They say the most fruitful discussions in life happen when common ground is found. So for you parents out there, and possibly a few curious clinicians and educators, let’s start today with an understatement that I hope most will agree with:
Childhood’s apparently painstakingly slow natural development process
can throw an array of tough curveballs at kids, and being a supportive
and effective parent during such times… well let’s just say it’s not easy.
Do you agree? Are we standing on common ground? Can I get an Amen?
Glad to hear it!
Let’s face it, as our kids' slowly developing brains wrestle with behavioral and maturity issues while also trying to juggle expectations related to academic and social challenges, some of the behaviors they display can be quite concerning. Understandably, after trying what seems like everything in the books plus the kitchen, bathroom and laundry room sinks, caring and often exhausted parents are actively looking for help, resources and answers.
The demand is so great that I am surprised the infomercial gurus haven’t caught on yet. I can see it now airing on a 24-hour satellite TV channel, “For just 1 to 18 easy payments you too can grasp the Bare Quintessentials to Perfect Parenting and Perfect Children! But wait there’s more!”
This is how we do it baby…
If only it was that easy, right? If only we could simply buy a miracle product to solve our parenting challenges and serendipitously lead our perfect children to the promise land.
Let’s bask in that thought for a moment… perfect children… ahhh.
Unfortunately, there is such a marketing campaign funded by a billion dollar industry trying its best to sell such miracles. This effort is successfully enticing families to consider the use of pharmaceutical drugs to “treat” children. Augmented by less than nonbiased industry-funded and ghost written research, they want you to believe in the supposed brain disease or chemical imbalance theories which label common temporary behaviors as permanent brain dysfunctions that are possibly genetically-based. They want you to accept claims that early diagnosis of mental disorders complemented by a pharmaceutical potpourri of unnatural neurochemical commanders constitutes the best route for rectifying childhood challenges.
They make such assertions despite the fact that research shows drugs provide no significant benefits or advantages to minimal behavioral modification efforts, talk therapy, or just letting the development or healing process take its course. As a result, more kids than ever before (8 million wrong and growing) are being diagnosed and drugged for behavioral issues, or a permanent brain disease if you like the allure of a B-horror movie plot line, quicker than ShamWow can soak up spilled milk.
But guess what? Without any need for pharmaceutical intervention or “drug therapy”, for centuries parents have been quite capable of helping challenged children overcome semi-annoying and concerning behaviors that some “experts” want to label today as symptoms of a mental disorder. Behaviors that a billion kids worldwide display every day.
How Do They Do It?
As I detailed in a recent blog on Psychology Today, with my wife back to work full-time this year and as a professor with summers “off,” I had the pleasure of being a stay-at-home Dad for the past several months, aka Mr. Mom. Instead of focusing as heavily as I normally do on my academic research and writing efforts, I have spent a great amount of time reflecting on parenting.
Also, this past spring after my talk on Debunking ADHD at the Empathic Therapy Conference on the campus of Michigan State University, a great number of parents stopped me during the conference to discuss advice on how best to raise their children. Additionally, I recently finished a quasi-experimental study on parenting effectiveness. As I was filing away some of the research and reflecting on the conference as well as my Mr. Mom summer experiences, I felt compelled to share some of the research and anecdotal highlights that I have found of interest and quite useful in my life as a parent of two wonderful but not so perfect kids.
Some of the tips are rather simplistic, so please don’t be offended. I am just sharing what has worked for others to help get them through this thing called parenthood. But most of all I share this information because for the vast majority of children, as my colleagues Dr. Marilyn Wedge, Dr. Peter Breggin, and many other brave individuals have shared, so many of the issues associated with childhood should never be considered signs of a mental disorder.
Basically, for me — a guy who teaches child development theories and research every semester — it all boils down to one little statement every parent should post on their screen savers; “This too shall pass.”
So what should a concerned and caring parent do in the meantime you ask?
