver was finally diagnosed as having ADHD. While it wasn’t a complete surprise, it was a relief. “It confirmed it wasn’t because of my parenting and that I wasn’t making it up,” Kay said.
The medication prescribed by the specialist initially worked. Kay was thrilled to see Oliver playing Legos quietly with his younger brother, Asher. “I was like, where have you been all my life?” she said.
But the calm periods didn’t last long, resulting in the doctor increasing Oliver’s meds three more times over the coming weeks. With these increases came side effects, including anxiety, sleeplessness, and weight loss, for which the doctor prescribed more medication. Oliver was five years old and on three different meds, yet he was still exploding by 3 pm most days. The meds were suppressing, not stopping, the tantrums.
The final straw was a visit to Costco. Oliver had a meltdown that saw a jar of tomato sauce smashed on the floor with him sprawled in it, screaming. When an unsympathetic pregnant bystander sneered: “I’ll never let my child behave that way”, a mortified Kay burst into tears.
“I knew there had to be a better way,” Kay said. “That was the day my journey started.”
Finding her own solution
Like most people, Kay trusted modern medicine and her doctors’ advice. However, it clearly wasn’t working for her son. She began to educate herself by reading everything she could, later undertaking a nutrition certificate, a holistic health degree and other qualifications.
Soon, she learned that diet could significantly impact the behaviour of ADHD children, and poor gut health could cause food sensitivities. While Oliver’s doctor was dismissive of her findings, Kay chose to trust her instincts and removed gluten, dairy and soy from Oliver’s diet. Within two weeks, the change was dramatic. He was once again sitting calmly, and the tantrums had faded. “From one day to the next, he was like a different child,” Kay said.
But when subsequent gut health tests revealed Oliver was sensitive to 25 foods that she needed to remove from his diet, Kay became overwhelmed. Her husband wasn’t keen on dramatically changing their diet, and she had no idea how to build a menu that would appeal to two little boys while helping Oliver’s ADHD.
“I remember waking up at 4 am one day and having panic attacks,” she said. She felt crushing isolation. It didn’t help that Oliver’s doctor was sceptical and there was no support group to manage ADHD with diet instead of medication.
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Looking back, Kay wishes someone had been there to tell her that it was okay to introduce change slowly into her family’s diet. “After all, Rome wasn’t built in a day,” she said.
Nonetheless, Oliver’s continued improvement was the motivation she needed to persist. Over three months, he was weaned off his medications, and the side effects vanished. Gone was the anxiety, sleepless nights and weight loss. Notably, the tantrums ceased and did not return. He was able to play quietly with his brother, and their home life felt ‘normal’. Today, Oliver is 12 and an A grade student. Kay says you’d never even know he has ADHD.
In her previous life as a corporate professional, Kay never felt the need to change the world. But her experience with Oliver’s ADHD was like a light switching on. She wanted to help other families with ADHD children, so they too could benefit from her experiences. Why should they struggle when she could make their lives easier?
Kay undertook practitioner qualifications, and by the time Oliver was eight, she was working one-on-one with families, helping them to reduce their child’s symptoms. It was a good start, but she wanted to help more families, faster.
Then a Facebook ad grabbed her attention. It was for a Canadian strategic business coach who helped health and wellness professionals transform their businesses. “It cost $10,000 and I thought, whoa, that’s huge,” Kay recalls. “But then I thought, no, this is what I need; I’m going to do it.” It turned out to be the best investment she ever made in herself.
Within three months, the program had turned her coaching into an online business and helped her set up a group program. She learned how to create Facebook ads, and a leads funnel, which soon began generating business. Before she knew it, she was helping dozens of families a week. Kay was thrilled.
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“My first coach took me to the point where my monthly business grew dramatically, by 500%,” Kay said. “Then I outgrew her and found another coach with a similar business who could take me to the next level, growing it by 1000%. I’m now with a third coach who is helping me achieve big goals like bringing out my own supplement line to help mend gut health in ADHD kids.”
Building a support network
Kay’s business, the ADHD Thrive Institute, has helped nearly 1,000 families in less than four years. Families undertake a 12 to 24-week online program and can choose to attend group coaching sessions up to five times a week. “I think back to the time when I was having panic attacks about implementing all the changes to my son’s diet,” Kay says. “I’ve designed a program that provides the support I needed when I was going through it.”
Kay takes a holistic approach, from identifying food sensitivities to helping families through dietary changes with shopping lists and recipes; she even educates grandparents on showing their love through food without impacting their ADHD grandchildren. She also has a free Facebook group for ADHD families with 18,000 members for which she runs twice-weekly training and shares many resources.
“I want families to know that they do not need to suffer as I did,” Kay said. “Parents think they are all alone, but you’re not.”
Kay now has a team of 13 helping her run the business and group coaching. All but three are people who completed her program for their own children. “I knew that I needed to hire people from within my program because they understand every single component of it,” she explains.
Starting and running a business takes a great deal of energy. If you can, pay for someone to take on domestic tasks such as the cleaning and washing, to alleviate the pressure.
“Don’t send yourself into this crazy mayhem in your life. You can outsource it,” Kay said. “If you get someone to clean your house, you’re not a bad person. If you can afford it, then do it and don’t feel guilty.”
Her impact on others
Today, Kay’s family is thriving and her husband and sons enjoy their gluten, soy and dairy-free meals. On Kay’s Facebook group wall, dozens of grateful parents share their ADHD child’s progress since commencing her course.
“No major meltdowns or extended crying periods in almost a week. Grateful!!!”
“We went from about to get kicked out from a school to a report card saying he’s a joy.”
“This program was the best thing I have ever done for my daughter.”
Kay is overjoyed by the impact she is having and wants to make her program even more accessible to families. For this reason, she will soon release a book entitled ‘ADHD and Thriving’ which will document her journey and how other families can reduce their child’s ADHD symptoms, just like she teaches in her online program. It will also provide free resources.
“It’s my big audacious goal that one day, doctors will give parents with ADHD children my book, or something like it, rather than referring them directly to medicine,” she says.
Kay’s gut instinct has proved her right so far; no doubt, the future for ADHD families will be a bright one with her at their side.
Dana Kay’s Leadership Lessons Learned:
This article is by Laini Bennett, MBA.