Kids have always been jumpy, but these days, more kids than ever are disruptive at home and at school. They quickly forget instructions, get lost in the classroom and seem unable to do their homework. When kids present such problems, more times than not they are clinically diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder or simply assumed to have it, and most doctors and school psychologists recommend that they be placed on medication. The promise is that by giving them the pill, life returns to normal, they’ll get through school, grow out of ADD, and become healthy adults.
This promise is not necessarily proven by experience or science. While studies show that kids concentrate better when they’re on medication than when they are not, the things that the studies don’t show are also important. Tests don’t show if these children and their parents would be better served by improving the family’s skills and strategies. And they don’t clearly compare long-term affects of using drugs versus counseling, modified school programs, or other behavioral therapy.
For parents, struggling to raise a good kid, and worried about performance in school and behavior at home, this diagnosis and the recommended treatment raises more questions than it answers. As parents, we are confused by the prospect of putting our children on drugs. We wonder if we are sending them the message that by relying on drugs they can avoid responsibility for their actions. And we wonder about the long term results of drug therapy. Unfortunately, there is no one right answer, and parents have to wade through the issues and make their best choice. Our child’s future, as well as the peace and harmony of our family requires us to make the best decisions.
Whatever is causing their behavioral problems, and even if drugs do help, these children still need as much wisdom, nurturing, and guidance as we can provide. Helping them improve their self-regulation skills now will benefit them for the rest of their lives.
Learning new strategies
Many parents resist the notion that we should ever consciously change our parenting. We believe that parents have an obligation to act from intuition, and that good parenting bubbles forth naturally. Our impulses and the family patterns we learned from our own childhood are a core part of ourselves, and we want to pass our heritage on to our children. We feel we are the best judges of our own parenting behavior, and imposing educated opinions on top of our own feelings about our children may seem artificial. Suggestions that we change might make us feel that our very personhood is being challenged, and that criticism might invalidate everything we’ve done with our kids up until now.
These are understandable concerns. When we raise our children we’re expressing the most intimate aspects of our selves. Naturally our thoughts and feelings affect them. Since we are so close to our children and they rely on us so profoundly, any imperfections in our children could raise concerns that we are less than perfect. But that suggestion is exactly the line we must follow if we want to improve our family and improve the prospects for our children. In the intimate family unit, with each person relying on, learning from, and interacting with each other, the behavior of one affects all the individuals in the system. By exploring our own role, and changing our own approach we can bring change to the other members of the family.
Think through and learn best methods of training
If we are unhappy with the results of our parenting, we must consider change. But how? Our parenting seems like something we should be born with, not have to learn. And how can we trust a so-called expert who doesn’t know us, and doesn’t know what we want from our kids? But people who study parents and kids can offer us valuable insights. They go to school to study families, they learn by watching hundreds or thousands of families, and they have the time to compare notes and think through their conclusions.
On the other hand, we are only going to raise a few children and we only grew up in one family. We make many assumptions about what is normal and what works based on our own experience, but we have no way to test our assumptions by seeing their results. Another problem with raising kids based only on our own memory is that the world is changing at a breakneck speed, and our kids are growing up in a different world than the one in which we did.
In sports, in work, or any activity we want to excel, we know that excellence is a mix of learning how others do it, and then applying those principles with the best of our ability. Motivated by our desire to give our kids the best possible parenting, we can seek the teaching and advice of people who understand what it takes to shepherd kids through their developmental years. With the help of books, tapes, workshops and counselors, we can evaluate additional options and gain deeper understanding. Even a small improvement in our behavior with our children could have long-term benefits for their health and well-being.
When our child seems to be lazy or defiant, our instinct is to forcefully impose structure. We may act aggressively, and feel angry when we punish or even when we criticize. While anger may seem to control their behavior, it’s only effective for a short time, and only on the surface. Our child’s compliance may at first look like obedience. But angry discipline, when applied too often, or too severely, blocks the flow of emotional support between parent and child.
Children build up resistance to our direction. Instead of improving the child’s behavior, our anger creates emotional flooding, defensiveness and resentment that interfere with the child’s ability to follow instructions.