First Things First: Stay Calm, Collected and Get Connected
At some point along the voyage to the Port of Parenting Epiphany, which does not always reflect the pleasure cruise one might have thought they were signing up for, nearly all parents experience feelings of not being in control of the social dynamics in the home. No matter how hard we try to be that responsible adult who is large and in charge, it just feels at times like the lunatics are running the asylum. We tell ourselves that this time, not like the last time or that other incident a few weeks ago, we are going to keep our cool and calmly explain to the child or children what needs to happen. In a blink of an eye, however — or the twitch of a nerve which stimulates a rogue vein in our neck or forehead to visibly pulsate — things change.
Upon witnessing our kids doing something we hoped not to see or hearing something we hoped not to hear, the adrenalin kicks in and takes control of the prefrontal cortex. Suddenly your fair, logical and rational parenting plan for remedying the situation takes a primal turn. We go from caring, mature intelligent beings to grunting and sighing like brooding Neanderthal beasts. Somehow our disobedient mouths release nonsense words like “nun-uh” or even worse one of those forbidden four letter proclamations. We begin to bellow like a first grader trying to win a playground argument as to who gets to be the zombie or zombie hunter in the epic apocalyptic battle reenactment of the day.
Has this ever happened to you before or is it just me?
As the old saying goes, the best laid plans of mice and men, and might I add millions of marvelous moms, often go astray. Instead of keeping our cool, as parents we too often resort to playing our kids’ childish games. Thus, relinquishing control back to our possibly genius yet semi-evil progeny. Think about it. Have you ever felt embarrassed about arguing with or screaming at your children privately at home, or even worse in public? When has losing our cool ever led to optimal outcomes? For most situations, especially in interactions with kids, more positive results materialized when we didn’t let our tempers flare. When it comes to parenting it is no different and yet exponentially more vital to remain calm and collected when humanly possible.
Although it is quite hard to detach ourselves emotionally from some of the actions we must take in parenting our kids, we must as Lady Gaga preaches, put on our po-po-po-poker face. Reading facial gestures are some of the first skills infants learn. Once they perfect scheme building and learn words to accompany such skills, watch out. Therefore, successfully communicating with children, ranging from infants to teens, is not necessarily reliant on what we say or ask, but more on how we act nonverbally when we share our words.
Most importantly, if you are not a single parent, make sure that you and your parenting partner are on the same page. If the two of you are not united or connected, or at the least have a good plan for who plays good cop and bad cop, your kids will sense it like a Carolina Coast shark smells summer vacation. The goal is to remain cool and collected, so we can remain smarter than our childish children. After completing a study on the effectiveness of the worldwide respected Love and Logic parent training programs, this is the conclusion I came to. It all comes down to whether or not we can remain calm enough to be smarter than a student in whatever grade our kids are in.
Practice Sincere Empathy and Delay Consequences
In the Love and Logic parent trainings provided by Dr. Charles and Jim Fay, one of the most important lessons parents learn is how to practice sincere empathy and delay the consequences children receive for their possibly inappropriate actions or misbehaviors. The trick to communicating with children using sincere empathy, however, is that we actually have to try understanding how the child might feel. We can’t fake it. We have to show that we truly care and understand, and that we sincerely, truly empathize. Once again this requires a great amount of practice and effort, because we often have to put aside our hot cognition and heated emotions and think about our kids’ emotions. But when done correctly, it is so powerful.
Watching the beloved Jim Fay (as well as his son Dr. Charles Fay) teach this is nothing less than genius, as well as laugh out loud funny. It’s funny, because what they show us is that in most instances we merely just need to remain more mature and smarter than our children. This caveat seems simple enough to accomplish, but somehow in the heat of the moment and after years of being subliminally conditioned by our children to not think straight, it can be harder than rocket science.
