Parenting

Parenting Principles

»Posted on Nov 4, 2014 in Family Life, Parenting | 0 comments

parenting

When I talk to parents about their kids, it often seems like their focus is on external indicators of “right” behaviour. They will ask me for help in changing their kids’ behaviour, or disciplining tips to get them to be well-behaved. I know that they love their kids, but I think they are looking at the wrong things to change.

The truth is how kids turn out is far more dependent on what’s going on inside their hearts than on their outside behaviour. That means that as a parent, my capacity to connect with my kids’ hearts is more important than just the rules I set and how I discipline them. Our job as parents is to ultimately help our kids internalize a sense of security that is rooted in their capacity to love others and receive love from other people. With that sense of attachment and security, our kids will be able to explore, try new challenges, face difficulties, set tough personal goals and become effective influencers of others.

That means that my choice to focus on their emotional needs with empathy, be a safe person for them to come to with their problems, accept how God has wired them with delight, model the love of Jesus Christ for them, and treasure the gifts that they are, is far more powerful than anything I can teach them or discipline them to do.

For more sound parenting principles, watch this video.  And if you have specific questions about your kids, feel free to contact me for more information.

 

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Family Ties – Part 5

»Posted on Aug 6, 2013 in Family Life, Marriage and Relationships, Parenting, Personal Growth | 0 comments

 Break Free from Family Ties

I sat chatting with my friend the other day, marvelling at the incredible mother she was.  Looking at her respond to her son as he interrupted us with a question, I just had to sit back and admire her.  Not only was she a wonderful mom, but she was also a beautiful friend and a loving wife.  Hard to believe, if you knew where she came from.

For Sharon was a product of a broken family, with a distant, emotionally cold father and a controlling, emotionally manipulative mother.  Lucky Sharon, she got it from both ends – whether she was with her dad, with his disengaged family style, or her mom, with her rigid family style (see Part 4 of this series for more on these types of families).  To this day, her family of origin still tries to pull her into the same old dance.  Her siblings are all apples that didn’t fall far from the tree, playing out the same dysfunction with their own spouses and kids.

So what was different about Sharon?  How did she get so “lucky”?

Three things:  self-awareness, a teachable heart and a determination to change.  Sharon knew early on that she didn’t want to raise her family as she had been raised, but she also knew that if she didn’t deal with her family of origin issues, she would likely repeat the old patterns.  Not on purpose, but still, without the conscious intention to change, she knew that she’d follow the same path her siblings had taken.

If you’ve been following this series on Family Ties and you’re beginning to realize that you have some family of origin challenges, then take heart from Sharon’s story.  You can change your dance and choose a healthy path.  But you must be intentional. Healthy choices don’t just happen by accident.  And sorry, we aren’t born with the genes to have a healthy family just because.  Your friend who has that great family?  She has been intentional, not lucky.  Your co-worker with the wonderful marriage?  He has been purposeful, not accidental.  You remember Sharon?  She tells me her philosophy is “what are you becoming”.  Can you hear her teachable heart?

So… are you ready to break free?

Step 1:  Face the problem.  Be honest with yourself and do a thorough self-assessment.  What’s not working in your life?  Rather than blaming others or your circumstances, take responsibility for your part of the pain you’re experiencing in your relationships, your career, your faith, etc.  What needs changing in your life?  If you don’t know, consider the tough step of asking trusted friends.  If you do this, you have to have a thick skin and be willing to hear what they have to say about any dysfunctional patterns they notice in your life.  Is it your out of control temper?  Is it the way you constantly sabotage your career?  Are you now on your third or fourth marriage or serious relationship?

Step 2:  Understand your Family of Origin.  Consider where you came from and where you are today.  If things aren’t working out today for you especially in your relationships or your sense of worth, consider your family of origin or early childhood experiences.  What was your mom like as a mother?  What was your dad like as a father?  Go back and read the earlier parts of this series (1, 2, 3 and 4) and see if anything resonates with you.  Or if you want an even more in-depth look at your family of origin issues, consider seeing a professional therapist.  Remember, the intent is never to blame your parents; often they did the best they could with the tools they had.  Instead, this is about understanding some of the experiences that shaped you growing up.  Your family was your biggest influence – either in causing you to follow the same path or in your decision to deviate.

