March 26, 2010

Sean’s ADHD, Part 4: Sticks and Stones

In my many posts about ADHD, and many other kinds of behavior issues as well, I have described cases in which a lot of the things a kid did looked just like the kind of things that a kid with ADHD would do. (It is for this reason, I suspect, that so many kids get diagnosed with ADHD and get prescribed medication.) Sometimes another doctor will send the child to me because they have ‘failed’ treatment with standard ADHD medication. Careful, patient, and thorough investigation often shows me that the child’s attention problem is actually caused by unappreciated anxiety, unseen depression, itchy skin or itchy eyes, a vision or hearing problem, or a bully.

Some aspects of attention are driven from within us. In order to accomplish any task, we have to shut out sensory inputs from the world. There are many medical studies that show fairly conclusively that multitasking is a simple delusion. We don’t really focus on driving and talking on the phone and sipping our coffee all at the same time. We actually do them in sequence, one after another. Because we’re not spending a visible amount of time on one before moving on to another, the sequence is invisible and it gives the illusion of simultaneous action. In every waking moment, we multitask in the same way. We walk and talk, we look where we’re going, we keep our pants from falling down. (When people get impaired in some way, they stumble.)

In Sean’s case, I thought he clearly had some attention and hyperactivity issues. He will have to learn to restrain some of his impulses in certain situations--such as a classroom. He also needs to be respectful of teachers, even if they aren’t the best. But when I asked him about bullies, he denied this problem. Now I realize that I hadn’t considered the possibility that the bully could be his teacher.

His mom asked him if what the other parent wrote in the email was true. He confirmed all of it.

Even without physical violence, this is abuse. Sean didn’t know or understand that a teacher could be wrong, or could do something wrong. So when Mr. Dickson called him a ‘rotten child,’ he didn’t take it as an insult. He understood it to be a professional assessment, like a B+ grade, or advice that he needed to practice his arithmetic. Since he now understood himself to be a rotten child, he realized that this new identity afforded him a freedom from behavior boundaries that he had not had before.

The rhyme about sticks and stones is simply a lie. It is irresponsible to teach it to your child as a defense. It is curious to me that parents will teach this to their children as if they believed it to be true. Given, part of being an adult is knowing when not to respond to hostility or an insult, when to simply keep your feelings to yourself, when to appear noncommittal when you really do have strong feelings. Most people, maybe everyone, has lost friends, relationships, jobs and many other important things because of words. Believe as we do in freedom of speech, there is no freedom from feeling hurt by speech. If your son struggles in school, and a sibling called him stupid, what would you do? Would you teach him about sticks and stones? Is that doing your job? I’ll come back to this.

When a teacher, and especially a parent, gives a negative assessment of the way a child is, a scar is made.

There are 2 important points here. If your kid messes up, you don’t have to go through some self-effacing nonsense--just tell them how it is. It’s OK to tell them they are wrong, that they must never play with daddy’s drafting equipment, that they are not allowed into the street without holding a grown-up’s hand. You must never tell them that they are stupid, unattractive, incompetent, or that they speak funny. Never tell them that they are rotten kids—save this one for your toast at their weddings. Never even hint that you wish they weren’t born, or wish they were more like one of their siblings or cousins.

In a work environment, there’s a big difference between hearing an assessment that you need to improve the way you organize the files and hearing that you are disorganized. One is a skill you need to improve, and can try to improve. The other is a label that is permanently attached to you.

The second point is how you deal with the bullies in your child’s life.

In the movies, the caring father teaches the child boxing or martial arts, so that when threatened, the on-screen David can beat up a schoolyard Goliath, humiliating him or her and inducing a catharsis in the ticket-buyer powerful enough to provoke tears. While I have often admired the positive impact on a child when they study martial arts, for example, real life never, ever has worked like this even once. If there’s a child threatening your kid, physically or emotionally, are you going to sign the kid up for lessons? How many years will that take? And then when the bully gets the desired reaction, and your kid finally explodes with the righteous justice of any number of action movies, who will be suspended from school? What will the lesson be about fairness and right and wrong? When the bully is an authority figure, who does the child have who could compete with that? Who is more powerful than a teacher or a school principal who tells your kid that he is some kind of delinquent? Only you can fill this role.

It could indeed make the child’s school life more uncomfortable if you intervene on your child’s behalf. But that child will be with you long after this school term is a bad memory. Step up to the plate on the child’s side, and they will remember it for decades. If you don’t, they will remember just as long. Don’t measure your success by whether the child gets a new teacher, or is being sent to the principal’s office. Your success is in your relationship with your children, who have acquired the secure knowledge that you’re always there for them, you’re always going to stand by them against the bullies of the world.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Please let me know what you think. Do you know a child or situation like this?