Is There a Link Between Soft Drinks and Aggression in Children?

children drinking soda

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Soda consumption among children and teens is a health concern for a number of reasons. Drinking soda contributes to childhood weight issues, can lead to tooth decay, and can contribute to sleep problems. Some studies also suggest that kids who consume soda may have an increased risk for behavioral issues and mental health problems.

This article discusses the potential connection between soft drinks and behavioral problems, the limitations of this research, and other reasons to limit soft drink consumption in kids. It also covers some of the steps you can take if you are dealing with behavior issues and aggression in children.

Health Problems Associated Soft Drinks

Americans have some of the highest consumption rates of soda per capita worldwide. And many of those people consuming soda are very young children.

Over the years, there has been a big push to eliminate soft drinks from school vending machines and to educate parents about the risks associated with sugary drinks. Physicians and nutritionists have made it clear that soda provides children with empty calories and contributes to childhood obesity.

Dentists advise parents not to let children drink soda as well. Sugary drinks aren't good for children's teeth and may cause cavities.

Most soft drinks also contain caffeine. Caffeine can cause headaches, upset stomach, jitteriness, and sleep problems. It’s also been associated with some behavioral problems and nervous system disorders in children.

In children, it doesn’t take much caffeine to produce unwanted side effects. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) discourages caffeine intake for kids of all ages.

Recap

Soda and other sugary soft drinks pose a number of health risks including weight problems, dental cavities, headaches, and sleep problems.

Behavior Problems and Soft Drinks

If the health risks aren’t enough to dissuade parents from giving kids soda, the potential mental health concerns that might be associated with soft drink consumption might be a deterrent.

Research suggests that children who consume soda tend to have slightly higher scores on measures of aggression than do children who do not drink soda beverages. It's important to note, however, that the research only suggests that there is a correlation between soda consumption and aggressive behaviors; research has not proven a causal relationship, meaning that more research is needed to determine whether drinking soda causes this type of behavior.

In one 2013 study published in The Journal of Pediatrics found that aggression, withdrawal behavior, and attention problems are associated with soft drink consumption in young children.

The researchers assessed 2,929 5-year-old children from 20 different U.S. cities. Even after adjusting for factors such as maternal depression, paternal incarceration, and domestic violence, soft drink consumption was still linked to aggressive behavior.

Children who drank four or more soft drinks per day were more than twice as likely to destroy other people's belongings, get into fights, and physically attack people.

However, it is important to note some flaws in the study that make it difficult to make assumptions about the potential impact of drinking soda. The study did not consider serving size, the type of soda, or what beverages specifically count as soft drinks. 

While the study suggests there may be a correlation between drinking soda and behavioral aggression, it isn't enough to conclude that there is a causal connection. 

One concerning point that this study indicates is that it is quite common for young children to consume soda. Forty-three percent of five years olds were reported to drink one serving of soda per day, while 4% reported drinking four servings per day.

Why Soda Might Affect Mental Health and Behavior

It’s unclear why soda consumption might be connected to aggressive behavior and other mental health issues. Soft drinks are highly processed, and there is not much research on how certain ingredients impact children. Some studies have linked aspartame to irritability and sodium benzoate to ADHD-related symptoms.

Caffeine has also been linked to some behavior problems in children, so researchers suspect the caffeine content may play a role.

An underlying physical condition, such as low blood glucose levels, could also explain the link. Low blood glucose may cause children to crave soda while also causing them to become withdrawn or aggressive.

However, further research is needed to understand how soda and mental health issues might be connected.

Recap

Soda may contain sugar, aspartame, sodium benzoate, and caffeine, and these ingredients may play a role in triggering negative side effects in kids.

Soft Drink Consumption and Teens

Studies have also linked behavioral and emotional problems in teens to soft drink consumption. A 2013 study published in the International Journal of Injury Control and Safety Promotion suggested that soft drink consumption might have a relationship to aggression, depression, and suicidal behavior in adolescents.

The more soda teens drank, the more likely they were to be in a physical fight. In addition, they were more likely to feel sad or hopeless and to report suicidal thoughts or behaviors.

A 2021 study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health suggested that drinking soft drinks might predict aggressive behavior in teens over time. The study also points to the possibility of a reciprocal relationship. Kids who were aggressive at age 13 drank soda more often at age 16.

In other words, children and teens who already have higher levels of aggression might be more likely to consume a greater amount of soda. In either case, more research is needed to understand the correlation between the two variables.

Reasons to Limit Soft Drinks

While research suggests that soft drinks might have some type of relationship to behavioral problems such as aggression, it is unclear if drinking soda actually causes aggression in kids. Regardless of the nature of the connection, experts suggest that it is a good idea to limit your child's soda consumption.

Some other reasons kids should avoid drinking soft drinks:

  • Soda is often high in empty calories and sugar, which may contribute to childhood obesity and increase the risk of type 2 diabetes.
  • Soft drinks can affect appetite and make it so kids eat less nutritious foods.
  • Sugary soda contributes to tooth decay including enamel loss and dental cavities.
  • Excessive caffeine consumption can cause sleep problems, jitteriness, and withdrawal symptoms.

In addition to eliminating soft drinks, you may also want to prevent your child from consuming energy drinks. The AAP discourages children from drinking energy drinks. Many of them contain stimulants like guarana, as well as large quantities of caffeine.

Recap

Whatever the nature of the connection between soft drinks and behavior, it is a good idea to limit how much soda children consume, if any.

Dealing With Childhood Aggression

If your child is aggressive, you should consider a comprehensive behavior management plan. Some strategies that may help you cope with aggression and other behavioral problems:

  • Skill training: Your child may need to learn new skills, such as impulse control and conflict resolution.
  • Negative consequences: Negative consequences, like time-out and restitution, can reduce aggressive behavior. But, consequences and discipline need to be consistent.
  • Reinforcement: Reinforcement that utilizes reward systems and praise can also be a healthy way to promote prosocial behavior. Token economy systems can be especially effective in reducing aggressive behavior.

If you’re struggling to manage your child’s aggression, or your discipline strategies aren’t working, talk to a healthcare provider. A pediatrician or a pediatric mental health professional may assess them for behavior disorders or mental health issues, and you may be referred to a professional who can help you find the most effective discipline strategies to manage your child’s behavior.

Recap

Limiting soda is a good idea, but there are other steps you should take if your child is exhibiting aggression or other behavioral issues. Learning new skills and utilizing reinforcement and consequences can be helpful for mananaging behavioral issues.  

A Word From Verywell

While some studies have suggested that soft drink consumption might be correlated with increased behavioral and mental health issues in children and teens, it is important to remember that correlation does not mean causation. The two variables may be connected in some way, but further research is needed to understand the nature of the connection.

Regardless, limiting soft drink consumption in children is a good idea for a variety of reasons. If your child is experiencing behavioral issues, talk to a healthcare professional to learn more about steps you can take to address the issue.

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10 Sources
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