Step 3:  Recount your Experiences.  Review the experiences you had growing up and consider how they may have shaped you.  What conclusions did you draw about yourself?  About others?  About God?  To help you with this exercise, think through the different stages of your life, from birth to toddler years to elementary school years to adolescence to young adulthood.  Journal your various experiences without worrying about editing.  This isn’t an essay that will be reviewed, but is simply a chance for you to self-reflect.  Take as long as you need to do this step.

Step 4:  Experience the Feelings.  As you consider your family of origin experiences and your relationships with your mother and father, allow yourself to remember how you felt.  This is a time to grieve and acknowledge the pain you may have experienced, and to validate your emotions.  How do you feel today as your remember?  Angry?  Abandoned?  Sad?  Numb?  If you’re feeling intense and overwhelming emotions, please stop this exercise now and get professional help.  Please don’t do this alone!  If you can recount traumatic experiences without any emotions, you have likely shut down your heart to cope.  This, too, can be a problem, as being so shut off from your own emotions can lead to a myriad of relational and health problems.  So that too can be a warning sign there is work to be done, perhaps under the care of someone who knows what to do to unlock your heart.

Step 5:  Forgive and let go.  I don’t suggest this step lightly, especially if you come from a family that has abused you or caused you grievous harm.  And I don’t say to forgive your family just because you “should” or else you’re being a “bad Christian”.  Forgiveness is for you.  It’s about letting go of your need for justice, not because you shouldn’t get justice, but because this is the only way you can be free from the bondage of bitterness and unresolved hurt and the dysfunctional chains that tie you to your family.  Trust me, this is the only way to true freedom.  If you’re finding this step difficult to do, please get help.  Being in the presence of a caring, grace-filled and non-judgemental therapist can go a long way to helping you break free.  And do it for real, not as a going-through-the-motion-exercise.

Step 6:  Trace patterns of behaviour.  Now that you’ve taken the time to think about your family of origin relationships and patterns, consider how they are currently showing up in your life.  It can be subtle in having a different face – for example, you may not be an alcoholic like your father, but are you a workaholic?  Maybe your mother always exploded when she got angry but your patterns of bottling your anger and then punishing others in passive-aggressive ways may be rooted in how anger was handled in an unhealthy way in your home.  Again, your spouse and close friends can be a mirror to help you look at your patterns honestly.

Step 7:  Set healthy boundaries.  I won’t belabour the point in this blog as I have written much more extensively about boundaries in previous posts (see my four part series on boundaries), but it will be important that you set healthy boundaries with your family of origin, especially if they try to pull you into their dysfunctional dance.  For many of us, we are still in relationship with our parents and siblings, and so it’s important that we don’t lose the great progress we’ve made every single tine we come into contact with them.  Learn how to be respectful of them, but also of yourself and your boundaries.

Step 8: Commit to the change process.  Make personal growth a priority in your life and take active steps to change.  This includes educating yourself through reading books related to your areas of concern, taking workshops, asking others to hold you accountable, seeking mentoring relationships with people who do well what you want to learn to do, or pursuing counselling.  And make personal growth your lifelong goal.  Invite God into this journey of growth as it is absolutely his will.  He will complete the good work he has begun in you.  He loves a teachable heart and he will give you great capacity to change.  Give permission to your trusted family and friends to confront you when they see you exhibit old patterns – yes, even your kids.  It takes great humility but it’s so worth it!

Please know that the journey I just outlined is hard work, and I don’t want to do a disservice to it by implying that it’s a simple 8-step process.  However, if you let this roadmap guide you and you choose to be intentional, have a teachable heart and you are determined to change, I promise you, great results await you.  You can break free from your family ties that bind!  If you are looking for professional help and you live in the Greater Toronto Area, check out www.lifecarecentres.com.  If you’re from outside this catchment area, please see your pastor or doctor for a referral to a reputable therapist.

