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Big, Scary Thoughts

Thinking student sitting at deskA parent of a gifted five-year old wonders why her son often sounds unhappy and fears growing up.

Many smart youngsters can become easily overwhelmed by their brain’s capacity to think too big. Imagine you are only five and you’re thinking about the meaning of life, growing up and having to find a job, wondering what it would be like to be alone! Very young children have no real-life experience to put any of these big, scary thoughts into perspective.

I recommend not spending lots of time talking about these big thoughts with very young kids. That only reinforces them to feel worse. If your child isn’t sharing these uncharacteristic big (negative) thoughts away from you, that may be a sign that you are fueling those concerns accidentally.

Better to acknowledge big, scary thoughts fast, then put them in their place!

First explain that thoughts are in our control: “I know you have very strong feelings and worries. Sometimes your feelings get too big – but they are only feelings and they can change. We can make them smaller or turn them into happier thoughts if we want to…”

Then show your child how to control them:¬†“Let’s move, let’s go outside, let’s do something real like play, run, wrestle, and that’s how we stop those feelings. We don’t have to think of them right now – but if later you still feel them – we can talk about them. We can find good ways (like drawing or singing or making a play about them) to make sure they don’t seem too big or stay around too long.”


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The ADHD Excuse


ADHD symbol design isolated on white backgroundA parent I know is questioning if her second grader has ADHD. Maybe he does, maybe he doesn’t. There are many things that mimic the symptoms. It takes time to make an accurate diagnosis and well-trained professionals should always be consulted. Meanwhile, her son has picked up on the ADHD terminology. He’s saying he can’t focus on homework because his “brain is distracted.” When he gets caught doing something he shouldn’t – like swearing at his brother – he says he’s “being impulsive.” Are his problems due to an attention deficit? Perhaps. But he’s also complaining that sorting his laundry is way too hard. And the Legos that cover his bedroom floor can’t be organized, because, well – it’s “just too hard.” This boy is smart and I think he’s found a convenient¬†get-out-of-jail-free card … an excuse he can call up whenever the going gets tough. Whether this boy has ADHD or not, excuse-making is a slippery slope. In time, he might start believing these limitations.


If you’re investigating a diagnosis of ADHD, or your child/teen currently has this diagnosis, here’s how to avoid ADHD excuses.


  1. ADHD should never be framed as a serious disability. Tell kids that ADHD is a brain style. It doesn’t completely define who they are or limit what they can do. In fact, this brain style can have great advantages (such as athletic skill, creative thinking, and healthy risk taking). ADHD also lends itself to a mind-set that we adults strive for – living more in-the-moment and being more mindful. Yet, there are potential downsides. There are struggles keeping on task, especially when there isn’t something novel or very interesting to focus on. Patience is a serious challenge. Delayed gratification can be hard too. And, not all risks taken are positive.


  1. Emphasize that what matters is how ADHD fits (of fights against) the demands that different environments place on people.


  1. Remind your child that any problems with ADHD (high motor activity, sustaining focus, and being impulsive) can be worked on with or without medications. Most important, remind them that ADHD symptoms tend to decrease (or drop away) as kids grow – as development of the frontal cortex catches up in teenage years.


  1. Remind your child that their brain always has the capacity to learn and change. Pushing oneself to improve, develop better work habits, and maintain healthy life routines – like getting enough sleep, exercise, and eating right – will help control ADHD symptoms. Watch over-exposure to screens too… those have been correlated to higher ADHD symptoms.


  1. Finally, and most important, push back on any ADHD excuse-making. ADHD should never be a reason to avoid trying new things or giving up.


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Another reason to get boys moving

recessA parent recently checked in about her son being accused of tackling another boy at school. When the teachers observed more carefully, it turned out he wasn’t the only one. Many of the second grade boys were tackling each other, mostly during recess. Should there be a no-touching rule instituted and swift discipline applied for any boy caught doing this? Consider that these boys wouldn’t need to be aggressive in this way if they got more movement throughout the day. They need daily opportunities to channel their natural aggression. All-boy schools give us a model to follow. They give boys many ways to release strong natural urges to show physical power and force. Don’t stuff aggression, work with it. Guide it. Channel it. Anything less denies a part of who boys are.

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Should your young child be tested?

Notes coming home from teachers? Are they telling you your child’s not focusing or they’re wandering off during circle time? With schools under much stress these days to keep to government performance standards, many teachers are recommending to parents that young children be tested for learning problems. Most are young boys. Is this helpful?

Most classroom adjustment issues are temporary. They don’t require testing. They are developmental – and buying your child time often does the trick. But if teachers continue to recommend testing, how should you proceed – and what’s the right age to do it? For common early behavior issues (that are mostly showing up at school but not home), I’d wait until 7 years old (or a bit older) as testing very young children doesn’t yield as much reliable data.