This turns into a vicious cycle. The more kids resent our anger and control, the harder we push our will on them, that in turn increases their resentment, and so on, sliding into a spiral of escalating punishments and acting out that creates the opposite effect of what we intend.
We may believe that punishments and yelling are necessary. But when we stop and consider our reasons for this belief, we may realize we’ve been basing our responses on preconceived assumptions, and that these methods are simply not producing obedient, harmonious results.
In the long term, forcefully imposing our will teaches little. By exercising more and more discipline, or thinking too much for the child, we teach him that we’ll do the thinking for him. This reduces his ability to think constructively for himself. The result of too much control may on one extreme be an obedient child who waits for us to make up her mind for her, and on the other extreme, especially as she reaches her teen years, a child who does everything she can to find her own way by doing the exact opposite of what we want.
To avoid setting up a situation that is likely to lead to defiant acting out, we need to apply clear guidance without harsh discipline. For many parents, already caught in a cycle with uncooperative children, a balanced approach seems like a distant, impossible dream. Our best efforts at discipline seem to have failed, and yet we can’t give up. When we realize that our old tools are failing, we seek new ones in self-help material, counseling, parenting workshops and other resources. As we consider new options we discover approaches to parenting that are different from the things we have tried in the past.
Children need to know they are loved
Just as a plant needs air, sunlight and water, a child needs nurturing and support to grow emotionally. But as a parent, we also have the agenda to teach them good behavior. Because of time pressure and habits, we may place more emphasis on our criticisms and rules than our loving connections. Through years of such experience, the child comes to believe that getting discipline is the best way to get the most attention. Yet, even when they get this negative attention, they are not satisfied that we love them. The fear of abandonment and rejection accompanies every angry argument, stimulating the child to want even more attention.
A child in this situation is never satisfied. She knows that by acting out she can get attention, but the attention is negative and doesn’t make her feel good about herself or feel the warmth and safety of her connection. Her stress levels stay high, making it harder to concentrate or to sit still.
Children’s fears of abandonment can also be raised when they believe we are giving too little direction or discipline. When parents leave their children to choose too freely with too little direction, the child may feel alone. Too much freedom looks good in theory but often makes the child resent a lack of the parent’s protective and guiding hand. In the absence of parental guidance, the child may act out in search of rules and boundaries, and their behavior may intensify as they seek proof of their parent’s love.
To address the child’s need for love, parents can reduce excessively harsh criticism, increase loving expressions, and bonding experiences, and recognize the child’s need for attention and loving, independent of their good and bad actions. Children crave loving attention. By giving them our full, undivided focus when they are behaving well, we increase their sense of safety, lower their stress level, and reduce their need to act out.
Our own impulsiveness could be the key
The best approach is somewhere between harsh discipline and too little guidance. That middle ground is difficult to reach, especially when the parent behaves impulsively. Impulsive action undermines the teaching relationship between parent and child.
To give them guidance, even when they provoke us, we must remain cool under pressure, calmly looking at each situation as an opportunity for learning, rather than for venting. We need to clearly communicate our message. Instead of getting angry when our child clumsily makes a mess, we could use this as an opportunity for empathy, helping the child through his own sense of frustration, and letting him participate in cleaning up. Instead of venting and feeling bad, we’ve just established a bond of intimacy.
The habit of impulsively venting at our kids is difficult to change, and it may be especially difficult for the parent of a child with ADD. ADD tends to run in families, so there’s a good chance that one or both parents also have difficulty controlling their impulses. In the heat of the moment, yelling may seem to be our only option and we may justify it as an appropriate discipline technique. But our anger may be more an expression of our own loss of control over impulsiveness than of any constructive idea we have about parenting. When we give in to impulse, we are no longer basing our actions on the best long term options for our kids. Just as we can see many reasons why we want our kids to control their impulses, we need to look in the mirror and explore our own impulsive behavior. If we recognize these ADD characteristics in ourselves, we need to seek our own growth, so we can expand our options and make better decisions about how to behave towards our teen.