 

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Family Ties – Part 4

»Posted on Jul 30, 2013 in Family Life, Marriage and Relationships, Mental Health, Parenting, Personal Growth | 1 comment

 family ties 4

My eyes darted back and forth as I tried to keep up with everything that was being said.  Dad started talking, but then mom interrupted him, incensed by what he was saying.  Then the two kids jumped in, yelling angrily and adding fuel to the fire.  It was no use; by this point, the “conversation” had degenerated to everyone shouting over each other and no one listening.  There were tears, finger pointing, and angry outbursts.  It was total chaos.  Sigh…a day in the life of a family therapist.

But what was even more painful for me to see was that this interaction was normal for this family.  Mom and dad admitted to me that it was common for there to be yelling and angry outbursts, and that it had been this way for years.  It was only when their eldest son got charged by the police with assault that they finally came in for some help.

This is what I’d call a chaotic family – a home where emotions are out of control; roles and family expectations are unclear (and changed depending on the parents’ mood); discipline was applied inconsistently, from too lenient to too harsh; kids had far more power than they should; and they went from one crisis to another.  There was no stability or predictability.  Kids growing up in these homes learn that their emotions rule their lives, and crises are but a step away.  They aren’t taught how to regulate their emotions or tolerate distress, nor are they able to understand boundaries.  Drama is the norm. They then have difficulty maintaining stable relationships because their emotional chaos tends to push people away.

Contrast this to the disengaged family.  Independence is valued but to the point where there is very little involvement in each other’s lives.  No one talks about anything personal, emotions are frowned upon or shut down, and everyone is taught to be self-sufficient.  While this can appear to be a step above the chaotic family in that everything appears fine on the surface, often there can be hidden addictions, traumas that occur to the members that no one knows about, and the belief that everyone is ultimately on their own to deal with life.  Kids who grow up in this type of family have difficulty forming strong emotional bonds with others or learning how to be inter-dependent with a mate.  They also have little capacity to understand their own inner world, and so they don’t have the skills to know how to deal with symptoms of anxiety or depression, nor do they know how to deal with relationship challenges.  Avoidance is a strong feature of this type of family.

Then there’s the enmeshed family.  This type of family can seem to be very close and loving from the outside, but often, there are poor emotional boundaries between members.  People know too much about each other, and step in too often to rescue each other.  Members find it difficult to step back from the emotions of their loved ones.  Ties are strong in this type of family and very hard to break, because behaviour that doesn’t fall in line with what’s expected is quickly confronted (many times by guilt and emotional blackmail).  Because everything is done in the name of love, kids can find it very difficult to break free from the emotional obligations to their family of origin – the expectation to stay close and take care of each others’ emotions.  They’re responsible for each other’s emotional well-being, and so kids that come from this type of family will often find themselves pulled into unhealthy co-dependent relationships with others.  And they can also find it difficult to break free from their family of origin to bond in a healthy way with their spouse.

Finally, there’s the rigid family.   This is a family that has little capacity to adapt to change because things have always been done a certain way.  Often, it is ruled with an iron hand by a matriarch or patriarch, and everyone learns to dance to their tune.  Kids are expected to obey without argument, and questions about why things are done a certain way are not tolerated.  Roles and expectations are clearly laid out, and woe to the family member who tries to change this.  Because everyone suffers if someone tries to change things, all the other members work hard to control the “rebellious” one.  In-laws who marry into this family can find it very difficult to be accepted, especially if they’re not willing to toe the line or they dare to question the family rules.  They can then be ostracized, as can their spouse if they chose to break free.  Sometimes, family ties are severed so badly that family members refuse to talk to each other for years, the message being that until they’re willing to fall back in line, they aren’t going to be acknowledged.

As you can probably tell, I’ve described some of the more extreme cases of these types of problematic family dynamics.  Most families don’t look completely like this, and often, families can be a blend of some of these traits.   But take some time now to consider your family of origin, and see whether any of these patterns fit.  Consider your current relational and emotional struggles and see whether the roots of some of that is in your family system.  If you come from a family of abuse – emotional, physical or sexual – you may still recognize some of the family patterns I describe above.  But for you, your family has stepped very much beyond the line and has caused you harm.  If this is you, please get some professional help to process through the abuse, heal from the trauma and learn how to change those patterns in your own life so that you can break free.  If you live in the Greater Toronto Area in Ontario, Canada, please check out LifeCare Centres, where I’m the Clinical Director overseeing an incredible team of therapists.  Or talk to your doctor or pastor for a referral to someone reputable in your area.

