About three weeks into the school year, I start getting calls from parents who are worried that their child might have attention deficit disorder. Parents also call with other worries -- they fear that their child has school phobia or social anxiety. But with almost 5 million children in this country diagnosed with ADHD, this ominous acronym is the first thing parents tend to think of when school problems occur.
Whether ADHD is actually a biological condition (there is no scientific evidence for this), or whether ADHD is a profitable social construction that allows Big Pharma to sell more drugs, is a topic that continues to be debated. The more important question, it seems to me, is how can parents help a child who cannot concentrate in the classroom, or whose behavior is out of control? Drug solutions have been touted for decades by expensive marketing campaigns of the psychiatric-pharmaceutical complex. Non-drug solutions are less well-known -- except to parents who have fiercely devoted themselves to finding an alternative way to help their children.
From my point of view as a family therapist, the various behaviors that we group together and name "ADHD" (ADD without hyperactivity is no longer a diagnosis in the latest edition of The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) have a situational, not a biological, cause. Many parents, for example, find that although their child seems to have ADHD at school, when the child is home-schooled he doesn't have symptoms at all.
Situational problems require situational solutions. When her two sons were diagnosed with ADHD, one mom found that enrolling them in boxing helped them expend their extra energy. This worked so well that she was able to avoid medicating them. Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps was diagnosed with ADHD at 9 years old, then took himself off medication at age 13 because he didn't want to use the medication as a crutch. Phelps did very well for a boy whose teacher predicted that he would never succeed at anything.
Enrolling an overactive child in a sport such as boxing or swimming is a good way to channel excess energy. But there are other solutions as well. Here are some that I have gleaned from my 22 years of helping children in family therapy. These strategies are not for the hurried parent who wants a quick fix, Band Aid solution for their child's symptoms. The parents who find their way to my office through the haze of psychiatric-pharmaceutical propaganda have read the research about the side effects of the speed medications used for ADHD, and they are looking for a saner alternative. These courageous souls are willing to take responsibility for making changes in their own homes to decrease their child's stress and improve the child's emotional health. Here are some of the strategies I recommend to them:
- Rule out any medical problems, such as food allergies, food sensitivities or vision problems. One 7-year-old boy was diagnosed with ADHD until it turned out he wasn't doing his classwork because he couldn't see properly. Eye glasses, not pills, soon had him focusing on his assignments again.
- Get on the same page about discipline. Most couples, when they get married, do not discuss their views on disciplining a child. So they cannot be blamed when they find that one of them is strict and the other more soft-hearted. Whatever it takes -- and sometimes it takes family therapy or marriage counseling -- parents need to come to agreement about discipline and all matters concerning their child and back each other up. Discipline in a calm manner and try not to yell. Children tell me they feel just terrible when their parent yells at them.
- Keep your own arguments and disagreements away from the children. This might mean going out to the car and having a fight with the windows rolled up after the children have gone to bed. A home full of conflict, whether voiced or simmering beneath the surface, can cause a child to have out-of-control behavior.
- Keep adult worries out of children's hearing. Little imaginations tend to make mountains out of molehills. A child can easily be distracted at school because she is worried about a father losing his job or a mother having an affair. Shelter your child from family problems that she need not worry about.
- Use helping chores as a consequence when the child has a bad day at school. A 10- to 15-minute age-appropriate chore, closely supervised by mom, is the best kind of consequence for a child. Helping his mother makes a child feel good inside.
- Limit media stimulation (TV, video games, cell phones, computers and social networking) in the home. This might mean recording or downloading your favorite TV programs and watching them after the children have gone to bed. Heed the advice of the American Academy of Pediatrics when they recommend not putting a TV in your child's room and limiting TV shows to one hour per day. The AAP warns that early exposure to television can lead to ADHD-like symptoms in children.
- Finally, nurture your marriage and yourself. Like most of us, children are emotionally healthier when they are around people who have healthy relationships. Since parents are the most important people in a child's life, the quality of the parents' relationship has a profound influence on a child.
These strategies are not a quick-fix solution. Putting them into practice takes time, energy and courage on the part of parents. Of course, the earlier the parents intervene and make changes, the more effective the strategies will be. Stimulant medications, on the other hand, work quickly and do not require parents to make any changes in their interactions with their child or their spouse. They provide quick, effective help for anyone who needs to enhance concentration -- college students, fighter pilots, soldiers in war zones and increasingly larger numbers of our country's children.