Effective guidance without impulsiveness
Teaching our kids to control their impulses may be the most important skill we can offer them. And the most powerful training method we can use to teach this skill is by demonstrating to them our own calmness under pressure, our ability to focus on and complete tasks, and the ability to soothe our own anxiety. By becoming role models of mature behavior, we can give them deeper more meaningful lessons than any amount of discipline or lectures.
By taking responsibility for our own impulse control, we can learn strategies that improve our own quality of life, and give our children the best learning models and materials. And controlling our impulses can help us respond appropriately and constructively to our children.
When our feelings run hot and lead to impulsive action, we may be tempted to harshly discipline or enter into fruitless escalating power struggles with our children. If we look closely at our actions we might be shocked to discover that we are impulsively acting out, exactly the thing we’re trying to prevent in our child. When we let ourselves be swept up by our frustration and act out our anger, our intense emotions contribute to the child’s problems. Violent, angry discipline emotionally floods a child, and makes it harder for him or her to focus, often contributing to the behavior we’re trying to control.
Children are under constant pressure to please parents and teachers by performing complex tasks, and they may experience terrible anxiety about failing to live up to our expectations. Even young children can develop fearful fantasies about abandonment and death. As teens they are under enormous pressures to define their own identity, to please peers, and to get beyond the limitations of childhood.
Anxiety is a distracting emotion. When we’re swamped by our fears, we have to work harder to pay attention. In fact, the impact of anxiety worsens every symptom of ADD, including distractibility, impulsiveness and restlessness. And learning to soothe anxiety could reduce impulsiveness and increase attention.
One way to help relieve the child’s anxiety is to talk about their emotions. Most of the time we tend to focus on the actions and their consequences, while we leave unspoken the underlying emotions. Emotions have tremendous power. By speaking directly to the emotions, we can reveal the human heart at the root of the action, opening a dialog between us and our children that can bring deeper understanding to many situations. Empathizing with the child’s feelings and brainstorming together on ways to feel better can increase the trust and openness between parent and child. Adults, as well as kids, may find immediate improvement just by understanding and learning how to communicate their feelings.
Once they understand how to identify their feelings, we can teach our child ways to soothe themselves. For example, they can learn to say encouraging, calming things to themselves, and learn to visualize a safe, comfortable place. Such training, not readily available in most families, but easily accessible in self-help books and counseling, will improve the child’s ability to concentrate and learn.
Pour conscious energy into praise
Since one of our key jobs as parents is to teach the child appropriate limits, “no’s” are important. But when we fall into the habit of giving the child mainly negative attention we are inadvertently teaching the child to misbehave. Children crave attention and when they want more, they will do what they need to do to get it. If they realize their misbehavior draws our intense focus, then they can get what they want by provoking us. Long extended arguments may be just the thing the child is seeking, as he craves his parent’s intense attention.
We can turn the table on this pattern by consciously pouring more intense energy into praising good behavior. When our child is sitting doing homework, we can regularly give him our loving contact and praise. When our child walks past the candy counter without making a scene, or makes peace with a sibling we can share our joy and reward her for good behavior with a hug. By offering hugs and extended positive attention for a job well done, these rewards become the child’s sought after prize.
In addition to offering increased praise for positive behavior, we also need to reduce the emotional intensity of our criticism. Reducing our anger during discipline lowers the drama, acting out, and rebellion. The child may respond more appropriately because our calm behavior is no longer flooding him or her with fear and anxiety.
A powerful strategy to reduce the child’s payoff for negative behavior is to shorten the duration of our attention on it. Instead of complicated and drawn out arguments and lectures, we can discipline with a clear firm message, and then withdraw our attention. When we first pull away from lectures and long arguments we may be surprised by how much energy we’re saving. It may seem awkward at first, in contrast to old habits of prolonged intense attention, and the child may even seem awkward or upset because he or she is missing the intense lectures. But once we’ve established this pattern, they’ll realize their negative behavior is earning less attention. This frees our relationship so we can put our energy into connecting with our child on a more positive basis.
Attentiveness requires interest and motivation
When we sit in a boring meeting or wait in a dentist’s office we fidget and our mind wanders restlessly. On the other hand, when we’re watching a good movie, time flies. The basic rule is that we pay attention when we’re interested. One of the factors that will help our kids stay focused in school is to help them feel motivated to learn. While there’s no simple switch we can throw to increase their interest, we can use strategies at home to show them that learning is part of their relationship with us.