Jim Fay illustrates how to do this by using a soft, slow, grandpa-like tone and saying something like “Ohhhh, I can only imagine how you are feeling now… I am so sorry you have to go through this, but…” He is calm, collected, caring and confident. But the genius is what comes next. Without losing his temper, threatening, or immediately playing judge and jury, he then calmly delivers a zinger, something similar to, “I guess we will both have to think about this for a while and figure out what a reasonable consequence is for your actions. I suggest you turn everything off and go to bed early. Let’s just sleep on it until morning. Ok? Good night. Love you.“
Why does this simple approach work? Because we are putting the responsibility on the child to think about what they did wrong, and envision for hours what will be their consequence, their punishment. Instead of enabling such behavior or fueling worse behavior by overreacting too quickly, by practicing sincere empathy and delaying consequences we are using the situation as a teachable moment. We are getting the child to take ownership of their actions and cognitively process what needs to be learned in order to avoid repeating the scenario. Meanwhile, we simultaneously are allowing ourselves valuable time to consider what a reasonable consequence and plan of attack actually is for helping the child or children. This is how we succeed in being seen as calm, collected and connected parents. More importantly, this is how we can maintain control of the dynamics and hold on to those valuable cognitive resources we need to remain… yes you guessed it… smarter than our children.
Feed Their Brains, Body and Soul with What They Need, Not Pharmaceuticals
Child development is a series of critical stages that demand our constant attention from infancy though adolescence. Our kids’ developing brains are seeking sensory input 24-7. Their neurons are enticing them to take in more and more so that their brains can continue to be programmed for survival and success in this world. Therefore, in order to better filter and store the plethora of new information children receive continuously, kids are constantly needing adults to be that guide on the side. We need to capitalize on this opportunity before this critical neurological development event passes, and our kids learn behaviors or habits that are not so beneficial to maintaining a sense of sanity in the home or classroom; behaviors which are often hard to modify.
Here are a few suggestions successful parents and experts have shared:
Diet Change- First, if we are not already doing so, you should adjust your child's diet to include real nutrients to feed the natural brain development. As many parents have learned, by adopting a more organic diet which avoids fried and processed foods such as chicken fingers and pre-packaged products, we can see a change take place in kids’ behavior in quick fashion.
Adopt More Structure- Providing structure has helped autistic children and juvenile delinquents better manage their behavior, but just about every kid can benefit from more structure to balance out and guide their days. As one parent shared with me, “I used to focus solely on my to-do list for the day, but now I focus equally on what my kids’ to-do list is as well. It took a lot of work, but I had to make my work with my kids just as important as any business meeting or deadline.” Adopt an after school routine that works for you and your child.
Get Outside and Exercise- With televisions, computers, tablets and smartphones creating far too much daily screen time, we need to think about the nature deficit kids are possibly experiencing. Which means, as badly as us parents need to get outside for some fresh air and exercise on a regular basis, our kids need it too. Commit to weekly walks, hiking, and family fitness. Similar to other parents, you might be surprised as to how such quality time with your kids can finally lead to amazing breakthroughs in developmental progress, child/parent relationships and overall family wellbeing.
Make Learning Fun Again- It’s no secret that the testing focus forced upon schools has left a great number of students feeling less than motivated to pay attention and learn. As my daughter shared with me a few years ago, you know things are bad when their daydreaming turns MATH into an acronym, Mental Abuse To Humans. When it comes to school work and learning, seek help on how to make learning fun again. Figure out how to increase your child’s motivation to learn and intrinsic drive to achieve their wildest dreams. We need to help them see the importance of a good education at an early age.
Make Every Day Count- Make every day a series of many mini-life lessons that will prepare them for the real challenges they face when you are not by their side. Provide them with plenty of diverse experiences that help them to better understand how others live as a means to help them better appreciate what they have. Travel, volunteer, spend more quality time together and most of all embrace these few short years before they do leave us with an empty nest.
Take a Drug Vacation- For those who have children already diagnosed and medicated for a mental disorder, consider having your doctor help you get them off of the “medicine” some doctors are claiming are good for kids. Commit to one of the most active, structured and healthy family cleansings ever. And who knows, through allowing the child development process to progress naturally (drug-free) and taking a more strategic, inspiring and systemic approach to parenting, you just might see your child gradually stop displaying the behaviors for which so many want to drug.
Lighten up Francis and Have Some Fun
I have never met a parent who wanted to have children so they could spend the next 18 or so years feeling defeated and depressed. Most who planned such pregnancies, and for many others who embraced news of surprise pregnancies, the initial feelings were more aligned with joy and excitement. They imagined raising children as being the best part of their life to come. But unfortunately for millions, parenthood and childhood are providing some obstacles which at times seem impassable.