Second, what “tests” are used and “who” does the testing matter. At the least, a WISC (intelligence test) is valuable. Also some educational tests too (those are simple grade-level tests to assess ability on typical classroom tasks… such as language and number skills). Be weary of quick scales (the Conners, the Vanderbilt, and the Achenbach are typical examples) that teachers and parents are told to fill out. Those are highly subjective. In my opinion, they yield much less valuable information, especially for very young boys. They are also geared toward looking for hyperactivity, impulsivity, and focus… sending (mostly boys) down an ADHD path and to medication. These are self-report style scales should never be used alone (independent of more powerful, better designed tests) and shouldn’t be relied on exclusively to make diagnostic decisions.

If the school offers to do 1-1 testing – performed by a good/qualified (at least masters level psychologist) – consider having it done. But ask them up front specifically what tests they plan on using and how experienced is the tester. Also, ask up front what they plan on doing with the test information and does it necessarily require you adopt their special education services… it might, and that’s generally ok, but you want all that explained first. Then, if you agree to testing, see where the data falls. Think of it as a snapshot. It may reveal an underlying developmental lag that does deserve some extra (in class or out) help. Hopefully the school will provide that service. Also, check with your pediatrician on basics. Vision and hearing, sleep, getting enough physical activity, diet and allergies… many things can cause behavior issues at school, including stress at home. every child is different. Keep up with good behavior training at home (see my other posts).

For most boys, who have a rocky start to school, they just need time. Some continue with struggles and need special services, and a few may need something more – a different school environment (smaller classes, more boy-friendly activities and matched teaching style). Again, buying a little time makes the most sense. Not rushing the developmental process. Not automatically reacting to teachers who may themselves be struggling or stressed. It gives your youngster time to grow and develop and adjust to new demands.

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Bomb and Gun Talk and Play In Boys – It’s Time We Stop Overreacting

Pastel colored gunsA mom recently shared with me a teacher’s email about her 10 year old son. It went something like this…

Jason was discussing Molotov Cocktails at school. This is not the first time he’s been discussing violent things, so I sent him and the other boys to meet with the Principal during recess.

Maybe Molotov Cocktails isn’t a great topic to be (overheard) discussing at school these days. Constant, frenetic media drives up our worries about safety. Everyone is on edge. Schools are cracking down on any language that teachers or administrators perceive as “violent.”¬† They worry boys are becoming more aggressive. In some cases, tamping down some talk (e.g., bullying, being mean, etc.) has real merit, but in this case I believe it doesn’t. Here’s why:

Boys aren’t talking about weapons or war more often than they used to. Truth is, they are being kept indoors and inactive more these days, and teachers are overhearing normal boy-talk and are disapproving of it. If boys had more time outside to release normal pent up aggression, share their fantasies and curiosities about violence in healthy, playful ways, we would not be getting these type of emails that the school is concerned about violent talk. More male teachers would help tremendously. Like me, male teachers were boys once, and we know such talk is common – a part of exploring the legitimate desires we have to understand power and aggression.

Here’s what I recommend teachers and administrators do.

Rather than punish boys for thinking thoughts and expressing themselves, use what they talk about as a learning opportunity. I’d ask these questions: What is a Molotov Cocktail? Do you know what it is or what it does? Where did you first hear or learn about it? (My guess, they heard it on the Discovery or History Channel or on the news. Google it and Wikipedia has a very comprehensive history of it). I would also ask: Why do people invent weapons in the first place? Is there ever a good reason – or reasons – to use weapons? How do people feel talking about these type things?

None of these thought-provoking, potentially education-yielding questions got asked here. Rather, the goal was to label boy talk/play as wrong and squash it.

In my clinical work, I seize these opportunities. It helps children understand themselves and the world better. It may be an off-color remark, a swear, something said to shock me or their parents, a mean thing they heard about or want to say, an obsession with guns, fighting, and aggression that they see in video game play or read in fantasy novels. It’s common for boys to engage in very aggressive play with dinosaurs and small army men in my office. After 9-11, more kids crashed Lego planes into towers. What I’ve learned over the years is that when kids – especially boys – say or play something that feels uncomfortable to me, it often carries deeper meaning. It’s my job to pull that out and give them a safe, non-judgmental place to explore it. That calms them. That channels their frustrations and anxieties into a healthy outlet.

There’s a balance to strike here. We don’t want kids to be able to say or do anything they want without reasonable monitoring and guidance. But simply shutting down all talk and play about things that make us feel uncomfortable isn’t going to decrease violence. In fact, talking and playing about violent things, within healthy limits, leads to people being less likely to engage in violence.

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