When we let them know we’re interested in what they learned, what they felt and who they talked to at school, we get them into the habit of bringing their school day into the home. Our focused interest, curiosity and praise will motivate them to learn more. We could increase the bond we have with our children as well as increase their curiosity by treating their questions with genuine interest, and get into the habit of taking the time to carefully answer their questions, even when it means checking in an encyclopedia or on the internet. Our own sense of wonder and curiosity about knowledge shows them that learning is a lifelong process. Our consistent enthusiasm about their learning helps them get interested and stay interested in school work.
Reward and punishment
Rather than simply expecting our child to behave well, giving commands, and then punishing them when they fail to meet our demands, we need to become much more resourceful as parents. Rewards can be a much more powerful and positive training method than punishment.
To keep our kid’s interest, we need to shower them with rewards when they are good, and withhold rewards when they fail to meet their goals. Just as adults work harder to earn rewards, kids can learn the payoff of good behavior. Younger children are moved by our encouragement and praise, while in their teenage years, they become more interested in extending their curfew, increasing their allowance, getting the car, and other instruments of their precious independence. By rewarding good behavior, we can turn their accomplishments into joyful victories.
When rewards enter the conversation, negotiations become more fun and less stressful. Instead of “do this or else” our conversations can switch to more interesting reward based conversations.
Our culture has a strong tradition of teaching boys to be tough. In the process of toughening them up, we encourage boys to ignore their feelings. By the time boys get to kindergarten, they have few tools to creatively handle their own emotions. Boys’ main expression and release of unwanted feeling is through action, but in school they must sit still. Feeling the stirrings of normal emotions, but without the only release they know, boys use whatever outlets they can find, such as acting out, or shutting down, as they struggle to still their emotions. We need to help boys understand their emotions and find healthy ways to cope. Emotional strength and flexibility will prepare boys to deal with the complex situations of school and life.
Girls develop faster than boys, so in a classroom of children of equal age, the boys are at a disadvantage. This disadvantage puts competitive pressure on all boys, but is worse for boys with wandering attention. As the girls pull ahead, the boys feel more frustrated, and them may start to see themselves as failing at this central life task. At such a tender age, these negative perceptions of themselves may turn them against themselves in a vicious cycle of low self-esteem that only makes it harder to succeed. Increased coaching at home, both emotionally and with remedial school work, can help boys stay out of this cycle.
School coaching and methods
Since so many childhood problems surface in the class room, it’s important to learn more about how the school handles these children. ADD kids learn better in environments that tolerate and channel high-energy behavior. Playtime and organized gym classes help the kids work off nervous energy. Smaller classrooms increase the amount of individual attention from the teacher and cut down on the number of distractions from other students.
ADD is often confused with, and mixed in with, learning differences. If a child has a hard time reading or following verbal instructions, he may become agitated and confused at school. Testing children for learning differences can reveal a need for special teaching methods. Getting the child into an appropriate learning differences program might accelerate his academic accomplishments and reduce his behavior problems.
We can take steps within our community to help raise awareness of alternative perspectives on ADD. Parents can start to understand their school’s attitudes and programs and try to influence them to help fidgety boys and girls that supplement or, in some cases, replace drugs.
Diet and exercise
What we eat and do affects the way we feel. If we are eating too many fast burning carbohydrates (sugar), and getting too little exercise, we are probably all charged up looking for something to do with our energy. In addition to sugar, many soft drinks contain caffeine, which contributes to fidgety, nervous energy. We can, to some extent, regulate our nervous energy by exchanging sugar for slower burning carbohydrates, reducing caffeine and increasing the amount of physical activity so we can burn off excess energy.
