Super Parenting for Kids with AD/HD
ADD and ADHD have a long rap sheet. The parents of children with Attention Deficit Disorder or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder know the list of negatives intimately.
“Your son cannot sit still; he’s always disrupting my class.”
“Your daughter needs to learn to focus. When she came over to do homework with my child, she kept leaving the kitchen table before the work was done.”
“These kids are all on Ritalin or some other kind of medication. What they really need is more discipline and better parenting!”
Raising a child with AD/HD, the term now used to encompass both ADD and ADHD, means fending off criticism from teachers, relatives and well-meaning friends about your child’s behavior while coping with that same behavior yourself every single day.
AD/HD affects almost 7 million children nationwide, and while research has shown it has a neurological basis, the exact cause is still unknown. Kids and adults with ADD are more prone to difficulties focusing, organizing and staying on task while those with ADHD are also prone to fidgeting, incessant talking and impulsive behavior that others may find inappropriate and rude.
The tough part for parents lies in trying to remain patient, positive and nurturing when your child’s behavior is driving you, and others, absolutely nuts.
Enter Edward Hallowell, M.D., a renowned pediatric psychiatric clinician best known for his landmark ADD book Driven to Distraction (Anchor, 2011), and the father of two kids with AD/HD who also has the condition himself. Hallowell, director of the Hallowell Centers for Cognitive and Emotional Health in Sudbury and New York City, argues that AD/HD should not be treated as a disability, but rather a gift – a group of admirable character traits that parents need to find and encourage. Nurturing these gifts, he says, can guide a child to better behavior, higher self-esteem and, ultimately, success.
For parents wracked with worry about a child with AD/HD, that kind of thinking is a big gulp of fresh air.
“It’s really a passion I have to change how people look at this condition,” Hallowell says. “I have been treating it for over 30 years in children and adults. It just drives me crazy how it is pathologized. The medical model says you’re a sick person; the moral model says you’re a bad person.
“If you approach [AD/HD] with positive energy, as if this is something like a gift that’s hard to unwrap as opposed to a disability that needs to be treated, you get such great results.”
Hallowell, of Arlington, details AD/HD’s gifts in his book, Superparenting for ADD: An Innovative Approach to Raising Your Distracted Child (Ballantine Books, 2008), which he coauthored with renowned child psychiatrist and AD/HD researcher Peter Jensen, M.D. Rather than a belabored explanation of AD/HD symptoms, treatment and research, the book offers parents a double dose of reassurance and easy-to-follow advice.
Love Conquers All
Intimate and empathetic (there’s even a soliloquy about having ADD, from an adolescent boy’s point of view), the book quickly tugs at parents’ heartstrings by acknowledging the importance and healing power of unconditional love.
“We’re so preoccupied with the short-term things like therapy and tutoring, those are great, yes – but we forget that the most important force that changes a life is love,” Hallowell says. “These kids don’t always get that because they’re not always easy to love. They’re failing in school, they’re misbehaving, they’re achieving inconsistently.
They often get punished instead of appreciated.” But love, he says, will ultimately help a child succeed.
In his book and in his practice, Hallowell acknowledges for parents that kids with AD/HD “aren’t easy to raise. Then I stoke them with the fire that if you keep loving them, they’re going to succeed.” Accept your child for who he is, not some perfected version, the authors recommend. Spend as much time together as you can; have fun; notice and praise your child for her unique interests and accomplishments; be there for comfort and understanding when he’s feeling ostracized.
To parents fraught with guilt over losing it with a child out of sheer frustration and impatience, Hallowell is reassuring. “Don’t feel bad,” he tells them. “We all do it and you’re only human. Feeling guilty only makes things worse.” He and Jensen also advise parents to never worry alone. Get professional help for your child and for yourself; find support from therapists, teachers and other parents of AD/HD kids.
“Explosions happen because you’re pent up and you’re doing too much alone,” Hallowell says.
Accentuate the Positive
He also urges parents to understand and accept that their child can’t always help how he acts.
A boy with AD/HD who has angered his buddies by loudly intruding on a game they were playing, will likely tell his mother he doesn’t know why he acted that way. And what Hallowell and Jensen want you to understand is that he really doesn’t know. He’s not being flip. He cannot understand why he acts the way he does. He’s frustrated, beaten down and hurt by the harsh reactions of his peers, teachers and family.
Thus, a key ingredient in the “superparenting” strategy is to build that child back up by nurturing the silver lining in every negative behavior of AD/HD: A hyperactive or restless child is also a child with boundless energy; a child who deviates from the topic at hand is one who sees connections or angles that others don’t. A moody child is also sensitive and compassionate.
Point out the positive traits your child has; praise her interests and actions, Hallowell says. Then teach her to silently count to 10 before bursting out with a slew of facts about space travel during a class lecture on planets in the solar system.
Tap Into Tendencies
Among other strategies for helping a child with AD/HD, Superparenting for ADD introduces the Kolbe Index, a personality test that identifies a person’s instinctive way of problem solving and decision-making. For example, Hallowell says people will react differently when given a pile of junk and asked to create something from it. Some might ask a lot of questions before beginning; others will dive right in; and others might first separate objects from the pile into different categories. Those behaviors and others are defined in the Kolbe Index – not as right or wrong but as individual problem-solving tendencies.
Once parents and teachers know how a child with AD/HD will approach a problem, they can tap into that method to help the child succeed, Hallowell says. If an AD/HD child tends to dive into a project, he’ll have a tough time with teachers who are more prone to explore and ask questions first. Knowing this, a parent can suggest to the child that if he wants to dive in, he should first raise his hand, wait to be called on, and then say, “I’ve thought about this and I have a plan.”
“Chances are the plan won’t be particularly good,” Hallowell says. “But teachers love to help children and, at that point, they can jump in and help the child make the plan better.” That’s a win-win for both the child and the teacher.
The Cycle of Excellence
Hallowell has always been open-minded about treatments for AD/HD, including medication, which has had its share of controversy over the years.
“When people ask me if I believe in Ritalin, my answer is that it’s not a religious principle,” he says, asserting that medicine can help and shouldn’t be discounted. But he acknowledges that in psychiatry, medication has been “overemphasized,” mainly because drug companies are the only organizations that can pay for research needed to test a drug’s effectiveness.
“All the other alternative approaches to ADD – there’s no funding to research it,” he says. “As a result, doctors tend to treat ADD with medication only, and I agree that’s a big mistake.”
Beyond medicine, a more powerful, long-term treatment is what he and Jensen call the “cycle of excellence” – in which parents and caring adults connect with a child, give him opportunities for creative play, allow him to practice and master a task and then reward him with recognition – a pat on the back, a nod or simple gesture – for a job well done.
That cycle, Hallowell insists, is the single most important treatment for AD/HD in any child at any age. That, and the power of unconditional love and positive, nurturing parenting.
“You bring into the process enthusiasm, energy and hope,” Hallowell says of this positive way of dealing with AD/HD. “Instead of creating a disability, you’re unwrapping a gift, creating a talent. These parents know their child has something special.”