Very often, these family characteristics or relationship dynamics are repeated generationally within a family – through genetics, attitude, behavioural patterns or belief systems.  Do you see this in your family?  This can include alcoholism, adultery, abuse and divorce.  Knowing your family history can help you choose to break the patterns.  With God’s help, you can begin new healthy generational patterns and develop healthy fruit.

Next week, I conclude this series on Family Ties by talking about ways in which you can break your family cycle.  If you haven’t read the first 3 parts of this series, please remember to check out Parts 1, 2 and 3!

 

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Short Stories: Living with Autism – A Mother’s Perspective

»Posted on May 14, 2013 in Family Life, Parenting | 0 comments

 autism - son and mom

The following short story has been submitted by Lynne Collier, who is a Life Coach and owner of LIFeSCAPES Coaching. She is also a writer with The White Rose Writers and mother of three grown children. Her youngest, Benjamin, is on the Autism Spectrum and is the author of the short story The Crossing from last week. You can email Lynne at: lynne@lifescapes-coaching.com or lynnecollier@thewhiterosewriters.com. You can also follow Benjamin on his blog: benjaminfrog.wordpress.com. To learn more about Benjamin and Lynne, visit the website at: thewhiterosewriters.com.

 

 The Crossing – Part 2 – A Mother’s Perspective

She knew their walk to school was always an adventure for her young boy. They would set off from home and stroll along the sidewalk to the road. It was just the two of them and his four imaginary friends: Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael and Donatello. He never went anywhere without them. They kept him company in a world where she couldn’t go; not yet anyway. They were his companions when no one else wanted to play with him.

At first, he took them in to Kindergarten with him, but his teacher had become annoyed on several occasions at his lack of attention in class. So now they stopped at the playground on the way to school where he had to say “goodbye” to his imaginary friends. Sometimes he looked so sad. He asked his mother if they would be alright until he got them after school. They were as real to him as if they were his classmates; maybe more so. They didn’t laugh at him or call him names.

He ran free for a while at the playground. She had come to realize that he needed a lot of freedom from the world he didn’t understand. He needed extra time to just be. She watched him lovingly as he mumbled words she couldn’t comprehend, his arms flailing and his voice getting louder with shouts and screams for no apparent reason. He was so happy just to run without being confined to rooms and paths and the never-ending rules she had to constantly teach him. Her baby was happy. She loved to watch him play in his world.

He had learned, finally, to stop at the end of the path and wait for her. They had made an agreement that if he stopped all by himself he wouldn’t have to hold her hand anymore. He rarely wanted any physical contact. She missed the sweet baby boy she could hold tight and hug all day. It sometimes made her sad that she couldn’t show him all the affection she wanted, but she understood it was just his way. He didn’t seem to want hugs at all, but he would let her kiss him goodnight, and he held her hand if there were cars close by; only if there were cars.

They were nearing the crossing guard when he suddenly darted across the road! She screamed his name in panic as approaching cars barely managed to stop in time. One car came to a screeching halt and she saw the look of horror on the driver’s face. Everyone, the drivers, the crossing guard, the other parents, even the other children, all scowled and shouted at her son. They told him he was a bad boy and he needed to behave better. She ran to the middle of the road and grabbed his hand, heart pounding with fear.

As they finished walking across the road, the crossing guard blew her whistle and held up her sign. The other parents started to cross too. Their whispers were intentionally loud enough for her to hear. “Terrible mother!”, “Should be ashamed of herself!”, “Not enough discipline obviously!” were all ringing in her ears as she held tight to his tiny hand and got him safely across the road and away from the other parents and children. Her face burned as she chose to ignore their hurtful words. This wasn’t the first time she had heard such words or experienced such quick judgement.

