What is ADHD?
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a disorder that can affect your child’s day-to-day activities. ADHD does not just create difficulties at school; it can challenge your child in all aspects of life. People with ADHD generally suffer from:
- Hyperactivity: Characterized by constant motion. Children with ADHD often struggle in a traditional school setting because school requires long periods of sitting still and the ability to maintain focus. Hyperactivity includes behaviors like fidgeting and bouncing, which can be distracting for not only the child himself, but for the teacher and his classmates as well. The child is generally unable to control these movements, even when there are negative consequences.
- Impulsivity: Characterized by acting before thinking. Many children with ADHD do things that they logically know will cause trouble because they simply lack the restraint to stop and consider the consequences first. These children might constantly interrupt other people by talking out of turn because they feel compelled to speak as soon as a thought comes to mind. They might also exhibit more destructive impulsive behaviors, like hitting classmates and siblings or throwing things in inappropriate settings. The goal is often to get immediate feedback, like attention or a laugh, but it can result in negative consequences.
- Inattention: Characterized by the inability to focus. A child may daydream or switch activities and topics often. School is very difficult to navigate for children who struggle with inattention. The older the child becomes, the longer he is expected to sit and focus on one topic or assignment. This can make the child feel that he lacks academic ability, when really the problem lies in the lack of ability to concentrate for any length of time.
There are many tactics that teachers use to try to help children with ADHD. They might sit a child close to the front of the room in an attempt to remove distraction. They can give him extra time on tests to counteract the time lost to daydreaming. They might even give suggestions for parents to implement at home, like sticking to a regular bedtime or removing technology distractions during homework time. You’ve probably heard all of these before, but read on for a fresh take on coping with ADHD.
While all children should consume well-balanced, nutritious diets, there are special considerations for children with ADHD.
- Avoid sugar! Several studies have found that high sugar intake can increase restlessness, destructive behavior, and inattention in some children. This does not mean that your child can never have sugar again, but try making some small changes. Provide fruit or a square of dark chocolate for dessert instead of candy, or offer 100% fruit juice instead of fruit juice cocktails and soda.
- Avoid artificial preservatives and dyes. It has been suggested that these preservatives and dyes, like those found in colorful breakfast cereals, can worsen the symptoms of ADHD. Making the switch to something like Cheerios or oatmeal in the morning can help you to avoid both sugar and artificial preservatives and dyes. You can also try offering water, 100% fruit juice, or milk instead of sugary, dye-filled sports drinks.
- Test your child for allergies. Some common allergens, like gluten or dairy, have been shown in several studies to exacerbate ADHD symptoms in some children. Ask your child’s pediatrician about screening for food allergies. She might also want to try an elimination diet, which would remove one allergen at a time from your child’s diet to observe any change in behavior.
- Eat protein. Protein not only helps brain function, but it also prevents large blood sugar spikes, which we know can derail a child with ADHD. Try to incorporate some protein into every meal, even breakfast, with lean meats, dairy, nuts and nut butters, beans, and eggs.
- Ask your doctor if you should take a magnesium supplement. Due to poor diet, many Americans are deficient in magnesium, which is known to help the brain to relax and focus.
- Ask your physician if you should get more iron. In some small studies, iron deficiency has been correlated with an increase in ADHD symptoms. Your child can take an iron supplement or increase consumption of foods like lean meats and dark, leafy greens.
- Increase intake of Omega-3 fatty acids, which increase brain function and the ability to concentrate for extended periods of time. In an exciting study, Swedish scientists found a significant drop in ADHD symptoms in 25 percent of the participants (ranging in age from 8-18) who took fish oil supplements every day for six months. They also concluded that supplementing a child’s Omega 3s can improvethe symptoms of ADHD by up to 50 percent! Omega 3s occur naturally in fatty fish like salmon or sardines. There are also many fish oil supplements available.
Overall, a diet that focuses on lean meat with plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables can only improve your child’s health, but it might also alleviate some ADHD symptoms too. Remember to always consult your child’s pediatrician before you begin making diet changes or giving any supplements.
Children with ADHD have an abundance of hyperactive energy, which can create difficulties both at school and at home. Intentional movement and exercise can help them channel that energy in a couple of ways.
- In general, exercise is a great stress reliever and an energy booster. If your child shows interest in sports, sign him up through school or a local club, or make it a new family habit to go for a walk or play basketball after dinner. Participation in a sport or some other form of regular exercise can burn off extra energy while also quelling anxiety, boosting mental focus, and improving mood.
