From the very beginning, Jennifer knew her youngest son, Aaron, was different.* The mother of four children, Jennifer felt confident in her abilities as a parent. But then, along came Aaron, a child for whom nothing seemed to work. He was a whirlwind, an athletic boy in constant motion. “Our three other children were taught not to jump on the furniture,” says Jennifer. “But because Aaron was so hyperactive, he’d be jumping all over the house. I’d say ‘Don’t jump!’ but it was a lost cause because he wouldn’t listen. Restriction didn’t work, in fact, no restrictions worked. It was very frustrating.”
At age 3, for example, her son managed to scale a seven-foot fence in the family’s backyard and break into the neighbor’s house. When she asked him why he did it, he said, “Because I thought it would be fun to go and play in there.”
Jennifer says Aaron’s hyperactivity meant he often didn’t sleep. It wouldn’t be uncommon to find him wandering the house in the middle of the night. His lack of impulse control made getting together with friends for play dates nearly impossible, as her son would grab away toys he wanted to play with or play too aggressively, unable to understand why he needed to wait his turn, or be gentle with another.
“As a parent, you begin to isolate yourself because your child is so different,” she says. “When your child doesn’t have the same social skills and he can’t play in groups, it’s hard. People don’t understand what’s going on. The first assumption is that you’re just a bad parent who doesn’t know how to handle your kid.”
It’s often when children get to elementary school that the diagnosis of ADHD begins to surface. Kindergarten teachers expect 5-and 6-year-olds to be able to follow simple directions in the classroom. Those students who can’t focus long enough to complete a task, those who need constant redirection, begin to stand out.
ADHD, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, occurs in 8 to 10 percent of school-aged children; in fact, it’s the most common neurobehavioral disorder of childhood. Boys are three times more likely to be diagnosed with it as girls. And while doctors aren’t sure exactly what causes the condition, ADHD is probably genetic.
“The short-term memory of the ADHD brain doesn’t have enough dopamine,” notes pediatrician Lelon “Bubba” Edwards, M.D. “You can see the physical difference in the brain. There’s also a huge genetic component; if a child has it, one of the parents often has it, too.”
Kids with ADHD may have trouble focusing on certain tasks or finishing their work on time. Sometimes, they forget to bring homework to school and are often disorganized. The condition can impair learning, particularly when it goes unchecked. What’s more, these children will exhibit a lack of coping skills at school, at home, at childcare, everywhere. Not all children have the hyperactivity component of ADHD (which can sometimes make it more difficult to diagnose) but they generally share these other common traits regardless of their situation.
Symptoms Surface Early
“This doesn’t come on at age 8,” notes Jerry Heston, a psychologist who specializes in ADHD. Children often start exhibiting these characteristics early on, as preschoolers or even toddlers. “These are the kids who don’t want to move on to the next activity, who have difficulty transitioning,” says E. Ann Ingram, the director of infant and early childhood programming at Centerstone, and a former director of Regional Intervention Program (RIP), an early intervention program serving children under age 6 with behavioral problems.
“Parents often say they knew something was different right from the beginning, because this was the child that never slept, who was a fussy eater, who was difficult to soothe,” says Ingram.
Parents of children with ADHD often talk about pulling out of social settings because their child’s behavior can cause problems. Many of these children struggle with reading social cues, so they have a difficult time interacting with their peers. And their impulsive nature simply adds fuel to the fire.
“My son has the sweetest heart,” says Jennifer. “He’ll be the first to apologize and say ‘I’m sorry I hit you, I don’t know why I did it.’ He acts first because he doesn’t have the control.”
Unfortunately, what interferes with learning also interferes with making and keeping friends. Other kids will see them as high-energy fun but when the ADHD child makes an impulsive comment or gets into trouble at school, other kids don’t want to hang with them.
How to Help Your Child
Kids with ADHD need early intervention. The longer symptoms go undiagnosed, the more learning and coping skills can be compromised, and self-esteem eroded. If a teacher raises a concern about your child, consider if these behavioral issues arise in other settings as well; then have your child evaluated by a psychologist who specializes in ADHD. Experts say behavior modification — learning how to parent your child differently — along with medication, will help get you on the right path.
Early intervention programs like RIP can also make a world of difference for parents. During two-hour sessions, parents work with social workers to learn new ways of disciplining and communicating with their child. “These children want to succeed, they want to finish the tasks they’ve been given, but they can’t do it without help,” notes former school counselor Kelley Barnett.
Jennifer and her husband have been working with Aaron through the RIP program and report it’s made a world of difference in their lives. “It’s greatly benefitted my son but it’s also helped me as a parent. RIP really gave me a sense of confidence that I had lost.”
Children with ADHD
• Are excessively active
• Are unable to focus on one activity for very long
• Have difficulty following through on tasks
• Have difficulty waiting turns
• Are unable to follow simple two- or three-step commands
• Are disorganized
• Act out aggressively with classmates
• Act on impulses without knowing why
Helping Your Young Child
• Listen to your child’s teacher. Educators see many children all together, so it’s often easy to identify those who are struggling.
• See a specialist who deals with ADHD in children. ADHD can look like several other processing or learning disability issues.
• Pick up Survival Guides for Preschool Parents: How to Manage Challenging Behavior. This useful binder includes guides, worksheets and a DVD for working with children ages 2 to 6, plus helpful parenting tips and techniques. Produced by Jerry Heston, M.D. & associates. • Available at: asissi-resources.org.
• Schedule an appointment with RIP. Program works with children under 6, many with varying developmental abilities. Parents learn positive behavior skills and strategies. • 678-5258. ripnetwork.org
Helping Your Middle-schooler
• Make your child more aware of himself and how he relates to his peers. Work on social skills. Use a reward system that subtracts or adds activities he enjoys, like sports or video games.
• Help with organizational skills. Work with your child to come up with strategies for keeping track of books, papers, cell phone, and homework.
• Stay in communication with teachers. Work together to help your child succeed.
• Be flexible and adapt to your changing child. Realize the behavior techniques you used for your child at age 8 will likely not work as he enters the tween years.
• Get your child seen by a specialist if he’s struggling in middle school. Rebellious behavior may be masking a negative self-concept that can spiral into depression if left untreated.
Helping Your Teen
• Teens, ADHD, and Life: What Adults Need to Know. This 75-page guide and 25-minute DVD will help you understand the challenges your teen with ADHD faces. • asissi-resources.org
Coming in October, more about the RIP program.