She felt like shouting at them all, “He has autism! That’s why he sometimes behaves like he does!” But she had tried her best not to let her son see her get angry with other people. She didn’t want him to think that’s the way people should deal with disagreements. So she took a deep breath and asked him quietly why he had run across the road instead of waiting for the crossing guard to tell them it was safe.

He explained, in his simple, broken words, that he had looked to make sure the cars were far away and he knew they could stop before they got to the crossing. He asked her why the cars wouldn’t stop for him if he wanted to cross the road. Why couldn’t he make the cars stop if he was right? Why did they only stop for the crossing guard?

She frowned a little at first, then her eyes lit up and she smiled at him.

“Because she has the STOP sign”, she said, “and you don’t”.

He looked at her, puzzled. She was used to that look all too well. Then a faint grin came across his little face, a rarity for him. She loved to see him smile. Off he ran into the playing field, alone, or maybe not. Maybe he had some other imaginary friends he left at school until the next day. Either way, he was free again, happy in his own world for a few minutes, until he had to join the other children in this world again and deal with another rule that made no sense to him at all.

——

Parenting a child with autism brings many challenges as typical parenting strategies don’t work.  Parents are often left feeling inadequate or like failures.  Facing the constant judgements of others who don’t understand can be very discouraging, and they are often exhausted from the higher level of care needed by many of these kids.   Parents can also struggle with feelings of guilt when they see their kids struggling, and in many instances, experience intense feelings of grief and sadness for the pain they know their kids will suffer for being different. 

Often, families will try to cope on their own and compensate for their child’s fears and behavioural quirks.  While this can work in the short-term, their children are left ill prepared for the future when they become adults.  Connecting with other families of ASD children is vital, as is accessing the many supports available through local, national and international organizations (as previously highlighted in last week’s post.)

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Short Stories: Living with Autism

»Posted on May 7, 2013 in Family Life, Parenting | 6 comments

crossing

The following short story was submitted by Benjamin T. Collier, a remarkable young man with firsthand knowledge of what it’s like to live with Autism.  To learn more about Ben, look for his upcoming autobiography, My Life A.S. Is:  An Inside Look at Autism and Aspergers Syndrome, published through Word Alive Press.  He also has a fantasy novel, The Kingdom, that was published in 2011.

 
The Crossing

Along they walked, side by side. He’d been told enough times now to remember this rule. They always walked side by side when they walked to school. He didn’t have to hold her hand; she said that was ok as long as they stayed together. So he walked by her side and talked in his head to his imaginary friends.

The boy was oblivious to his surroundings most of the way and the other mothers and children who walked the same path. But he noticed that some of the other children held hands with their mothers, swinging their arms back and forth. Their mothers had obviously told them that they had to hold hands. He wondered why they had different rules from his mother.  He’d come to accept, but still constantly questioned why rules applied to some people and not to others. The rules were different for the bigger people, parents and other adults, and sometimes his big sisters too.

His mother greeted the crossing guard and the other mothers as they came to the crosswalk. Then suddenly, the boy darted from beside her and started off across the road. Approaching cars skidded to a screeching halt. Faces were red with panic and anger. The drivers scowled and the crossing guard blew her whistle with ferocity.

The boy’s mother lunged forward and ran to grab her son from in front of the cars. As she did she could hear the other mothers shouting heatedly at her son, “Unruly child!” “That was a stupid thing to do!” “You know you never cross without the crossing guard!”

And she heard some mutter under their breath, “Terrible mother” and “Should be ashamed of herself.”

She carried on across the road, holding tightly to his hand now, trying to ignore the comments and keep calm. After all, they didn’t understand. Her son looked like any other child. Why wouldn’t they expect him to follow all the rules?

The boy heard the words they shouted at him, but he took none of it to heart. They were just repeating the rules, feeding him information he already had. The rules were stupid. That’s all there was to it. And there were too many of them. He preferred his world. There he could do whatever he wanted without rules and he could play all day and no one got annoyed with him. His world was safer and happier. He wondered why other people didn’t live in their own worlds too. Why did they insist on living in a world that didn’t make any sense? Why did he have to live there?

