by Christina Edmondson, PhD
You are in the grocery store checkout line, the mall, or even at church when, out-of-nowhere, a little person darts by you. It’s him, you know the kid–the one jumping off the wall and bursting with energy who just can’t seem to sit still. You think to yourself, “oh no he didn’t….he needs to sit his little tail down” or better yet, “if that was MY child, there is absolutely NO WAY he would act like that.” But what if it IS your child? What if it’s your kid who has the apparent behavior, attention, or hyperactivity issues? Despite all the efforts that you know to employ, including everything from threats, to “whoopings,” to negotiations and outright bribery, the behavior persists. What a frustrating place for a parent to be! The parent often has few real answers and too many unsolicited opinions.
ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) is one of the most commonly diagnosed disorders among American children (1). However, this diagnosis presents some unique and challenging issues for Black children. Unfairly, their hyperactivity is easily viewed through racist lenses and often misinterpreted as somehow violent, deviant, or to be expected. No wonder many African Americans resist having their children diagnosed and labeled with ADHD. We understand the real consequences for Black children who don’t “fall in line.” Their behavior whether age appropriate or not, is more quickly demonized and/or pathologized.
However, the worst thing we can do for seemingly inattentive or hyperactive children may be to lower our standards or do nothing at all. I have often heard adolescent clients say, “I have ADHD, Ms. Christina, you can’t expect me to act right.” My response is almost always, “Oh yes, I can…Moreover, I expect every responsible adult in your life to model what is expected, set high standards, give consequences when appropriate and create conditions for success.” We owe our children enough respect to discipline them, love them, and encourage them. We have a generation bound to hold us responsible for what we did not give them. I am not referring to material good, we often overwhelm in this area, but rather the deeper lessons like self-control, character, hard work, and reverence.
Comments like “ADHD isn’t real” (while I understand the sentiment) demonstrate a common misunderstanding about what a diagnosis really is. A diagnosis is ONLY a set of criteria that you either meet or you don’t. ADHD is only a name given to a certain grouping of behaviors which occur together. ADHD is debated from a variety of perspectives and I am sure you have your own opinion. Common opinions and research findings range from genetics, nutrition, culture, and parenting deficits. The truth is there is legitimacy in all of these positions. However holding fast to only one, while neglecting the others, can be harmful.
Here is the uncomfortable truth. One of the reasons doctors prescribe medications when there is a natural treatment alternatives to a disorders is because people are resistant to change. We want to do what we want to do. Period. Getting a person to change can be as hard as giving a lion a Tic Tac and most people simply don’t want to endure that kind of bite. We all know people who want to eat WHATEVER they want. They crave certain unhealthy foods because they like the taste or because they grew up eating it. Despite the results of one’s diet and lifestyle being debilitating or lethal, the pattern persists. In addition to this, there are real issues of access to healthy food and resources that are a true disadvantage. Taking medication or getting a kid to “pop a pill” (which is much harder than it sounds), is easier than the lifestyle change that may be required to deal with some of the causes of ADHD symptoms. Limited means, lack of knowledge, and no support are real issues that many well-meaning parents face.
The harder you cringe at the idea of your child (or any child) using behavior modifying medication, the more seriously you should consider some healthy lifestyle changes which most parents (regardless of economic status) can employ. These simple and practical changes can have a dramatic impact on your child’s behavior and are good for kids whether or not they have an ADHD diagnosis. Here are some things for all of us to consider as parents:
Question #1: Does my child consistently get enough sleep?
Many American children are sleep deprived. Kids don’t get to have the cup(s) of coffee to start their day like many overworked and overextended parents. One study showed that nearly 10% of Kindergarten through 4th graders actually fall asleep at school (3). I don’t know about you, but one of the clear signs that my oldest child is over-tired is a spike in hyperactivity. This is why it’s important to get kids down before they become “dog tired.” Many parents are not consistent with bedtime because they feel guilty due to various work commitments. However we do our kids no favors when we leave them undisciplined due to our inconsistency or feelings of guilt. Sleep is necessary for the body to repair itself and it is an important part of growth and development in children. Buckle down, set a bedtime, and demonstrate to your child that you know best by sticking to it. Three weeks or less of hard work is worth the good habit you are sowing into your child.
Question #2: What am I feeding my kid?