One method that helps kids retrain their ability to pay attention is neurofeedback, based on scientific insights into the working of the brain. Neurofeedback gives children tools to see their own brainwaves on a computer screen, and taking advantage of their natural curiosity, teaches them how to manage the frantic distractibility of their brain. Therapy consists of a combination of the neurofeedback training itself, along with coaching to help the child relax and focus, while he plays a special “video game.” In this “game” the child “wins” when he brings more order to his own brain patterns. Because kids are already motivated to win at games, neurofeedback is challenging and fun. Neurofeedback combined with coaching gives good results without drugs in a growing number of studies.
Because medication is so highly recommended by the medical and school communities, and does help the child stay focused, we may feel that we have no choice but to comply with the requests of school counselors. We can still help our child by becoming intelligent consumers. Rather than take someone’s “educated guess” we can get a professional diagnosis from a trained psychologist or psychiatrist. Then we can explore the various pharmaceutical options. There are several medications being used, and we want to be sure our child is getting the most appropriate one, and at the best dose. With professional help we may find out if we can take time-outs from the medication during school breaks and summer months to give the child’s body and mind time to experience life without drugs. And even while the child is taking the medication, we still need to learn best strategies for coaching them to become well adjusted children.
Learn about our own psychology
When we become concerned about our child’s behavior we wonder how we might have been responsible. There are many genetic factors that form a child’s body and mind. But the scientific evidence that childhood attention and behavior problems are genetic is ambiguous, and leaves plenty of room to explore the critical role of parenting and family life. When we raise children, we are their first and main exposure to the human experience. We transmit ourselves to them, through conscious and unconscious channels. In this most intimate of relationships, it’s little wonder that some of our habits and strategies may find expression in them.
Children are products of their family life, and imbalances in the children often reflect their effort to balance out the dynamics of the people around them. We can learn from them, by using their difficulties as indicators of subtle tensions within the dynamics of the family. One of the best ways to help our children is to explore what in us might be contributing to their situation. It may seem unfair at first to look inside ourselves to find the cause of someone else’s problem, but the rewards are many and the risks are few. As we uncover and resolve issues within ourselves, we may find that our efforts have far-reaching positive effects on our individual and family health.
Added pressures on the family
Difficult kids undermine the peace of our family life. As we do our best to be a good parent, we also have to keep in mind the health of the caregivers and other family members. Raising an impulsive or defiant child brings added pressures that make it harder for every member of the family to stay balanced. Counseling can help the whole family cope more effectively with emotional responses within themselves and with each other. Every effort at improving the health of individuals improves the health of the whole family, and every effort at increasing the harmony of the family improves the opportunity for individual health and growth.
When our kids are impulsive and act out or fail to pay attention at school we are at our wit’s end. We have a difficult enough job raising them to begin with. We would love to have calm, obedient children who do everything they are told. But we don’t. If we continue to parent on automatic, basing our reactions to our children on instinct, we are at the mercy of habits and beliefs we probably have not consciously evaluated. Our children are growing in a different world than we did, and with the dangers and challenges that children are being exposed to now increasing at an accelerated pace, we need all the tools we can find to help us do our job. When we focus on their emotional well being, teach them to overcome anxiety, look for ways to increase their motivation to learn, and find opportunities to praise them for what they do right, we can give them the best chance for success, as well as improve family harmony. And we can use their challenges as our opportunity to learn not only about what makes them tick, but also about what makes us tick as parents. Our efforts to help them, help make us a better person as well.
See also: Anxiety, Biofeedback, Child within, Men, Science, Teenagers
Ritalin is not the answer, a drug free, practical program for children diagnosed with ADD or ADHD by David B. Stein, Ph.D.
Attention Deficit Disorder, New Ways to Work with ADD at Home, Work, and School by Thom Hartmann
Driven to distraction by Edward M. Hallowell, M.D., and John J. Ratey, M.D.
Secret of Parenting : How to Be in Charge of Today’s Kids – From Toddlers to Preteens – Without Threats or Punishment by Anthony E. Wolf
Raising an emotionally intelligent child by John Gottman
Yes, your teen is crazy! Loving your kids without losing your mind by Michael J. Bradley
The relaxation & stress reduction workbook, simple concise step-by-step instructions by Martha Davis, Elizabeth Robbins Eshelman and Matthew McKay
When anger hurts, quieting the storm within by Matthew Mckay, Peter D. Rogers and Judith McKay