When they reached the other side of the road his mother kept a tight hold of his hand and told him to look at her eyes. He knew that was the signal she wanted to talk to him. He knew he had done something wrong again. His puzzled little face lifted and he gazed into her eyes, trying his best to concentrate on her words.

“Why did you try crossing the road without the crossing guard?” she asked in a soft voice.

A question? He wasn’t expecting that. Didn’t she already know?

“It was safe to cross,” he answered, “The cars were all far away. I knew they would stop in time and they did. I was right. Why am I not allowed to make the cars stop instead of the crossing guard? Why do I have to wait for her to say it’s safe? Why do the cars listen to her and not me?”

His mother frowned a little, at first, then something lit up in her eye and her lips curled. He believed that was what people called a smile. “Because she has the STOP sign”, his mother said, “And you don’t.”

He thought for a moment, a frown on his tiny forehead. Then he looked up at her and gave her his own smile; he knew she liked that and it’d make her happy. “Okay”, he said in his matter-of-fact voice. Maybe some day when he was old enough he could buy his own STOP sign. Satisfied with that dream of the future, he ran to the playing field. Free for a little while till the bell rang and the confusing rules would start again.

 —

As this short story demonstrates, people on the autistic spectrum see the world very differently from “neuro-typicals” (a term they use to describe those of us with non-autistic brains).  Although they often find it difficult to fit in, learning to accept, nurture and celebrate their differences is an important first step to flourish as the person God created them to be.  There are a growing number of associations and organizations that provide wonderful resources to teach and connect individuals and families of those on the autism spectrum, such as The Geneva Institute for AutismAutism Society Canada, or Autism Speaks (which lists some of these organizations worldwide).

Some of the typical characteristics of individuals on the spectrum include: a lack of understanding of social cues, lack of social and emotional reciprocity; difficulty understanding his/her own emotions and the emotions of others; misinterpretation of literal and implied meanings within verbal and nonverbal communication; impairment in the use of non-verbal behaviours to regulate social interactions; a preference for structure and predictability, especially in social interactions; black and white thinking; inflexible adherence to specific, non-functioning routines or rituals; and difficulty tolerating change.  People can vary greatly in the severity of their symptoms – from those who are extremely bright and high-functioning to those who are non-communicative and require constant care and supervision.

Having the privilege to work with a number of people on the spectrum, it is with great respect that I dedicate this short story to them.  My hope is  that is that we would take the time to understand and accept those individuals in our midst who are on the spectrum, and as well, offer our compassion to those parents who struggle to help their children cope in a world that can be hostile to them.

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The Gift of Learning – Part 6 (of 6)

»Posted on Feb 19, 2013 in Family Life, Learning, Parenting | 0 comments

 graduating student

As I wrap up my six-part series on The Gift of Learning, I want to thank all of you for hanging in there through this long series. I don’t think I could have done justice to this important topic if I focused less time and effort on it. For those of you who haven’t had a chance to read Parts 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 of this series, I would encourage you to take the time now to review them before reading the conclusion in today’s blog.

In writing this series, I am reminded once again of why I love what I do as a psychologist. I get to have a front row seat to see how God transforms lives, but I also get a snapshot picture of what makes each one of us unique as I assess the children, adolescents and adults who come to our offices for an assessment. And so, as I talk about some of the strategies parents can use to help their kids with their learning, keep in mind that these are general principles, and as I’ve been stressing from the beginning of this series, it’s important to consider the individual needs and learning styles of your kids.

Sleep and Nutrition

When parents come to my office, one of the first things I do is rule out physical reasons for some of the challenges that their kids are facing in schools. I especially focus on their sleep and nutrition because these two critical factors have been found to be very significant in a child’s cognitive well-being. When I ask parents, many times they have to admit that their kids aren’t getting enough sleep – either because parents aren’t monitoring them or setting strict sleep schedules, or because their lives are too busy and chaotic with too much extracurricular activities that compromise the time their kids have to sleep and rest. Unfortunately, sleep deprivation has been found to impact attention, working memory, long-term memory, visual-motor performance, visual spatial reasoning, decision-making, and receptive and expressive speech, just to name a few cognitive functions.

