From Guest-Author, Jana Squires Flake, Child Development Psychotherapist
As parents, we may struggle with our children. This struggle is real and often intense. It may become so intense that we begin to seriously question, “Is there something “wrong” with my child? “Is there something “wrong” with me, and my capacity to parent this child?” We don’t want to struggle, – we want peace and confidence. As a counselor focusing on brain development, I have worked with hundreds of struggling children and struggling parents. This work has led me to conclude that there are simple things we often “miss” as we seek solutions for our children. In this essay, I hope to highlight the questions we must ask – and answer before we can realistically address our child’s emotional or behavioral challenges. These foundational questions are both physical and environmental: “What is physically going on with this child?” “What is happening in their environment that could be underlying this problem?”
Maybe some examples will help me make my point.
* Little 5-year-old Emily is having a very difficult time controlling her emotions. She becomes unreasonable and difficult to handle. Talking to her just makes her more angry and she is demanding and moody. There are times, however, when Emily is pleasant and agreeable. Her parents wonder if she is bipolar because of what they have read and her mood fluctuations. They are concerned that she will have a difficult time when she starts school.
*Eric is ten years old and is easily overwhelmed. He is having trouble focusing in school and when asked to do tasks like clean his room, he just sits in the middle of the floor unable to begin the task. When he is trying to do his homework, it is very difficult for him to stay on task. His parents wonder if he needs medication to stay focused.
As parents struggle in their duties, they can fall into maladaptive behavior as well, so let’s use an example of a parent that needs to look at physical/environmental causes:
*Sarah, a mother of three, is serious about her mothering and has studied the influence a mother can have on the emotional intelligence of her children. She is concerned about her inability to remain calm when things are hectic around the house. She has a lot of guilt because she sees herself “losing it” and her children show some of these same high frustration levels when they are stressed. She observes her day and records when she is feeling calm and focused and when she is feeling anxious, irritable and manipulative. (It is very important that she records her specific behaviors and emotions during her times of high frustration. She will never know if she is making progress if she isn’t mindful of the specifics). She realizes that her worst times are whenever she is in a time crunch and specifically between the hours of 4:00 and 6:00 pm. By the time her husband gets home from work, she is a basket case. She wonders if she may be depressed or have anxiety – should she go on medication?
All of these individuals need some intervention, but let’s start first with looking at their environment and how their body is functioning.
* Let’s look at Emily. Her mother tracks her mood swings/irritability and finds that they occur specifically when she first wakes up in the morning and in the early afternoon. She also gets angry and “controls with negative emotions” (meaning she uses her emotions to try and get the outcomes she wants). There is a history of insulin resistance in the family so we wonder if there is a blood sugar issue, it usually gets worse when she hasn’t eaten for a while. To test out our hypothesis, Mom goes in first thing in the morning, and gives her a little smoothie. Emily has been given lots of treats – sugar – as a reward for her “being good”. Instead, mom fills the house with healthy treats; she makes sure Emily doesn’t go too long without eating; and encourages Emily to notice when she first begins to get irritable. Mom teaches Emily to be self-aware – to notice when she is feeling frustrated. Mother and daughter then come up with a list of interventions that Emily can use to help her gain control like getting something to eat, taking deep breaths, physical exercise or listening to music. Mom also notices that Emily doesn’t drink water – she always wants juice. She refrains from buying juice and ensures that Emily has a drink of water when she feels stressed. Through tracking, Mom realizes that Emily’s mood swings and irritability are often worse after she has had a lot of screen time, his new awareness leads to environmental changes – less screen time and more physical movement. Emily has ownership in her solutions and feels empowered.. (The issue of emotional manipulation can be addressed with other interventions, I suggest the book Smart but Scattered” by Drs. Peg Dawson and Richard Guare)
