With six million children in the United states diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and most of them taking psychotropic medications, parents have due cause for concern.
Can making small changes in parenting and in a child's home environment prevent ADHD symptoms? My twenty-three years of experience as a family therapist--as well as recent research--suggests that they can go a long way. Here are 10 simple tips that can help head off an ADHD diagnosis. Don't try to make all the changes at once. Pace yourself, and try adding one change every few days.
1. Discipline calmly and consistently.
Parents should be comfortable saying "no" to their child. It's best when both parents agree on rules concerning a child's bed time, when to start homework, how much time should be spent on video games or TV, etc., and then back each other up in enforcing rules. There are many excellent and easy-to-read books on discipline, such as 1-2-3 Magic by Thomas Phelen. Choose a method of discipline that seems reasonable to both parents and and always discipline from a calm place, not from anger.
2. Make sure your child has enough outdoor exercise.
Children need outlets for their extra energy. Give your child plenty of time for outdoor play. Sports like socccer, track, softball, or swimming are also good for children. Remember, Olympic champion Michael Phelps shed his ADHD diagnosis and his medication with the help of vigorous daily swimming. If your child is shy about playing team sports, he might be more comfortable in karate, golf, or tennis.
3. Keep communication positive around the kids.
In children’s vivid imaginations, simple arguments between parents may seem more significant than they really are. Children worry that repeated disagreements can signify that divorce is imminent. This worry can cause anxiety and acting-out behavior at school--which can be mistakenly labeled as ADHD. Couples inevitably have issues to sort out--but this is best done away from little ears. Make it a point to tell your child one good thing that happened during your day. This can be as simple as "I had a good day today because I took a walk at lunch time."
4. Farewell my video game!
Limiting electronic screens at home can boost your child's ability to concentrate. Recent research finds that fast-paced television shows and video games affect a child's brain in ways that make the child inattentive and fidgety. Check out child psychiatrist Victoria Dunckley's Psychology Today blog about the effects of electronic media on children's brains. Her suggestion about an "electronic fast" to boost your child's brain power is an excellent idea. Keep the TV off most of the time and don't put a TV in your child's bedroom. Limit and monitor your child’s time on the computer and other electronic devices. (UPDATE: October 28, 2013: The American Academy of Pediatrics advises parents to set limits on children's media use. They say that "excessive media use is associated with obesity, poor school performance, aggression and lack of sleep.")
5. Catch your child being good.
Tell your child something good about herself: “you are a kind person” or “I really like the picture you drew at school” or “thank you for picking up your toys.” Some current research suggests that too much praise is not good for children. But in today's hurried world we are more likely to notice kids when they are doing something wrong. A moderate amount of realistic praise for a job well done helps build a child's self-esteem and teaches him that positive behavior can attract parental attention as well as negative behavior.
6. Rule out medical problems such as food allergies, food sensitivities, and vision or hearing problems
Some children have sensitivities to food dyes and/or food preservatives. Eliminating gluten, dairy, and/or sugar from a child's diet can also have a calming effect. If your child seems "hyper" or antsy, make sure that irritants in his diet are not the culprits. Fresh fruits and vegetables and healthy protein--rather than frozen or fast foods that are full of preservatives--are best for children.
7.Nurture your marriage and yourself.
Like most of us, kids are emotionally healthier when they are around people who have healthy relationships. Since parents are the most important people in a child's life, the quality of the parents' relationship has a profound influence on a child. While family activities like trips to the park and hikes in nature are important, parents also need quality time with each other without the kids. If possible, have a "date night" without the kids once a week.
8. Give your child the gift of extra time.
According to several recent studies, a child who is among the youngest in his classroom has a 49% higher chance of being diagnosed with ADHD than his older classmates. If your child has a summer birthday, you might want to wait a year before enrolling her in Kindergarten. British researchers have found that “children born in the summer are being wrongly classed as having special needs when they are just young for their school year.”
9. Don't rush your child
Not every child matures at the same pace.Some kids learn to read when they are four, some at five or six, and some (like Einstein) even later. Don't worry if your child needs a little more time with academic hurdles. Childhood should not be a timed race for academic success. Let your child grow and learn at the pace that is right for her.
10. Bring back the family dinner time.
The structure of family meal times is very important for children. This is a time for them to learn good table manners (which includes not texting their friends from the dinner table) and healthy eating habits. Have the same food for everyone, and insist that your child at least taste everything at the table. She might not like asparagus quiche or arugula salad the first time she tries them, but in time her taste might change.
11. Make sure that your child gets enough sleep.
Sleep deprivation can look like ADHD. Make sure your child gets at least 8-9 hours of sleep at night. Have your child start his homework early so that it doesn't delay bed time.
Copyright © Marilyn Wedge, Ph.D.
Marilyn Wedge is the author of Pills are not for Preschoolers: A Drug-Free Approach for Troubled Kids
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