The relationship between diet and cognitive development is also important. Proper nutrition is essential to learning, thinking, and cognitive perception. Researchers have found links between nutrition and brain development, cognitive function, curiosity, behaviour, and communication and social skills. Many parents automatically assume that their kids are fine and they would answer that their diets are “healthy” but when I drill down into specifics, it often turns out that a parent’s view point of what a healthy diet is whole wheat bread, granola bars, and juice. Too many of us as parents are too busy nowadays to take the time to be fully informed about the nutritional needs of our kids, and so our reliance on processed and pre-packaged food is rampant. Unfortunately, studies show that this typical diet of our kids is lacking in many essential nutrients that they need for healthy cognitive functioning.

I speak at greater length about the importance of sleep and nutrition for our kids in my series on stress; while my focus in that series was on stress, the comments I make pertain just as well to cognitive functioning. So, before spending the time and money to get your child assessed for learning disabilities, take the time to assess and improve your child’s sleep and nutrition. Those two improvements can go a very long way to improving your child’s cognitive performance.

Medications

To medicate or not to medicate? This is a question I get all of the time from parents whose kids have been diagnosed with ADD/ADHD in particular. This is a controversial topic, with some people strongly believing it is the best option and others believing medication shouldn’t be used on children. Determining the best option for your child is an important decision that shouldn’t be made without doing your homework. Before you make this decision, you should know that there are pros and cons to ADD/ADHD medication and that medication might help one child but not another. In our practice, we have seen good results with kids taking medications but we’ve also seen similarly good results with parents who have chosen to pursue natural remedies for their kids.

Making ADD/ADHD medication decisions can be difficult, but doing your homework helps. The first thing to understand is what the medications can and can’t do. Medication may help improve the ability to concentrate, control impulses, plan ahead and follow through with tasks. However, it isn’t a magic pill that will fix all of your child’s problems. Even when the medication is working, a child with ADD/ADHD may still struggle with forgetfulness, emotional problems and social awkwardness. That’s why it’s so important to make lifestyle changes that include regular exercise, a healthy diet and sufficient sleep.

Medication doesn’t cure ADD/ADHD. It can relieve symptoms while it’s being taken, but once medication stops, those symptoms come back. Also, ADD/ADHD medication works better for some than for others. Because each person responds differently and unpredictably to medication, its use should always be personalized to the person and closely monitored by a doctor.

ADD/ADHD medication has been shown to reduce or even eliminate some of the behavioural symptoms associated with ADHD. By reducing students’ hyperactivity and giving them the ability to focus, medication gives many students the ability to perform better in school, make friends and participate in extra-curricular activities. There have been numerous studies indicating that psychotropic drugs are safe, tolerable and useful for children. These studies suggest that if children take the prescribed dosage indicated by their doctor, then the medication is safe and that the majority of the side effects are mild.

On the flip side, however, one aspect of ADD/ADHD medication that should be of concern to parents is that there are very few studies done on the long-term effects of the medication. So, while we know that these medications are safe in the short-term, the prospect of giving kids medication without knowing the long-term effects bring cause for hesitation. There are also mild side effects associated with many of the medications including loss of appetite, difficulty falling asleep, dizziness, moodiness and growth problems.

When deciding whether medication is right for your child, there are four things to consider: 1) the severity of your child’s symptoms and how much they are interfering with his/her school performance; 2) the effectiveness of other treatments; 3) the side effects; and 4) how your child feels about taking the medication. Before you make this decision, take with your child’s teacher, the school counsellor or psychologist, your health care provider and most importantly, your child. For more information on ADD/ADHD medication, check out this article that outlines a basic overview of this topic.

Accommodations

The most common approach to helping students with identified learning challenges is to provide accommodations for these kids at school. Once these kids have been assessed and diagnosed, they are usually evaluated by school personnel, in conjunction with their parents, to develop an individualized education plan (IEP). While some people believe that this may give them an “unfair advantage” over the other kids, I believe that accommodations actually level the playing field so that these kids are being taught and assessed using strategies that work better for their learning style.