*Eric has another issue going on. He can’t stay focused in school and is overwhelmed by tasks that are beyond his ability to handle. Eric is a creative little boy, what some would call “right-brained”. He has lots of great qualities – he is intuitive, sensitive and can take things apart and put them back together. However, when he is stressed, he checks out into his imaginative brain. I was a school counselor and saw this play-out many times. For example, a teenage boy could take an engine apart and put it together in auto shop class, but sitting in a class with a teacher lecturing and having to memorize facts was very difficult for him. So why can he work so well with hands-on tasks and struggle in math class? It is likely due to his brain dominance. We all have a right and left hemisphere that work together. However, when one is under stress, we lean too far into our dominant hemisphere. Iain McGilchrist has brought the differing functions of the brain back into public awareness. Because of how Eric’s brain functions, being asked to clean a messy room is a lot for his brain to handle. He needs more structure. His mother decides to do some work to help him succeed. She organizes his room, ensuring there is a designated place for everything. Then she puts a chart on the wall which shows the four things he needs to do whenever she says, “Go clean your room”. She is acting as his left-brain (the detail-oriented side) until he can learn good habits and develop a more structured approach himself. ‘When you decide to help your child develop more effective skills, you should always begin by changing things outside the child before moving on to strategies that require the child to change.” (Smart but Scattered, p.73.) Remember Supernanny? Her first intervention was always making a schedule. In his difficult school subjects, Eric gets extra help to organize the ideas and use his creativity to make learning more active. As Eric is helped by his mother to succeed, he gains confidence that he is capable and intelligent. Dawson and Guare (Smart by Scattered) make a vital point in helping children be successful: intervene just enough for the child to be successful and then slowly back off so overwhelm and discouragement are minimized. Provide the structure the child lacks until he/she begins to develop it themselves. Be patient with your child, realize that their brain may not work in the same way yours does, and there are many advantages to their more creative view of the world. Right-brain learners* often struggle in our modern school system and may lose confidence in themselves. This is a tragedy because there is so much a parent can do to help a child like Eric succeed. Give them the tools they need to succeed, and their apparent weakness can become their strength. (See Smart Moves, Why Learning is Not All in Your Head,” Carla Hannadord, PhD.
*Sarah becomes mindful of her environment after she has identified the times of highest stress and resultant frustration as between 4 and 6pm. Her children come home from school and want to talk, she is trying to figure out dinner, homework needs to be done, the children fight…she unravels. But what are her key triggers at that time? The study of brain organization and sensory integration shows us that some people are more negatively-affected by noise than others. Excess noise can send them into stress mode as cortisol runs through their body. Their prefrontal cortex for observation and rational thinking diminishes. Sarah remembers as a student that if she had lots of noise around, she could not focus. For her, rest and relaxation always involve peace and quiet. Now that she has identified that noise is highly stressful for her. She begins to discover where the noise is coming from. During the day she has the dishwasher running, as well as the washing machine and dryer. She often listens to music with words as she works. Her children play and fight; they demand attention;they have many questions. All these noises, good or bad, build up in her brain. They cause Sarah to go into stress mode. When she is stressed, she raises her voice, her children raise theirs and she “loses it”. (Even the voice quality of a person who is yelling, harsh or demanding can cause people with this hearing issue to react negatively.) Sarah makes a plan, she prepares for those two “witching” hours, between 4 and 6, by making dinner early. (When she is in stress mode, she can’t even think about what to make for dinner). She explains to her children that she has a problem with noise, she wants to be a patient mother so she is going to make some changes. She buys noise canceling ear-plugs when machines are running (or runs them at night) and she cuts out any unnecessary noise. When she wants to listen to a child, she takes them into another room so she can focus exclusively on them. As Sarah accepts her physical limitations, she begins to find more peace in motherhood – she lets go of the unnecessary, and enjoys more peaceful moments with her children. When she is less able to control her environment, her knowledge of her limitations helps as she attempts to control her reactions.
In our fast-paced and impatient world we are often too eager to label, to medicate, to despair. But there is hope. So much of our anxiety, depression, hyperactivity, inattention, and emotionality may be helped when we take the time to examine our environmental and physical realities and work toward solutions. There is purpose in our struggle, if we seek the causes. As we come to understand our children and ourselves, we can find peace and joy in parenting.
Smart But Scattered https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4QAMfDEafz8
Kids and Screen Time, https://www.eehealth.org/blog/2016/02/too-much-screen-time-and-kids-mental-health/
*The phrase “Right-brain learners” is simplistic. We all use right and left brains, however some people do tend to rely more on their left brain (detail, logic) and other right brain (big-picture, creative) particularly under stress).
Jordan Peterson on practical solutions for anxiety and brain fog. https://youtu.be/GuQxOxVq3eY