Many parents I work with are all consumed with their children. They worry. They microanalyze whether they think their child may be suffering from AD/HD or anxiety or some hidden learning disability. Giftedness makes all of these issues even more complex. The more the parents research, the more baffled they can become because they are completely overwhelmed with information. Yes, there are hundreds of explanations for any child’s behavior in any moment. Ugh.
I have found, though, these typically highly educated and intelligent parents are missing some obvious potential solutions. Some of the best psychologists in the world who specialize in the most complex people refuse to begin working with a person until three things have been addressed. I might be so bold as to add a fourth and a fifth.
Diet: If your child is subsisting on chicken nuggets and pasta or processed sugars or things they are actually allergic to, then the likelihood they are going to struggle cognitively is very high. Attention issues are guaranteed if the brain is low on fuel.
I know a number of brilliant children that survived their childhood on three foods, however, these children tend to have numerous health issues and psychiatric problems beyond just their diets. I also know overcoming food aversion is very, very difficult. It is worth trying really, really hard though. Make sure your child is getting enough protein. If your child is hypoglycemic (I have read that a higher percentage of gifted people are hypoglycemic than the general population), they have to have at least small amounts of protein throughout the day. I am hypoglycemic myself. People MUST eat protein for breakfast. Explain to your children why their brain requires this type of fuel. Make sure you yourself are modeling good eating habits. Include the child on meal planning and preparation. Encourage them to try things and educate them that they must try things many times before they might like it. By all means, find out if the child has any food allergies (also a common occurrence amongst gifted children).
Do me a favor, though. If you find that simply changing your child’s diet makes a huge difference in your child’s performance and ability to function, please, do not go around telling others that AD/HD does not exist and you have found the cure. Just be grateful you found your answer in the land of low hanging fruit.
Sleep: This is another challenge for parents. The ability to attend, self regulate and learn is highly dependent on sleep. Many parents for many reasons do not stick to a regular sleep schedule for their children. I sometimes am overwhelmed by the needs of the older children and miss the younger children’s bedtimes. I am shooting myself in the foot.
It is true there are some children who just do not sleep according to the norm. My oldest son did not sleep through the night at all until he was five years old. Yes, it was a nightmare for me. I tried everything. Now that he is 19, we still work on his sleep patterns. We are smarter and have recruited some very experienced doctors to help. He functions better when he sleeps well. When he does not, every medical and emotional problem he has is exacerbated. The same is true for me. My recall goes out the window if I am short on sleep. So, I understand if you have one of those anomaly children who needs less sleep than the rest of us. Some geniuses are said to have only needed a few hours of sleep a night to function well. This is so rare I have never met one of these people, ever.
Sticking to a very strict and regular schedule is critical, especially for children. Even if the child does not fall asleep when in bed, that is OK according to the late Dr. Mel Levine. Give your child something acceptable to do while in bed. Read for 10 minutes. Do a maze or puzzle on paper or write in a journal. Some precocious minds needs something to help them calm down or stop ruminating on the day’s events. Allowing a child to watch TV or play on a screen (e.g. laptop, iPad, cell phone or any lit device) may not be helpful given the light can mess with your circadian rhythms. It is important for them to have a predictable routine that does not vary. This will help them as they develop.
Lots of things mess with sleep including hormones, stress and illness. Nocturnal teens will benefit from sticking to their bedtimes even if they have difficulty falling asleep because unfortunately most high schools start somewhere in the 7:00am hour despite lots of neuroscientific research that would say this is a bad start time for teens. Know that people typically fall asleep faster than they believe according to research.
If you can foster better sleep hygiene, you are likely to see improvement if the child is otherwise healthy.
Exercise: Our bodies and brains are designed for movement (Medina, Brain Rules, 2008). Many children are sedentary. They prefer to play on computer, phones or iPads. Children with AD/HD tend not to function well on team sports. Their impulsivity and inattention are not helpful when it comes to passing balls at the appropriate times or listening to directives yelled by teammates or coaches. They do like video games because the games are designed to be stimulating. It is easy for them. Interestingly, children with AD/HD do not improve at video games as quickly as neurotypical children. It is necessary for children to exercise, especially aerobically. The benefits are endless. The consequences of not exercising or moving are also endless.
Health: Is your child healthy? It pays to establish that your child is not suffering from epilepsy, chronic anxiety, illness (e.g. mono), autoimmune disease, or something like Lyme disease. Sometimes a good psychiatrist can help distinguish between AD/HD and a different organic cause. Many psychiatrists will try medication first to see if the patient responds before looking for an alternate cause when the medications do not work. While establishing perfect health is next to impossible, ruling out obvious problems by having regular check ups and asking for some basic testing beyond the standard can be helpful. I have found the biggest clues can be found in the family history. Do relatives have AD/HD like symptoms? Does anyone have epilepsy in the family? Are their any genetic disorders being passed down?
Attention: Ironically, what parents tend to discount is the child’s need for attention from the parents. Some parents take a hands off approach to homework and school. If the child struggles their response is to punish the child or tell them to try harder. Neither of which works with a child with AD/HD, anxiety, perfectionism or low self esteem.
Now, some parents are trying their very hardest to help the child every step of the way and, in fact, doing too much or so much that the child becomes dependent on the adult to do almost anything. Alternatively, many parents have multiple children, some of whom do not need daily support in doing and turning in assignments, so the parent is baffled by why one of the children is not thriving in the same manner as the others. Or, the parent never struggled with school work and cannot relate to the child’s struggle.
An easy intervention to try before seeking professional support is to offer the structure the child cannot provide themselves due to their challenge. Often a child can function better with having the parent help organize their materials and setting up assignment schedules. The parent can be an accountability buddy. Motivated students respond especially well to constructive support. They want to do well but are stymied by their executive functioning deficiencies. Sitting with a child while they do their homework can help keep the child engaged. Gentle reminders to stay on task when the parent notices the child spacing out or not progressing is invaluable. Basically, the parent is modeling the very things the child needs to learn because those skills are not coming online naturally as they do with neurotypical children. If you simply do not have the time or the capability given your own challenges, hire someone. This person does not need to be a professional tutor. We have had great success with out of work college graduates or younger adults with no children of their own who have flexible evening hours and the need for extra money.
If you are not sure of any of these issues, spend some time looking closely at what you are doing to guide your child. A good psychiatrist will ask about these things anyway before they diagnose or prescribe anything.