- The constant fidgeting characteristic of children with ADHD may drive you nuts, but research has found that it may actually help with cognitive function. Along with exercise, fidgeting has been found to improve memory and focus in children with ADHD.
- Those infamous fidget spinners might have a purpose after all! Give your child a stress ball to squeeze and manipulate (not throw!) at school or while doing homework. This will give him an outlet for his fidget energy without becoming a distraction.
Movement and exercise are essential for health, but the benefits for children with ADHD may give you extra motivation to make it a part of your family’s everyday life. If this is out of the ordinary for your family, try replacing even twenty minutes of sedentary time with a walk or some outdoor exploration.
Yoga can work wonders for children with ADHD. Yoga practice can promote calm while increasing concentration and control, all of which children with ADHD generally lack.
- Yogic breathing: Learning to concentrate on and control breath can help children with ADHD when they are in frustrating situations, or when they feel that their bodies cannot be still. Deep breath is known to create a calming effect on the nervous system. Beyond that, focusing on the breath equips children with a control strategy.
Start with simple deep breathing. Have your child find a comfortable seated position and breath in slowly through his nose. Count to five for the breath in, hold it for a beat, then breath out to a count of five. Repeat five times, then resume normal breath for no more than a minute. Begin deep breathing again for five rounds. This can be repeated as many times as desired.
As your child becomes comfortable with deep, focused breathing, try alternate nostril breathing. Again, have your child find a comfortable seated position. With his right index finger, have him plug his left nostril and take a slow, five-count inhale. Before he exhales, he will release the left nostril and plug the right nostril with his right thumb. Then he will exhale completely for a count of five, hold briefly, and inhale again for a count of five. This can be repeated as many times as desired, breathing out and in with the same nostril, then switching sides.
- Simple vinyasa: Vinyasa yoga, or flow yoga, involves holding a series of poses. Focusing on the body during these poses can help with concentration. The child must think about his body and concentrate to hold steady through muscle discomfort. The same is true of transitions from pose to pose. The control of breath and body during movement can channel and repurpose hyperactive energy. Try a simple flow sequence (like a sun salutation) and remember to focus on the breathing!
Aside from the physical benefits of yoga, learning this new skill can give your child a sense of confidence and motivation to tackle other challenges as they arise. Try incorporating a bit of yoga or yogic breathing before bed for a calming routine. As a nice bonus, you may find that it is an activity you and your child enjoy doing together.
Deep breaths in through the nose and out through the mouth are known to be physiologically calming due to the extra oxygen boost, but some find that they are especially so when combined with certain essential oils. The positive effects are anecdotal, but essential oils have many loyal fans who swear by their usefulness in all aspects of life. If you would like to see how essential oils might help your child, here are some to try:
- Vetiver: this oil is thought to promote a calm and tranquil energy. Children with ADHD often have a hard time controlling their physical energy, and vetiver can help settle their jumpy bodies. Put it in a diffuser, in bathwater, or mix with a neutral oil (like coconut, avocado, or jojoba) and rub it on the bottoms of your child’s feet.
- Lavender: this oil is associated with calm sleep. ADHD can cause a racing mind or a fidgeting body that can inhibit or interrupt sleep. Many people like to mix it with vetiver for ultimate peace before bedtime. Put it in a diffuser, spray it on your child’s pillow, or rub it on your child’s feet. Encourage deep, yogic breaths to help your child drift off to a peaceful sleep. Diffusing throughout the night may help to reduce nighttime waking as well.
- Peppermint: this oil is considered to be helpful with focus. Children with ADHD have trouble maintaining concentration, so try diffusing peppermint during homework time or inhaling it before a big test.
- Cedarwood: this oil is said to improve the flow of oxygen to the brain. This oxygenation can help increase both calm and concentration. Mix it with vetiver to help center your child, or with peppermint to help increase concentration and ease test anxiety.
As you become more comfortable with essential oils, you can incorporate them into every part of your day. They can be mixed in with your laundry (like lavender for your bedding) or cleaning supplies, or used in lieu of perfume. You may find that these new additions to your routine bring peace and focus not only for your child, but for the rest of the family too.
Parenting a child with ADHD can be difficult and frustrating. Remember that, as with all children, what works for one may not necessarily work for another. Keep regular communication with your child’s teachers, case carrier, and pediatrician, but communicate with your child as well! Talk to him about what is helpful or what makes him feel good, and decide as a team what solutions work best for your family.