I’m not trying to beat down or “flippantly” insult anyone here. Such challenges happen to nearly all parents, even the best of parents, at some point during the everlasting parenthood learning curve. The question we need to ask ourselves, however, is if we are going to continue down a road to defeatism and accept the brain disease claims, or take a different path? The challenge rests in how we can avoid being or becoming that parent who is constantly providing negative comments and punishments, and turn our efforts into a more balanced approached which includes the needed occasional reprimands and reasonable consequences but is complemented by ample amounts of positive reinforcement and rewards.
Nearly every parent I have met during my research has shared similar experiences of feeling moments or extended periods of frustration and doubt. No matter if they were parents of children labeled “special needs” or parents of children some call “normal”, “average” or even “gifted,” they share similar stories reflecting the same challenges and concerns. This is why I also urge you to stop feeling like your situation is that drastically different from others. Stop feeling like you cannot overcome these challenges, and treat drugs as the last resort. Millions of others have overcome such parenting challenges void of disorder labels and drugs, and you can too.
Yes it is possible that some children do suffer from serious mental health issues and need professional help, but be very cautious when letting a supposed “expert” put the blame on a child’s supposed brain disease. Most of these behaviors are just signs of normal developmental challenges or delays due to challenges encountered in the home or school environment. Most of the time, all kids really need is a little more time and lot more of us. Reflect back on how painful and monotonous sitting in school every day can be as a child. Take partial responsibility for this situation and take charge. Embrace a new view and get parenting help, not necessarily mental health therapy for the child. See a family therapist, who treats the whole system encompassing your child. Without sounding too cliché, embrace the fact that tomorrow is another day, and that you have years to help your child catch up developmentally and behaviorally.
There is no need to be a helicopter parent hovering over their every move. There is no need to be a strict authoritarian parent when just being a more strategically guided authoritative parent will get you better results. There is no need to be the “sage on the stage” that knows everything and is never wrong. Your relationship with your child is going to improve dramatically when you share such news, and take the role of “guide on the side” who helps them understand that all you want to accomplish in your life is to help them achieve what they want and deserve in their life. Turn it back into a team effort, a family affair.
So what if your child is not a straight A student. So what if your child does not behave or think like a normal student. In the long run which of the following would make you more happy to hear: that your child made the honor roll at school or someone stopping you at the grocery store to share how they are so impressed by how great or kind your child is to others, or the volunteer work they are doing?
Take some of that pressure off you and your child, and just take stock in the fact that you have each other and none of us are perfect. And with a lot of work, planning, sincere empathy and perseverance, life is going to be just fine. This too shall pass.
The drugs too many doctors are pushing do not fix the behaviors. The drugs only chemically control the brain to malfunction in a way that masks the behaviors. Also, the drugs do not help the learning process. If you don’t believe me try sitting through a your next training seminar at work comfortably numb on a mind-altering substance, or — for a less radical approach — flashback to that forgotten, not-so-sober weekend (or semester for you overachievers) during your younger years. If you don’t remember, it is very hard to listen, retain and learn information when our thoughts are controlled by mind-altering substances. Beyond the endless list of health risks the more popular pharmaceuticals prescribed to kids for mental disorders come with, we need to seriously rethink this idea that kids will benefit from being on mind-altering drugs for years on end. They deserve nothing less. They deserve a drug free childhood. And your family deserves to enjoy their precious childhood years together.
Copyright © 2015 by Michael W. Corrigan, Ed.D.
Professor Corrigan’s most recent book, Debunking ADHD: 10 Reasons to Stop Drugging Kids for Acting Like Kids (link is external), goes deeper into child development and ideas for parenting children with behavioral or developmental challenges. Join him on Facebook, Twitter or YouTube to learn more! Corrigan and his colleagues also have organized a series of one day seminars for parents, educators and practitioners called Reclaiming Childhood. The educational and inspiring events are being scheduled in major metro areas. Please take a moment to learn more about the Project #ForTheKids on Facebook or Eventzilla.