Some of the common accommodations provided for kids who have been identified include assistive technology (i.e., access to computers and computer programs for their work), extended time limits for tests and assignments, alternative testing strategies (e.g., multiple choice or oral exams rather than written), as well as reduced homework or workload. The psychologist who assesses your child will work with you to develop a list of accommodations that are best suited to your child’s learning needs.

I have found that when kids are identified at a younger age, they are less likely to feel self-conscious about being “different” from the other kids. They are also likely to be more successful academically and learn great life skills that will help them throughout their lives. They learn about their unique learning strengths and weaknesses, and they learn early on to adopt strategies to help them succeed (which they can then take into adulthood). On the other hand, teens are much more aware of their peers and can be overly concerned about what others think, so educational accommodations may work less well at this stage of development. Putting an IEP in place may not help as these teens may avoid doing anything that sets them apart from their peers. Parents often complain at this point that their kids aren’t accessing the supports that have been put in place for them. Since teens are also at the stage of trying to individuate from their parents, nagging them often proves to be fruitless and only exacerbates the tension between parent and teen. If this is your child, then it may be helpful for them to talk to a school counsellor or therapist who is able to help them navigate through this, so that they can benefit from academic supports.

Brain Training

There is a growing number of proponents who believe in brain training to strengthen the weaknesses in the brain. For example, some programs like Arrowsmith (named after it’s founder, Barbara Arrowsmith who suffered from a severe learning disability but was able to overcome it with the program she eventually developed) focus on repetitive exercises that build the weaker parts of the brain. According to their research, they have been able to demonstrate significant improvement in performance. Even more encouraging, these changes have been shown to remain, even years after the child has completed the program. In his book, The Brain that Changes Itself, Dr. Norman Doidge presents a very provocative look at some amazing results of brain training.

However, this type of approach doesn’t come without a significant cost, both in money and time. As well, it can be difficult to retain a child’s engagement with this type of program because of the many hours of repetitive exercises they have to complete every day. And for the programs to be fully effective, these children often need to continue doing these exercises over a number of years. Hence, ass with medication, parents need to do their research and evaluate the pros and cons, before determining the best course of action for their kids.

Think Strategies

One of the biggest mistakes we make as parents and teachers is to focus on rote learning – that is, sheer repetition, drills and use of rote memory until our kids “learn” what they are supposed to know. If our children struggle in math, we think that we need to spend hours drilling them with math problems, over and over again. Or if it’s a language issue, we spend our time in repetitive word exercises to try to help our kids.

Recent studies show that teaching our kids cognitive strategies is much more effective than simply rote learning or trying to drill facts into the kids. Cognitive strategies are HOW you do what you do, not WHAT you’re downloading into a child’s brain. A workshop I attended just last week by Dr. Jack Naglieri, a well-known researcher in the field of cognitive assessment and development, reinforced this very important distinction: he found that kids who used worksheets that focused on learning strategies did significantly better than kids who were taught through traditional teaching techniques – even though the kids in the latter group actually got MORE instruction than the first group. And a year later in follow-up, Dr. Naglieri found that the kids taught using learning strategies still performed better than those taught traditionally.

So what would be some examples of cognitive strategies? The use of mnemonics to cue recall, summarizing a text you’re reading and identifying the central idea, monitoring your understanding of what you’re reading, and reviewing and learning from our mistakes, just to name a few. For more information on these types of learning strategies, check out Jack Naglieri’s book, Helping Children Learn.

Beyond helping your child succeed at school, focusing on learning strategies are life-long skills that can help them in the “real world” because they are transferrable to many situations. While they are much more likely to forget the “facts” of what they’ve learned, they’re likely to retain the strategies they’ve developed. It also helps your child gain a sense of mastery over their world, as they learn how to apply these strategies time and time again for themselves, rather than relying on adults in their lives to monitor their schoolwork.

So as I end this six-part series on The Gift of Learning, I hope that it’s been helpful for you! If you have any additional questions, comments or concerns, please feel free to email me or comment on this blog.

 

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