What we eat says a lot about our lifestyle, income, and access to food. The question for parents regardless of income and time is “what is the best I can do nutrition-wise for my children?” Recent research shows just how crucial this may be when dealing with hyperactivity and inattentiveness in children. Dr. Bernard Weiss, a professor of environmental medicine at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry, reports that food additives can sometimes impact a child’s behavior (2). One recent study even called for parents to purchase only organic food to combat the likelihood of ADHD. Some artificial food colors and preservatives like sodium benzoate have been liked to “aggravated hyperactivity in two groups of children without ADHD — 3-year-olds and 8- to 9-year-olds.(4)” Considering there is a pot of collard greens (with pork) on my stove right now, I am not advocating that parents force their kids to eat like rabbits, however I am arguing that from research and common sense, it’s clear to see that we are what we eat. For kids and adults the better we eat, the better we perform. Not only will “Big Momma’s” discipline be helpful, but also her kitchen. If it comes down to a choice between snapping peas or popping pills, this sister is going to snap some peas. As a working mother, I understand why this is so difficult. Some practical suggestions include having assigned cooking days where you make and package healthy meals. A healthy leftover beats carry out, overly-processed or fast-food any day.
Question #3: Given their age, do I have the right expectations for my child?
I encourage parents to not raise their children in a bubble. We often don’t have an adequate sense of what is normal or standard behavior for our child’s age range. Teachers have an advantage as parents, because they have a sense of what children of certain ages are like in general. The amount of energy that a healthy child can expend is mind boggling to an adult. Most parents don’t have the stamina to hang with their energetic children, because of the demands of work life and/or lack of exercise. It may feel like our children are hyperactive when we don’t have the energy to engage with them. Our world is in slow motion and theirs is on fast-forward. Engaging in some physical activities with our kids whether indoors or outdoors, will benefit both the adults and kids. Just remember to stretch before playing your Wii.
Question #4: Does my child have trauma or emotional issues that require help and support?
Another serious issue to consider is that many symptoms of ADHD in children are similar to symptoms of trauma in children. If your child is in a high stress environment (neighborhood violence, argumentative parents, and/or a victim of abuse) they need the space to process the anxiety associated with these experiences. If not, their behavior will show forth the frustration and fear that is under the surface. Consulting with another wise and respected parent, your pastor, or a counselor may offer you the insight to better contextualize your child’s behavior and give them the support to grow into emotionally healthy young adults.
Question #5: Does my child believe that trying hard matters?
“Effort optimism” is a term that relates to how strongly a student believes that hard work will pay off. A strong conviction generally results in greater success and can become a self-fulfilling prophecy reinforcing that belief. When kids don’t think their efforts will produce desirable results they lose needed incentive to work hard. The lack of success they experience reinforces the belief that their efforts mean little. This is an important concept to consider among our children and ourselves. Why work hard when you think nothing will work out for you anyway? When good grades or behavior don’t get my parents’ attention, why try?
As parents, we are often geared to notice misbehavior. But noticing and praising the behavior that is healthy and productive is likely to reinforce it and make it occur more.
Dr. Edmondson’s Practical Tip: Try this one evening. (This works best for an elementary school aged child). First, get a large clear container and label it “success” or “hard work”. Every time you notice your child behaving well (setting the table, being kind to siblings, reading a book, using manners, complying immediately, etc.)show them the cotton ball and say “you are on your way to success.” It is your job to notice the good behavior and reward it consistently. At the end of a couple of hours, show your child the container. It should be filled up. By this point your child will learn a couple of visible lessons.
1. My parent(s) sees and notices me.
2. Good behavior pays off
3. Hard work leads to success
4. Accomplishment feels good
I encourage you to be creative and discover interventions that fit the uniqueness of your child.
Question #6: Do I have a support team?
Finally, having a support team is essential when dealing with a hyperactive or inattentive child. Why? Because parents need a break! Even an hour of downtime can help the mental health of a hardworking parent. You need to be recharged so that you can give your child the best you. It also teaches them that people (even parents) need space and that respecting your boundaries are important.
Parenting is hard work, sweat on your brow, hidden tears, and prayer-whispering, hard work. While parents need some confidence to demonstrate their authority in the home, it is unhealthy when a parent thinks they “know it all” and the shear biological ability to produce a kid constitutes knowing how to raise one.
It is both a protective and loving instinct for parents to be slow to accept a label or diagnosis regarding their child. With this being said, some kids DO need professional help. Parenting requires standing your ground for your child but also having the humility to seek and accept help. I know you agree that our kids are worth it.
Christina H. Edmondson, PhD, LLP is a psychologist, college instructor and speaker. Although, much of her time and love are spent being a full-time wife and a mother of two. Please send family and relationship topics that you would like to hear about to firstname.lastname@example.org or visit drchristinaedmondson.wordpress.com.