Nothing prepares you for the potentially triggering experience of having your first child and nothing more so than if they appear to have unusual traits from a very young age. When you have a child who is a bit ‘different’ you can’t help but get anxious on their behalf. Will they be happy, will they make friends, will they fit it and so on.
Our son who is now 6 was ‘diagnosed’ with Neuro-Diversity (namely ADHD) a year ago and with hindsight (such a wonderful thing I know!) I can look back now at the things I got anxious about and appreciate why I should not have wasted so much time and energy worrying about them!
If you asked me back in 2016 what I felt I knew about ADHD I would have said quite a lot. I was the MD of a Physical Literacy programme working with kids who had ADHD, Dyslexia and Dyspraxia and learning all the time from the doctors involved. Mr Canni was diagnosed aged 40 with ADHD in 2014 and he had done a lot of his own research. It is one of the key reasons we started The Canni Family, CBD because he felt it was something natural that really helped.
What I have now realised is that I can’t truly understand what it’s like to have ADHD and that keeping him physically occupied is one thing (I’m great at taking him out and finding things for him to do), however there is also the other aspect which is the most challenging, recognising and addressing with your own triggers to then be in the best place to support your child in good times and in bad.
Here are some of the WHY questions I asked myself which I now wish I hadn’t focused so much time and energy on!
- Why is he doing a lot of very repetitive play?
Our son was born two months premature and at the time the nurse said he will probably be developmentally behind other kids for his early years. But I only began to question this when he started to play. He used to build the most phenomenal towers out of bricks, taller than himself and with such precision. When he wasn’t building these structures, he would be spinning round Tupperware lids like spinning tops, quite the skill. He loved it, it made him so happy, I on the other hand worried was this a sign of possible autism?
- Why is he not walking and talking yet?
I remember going to various mum’s groups when our son was under the age of two and thinking, wow these children are really advanced my son is not even speaking yet (and usually asleep). Of course, he chose to speak the day after we saw the consultant which was exactly the same for walking but we worried a lot about this stage of his development. However, he didn’t care he developed a unique crawling method that was faster than any toddler on foot but I was still concerned there was something more going on.
- Why is he not affectionate and making eye contact?
Cue the same worries and concerns but he was always been happy and giggly. He is now a lot more affectionate and can hold your gaze but I spent valuable time with him wondering what more I could do to help him rather than just appreciating what he was doing and the fun he was having.
- Why is he overly emotional/sensitive about things?
Hands up I was not a natural mother and I have always found conflict to be something to be avoided wherever possible. Finding a happy medium and calm is what I was always looking for however here was this little boy who went from sobbing at the sound of a hand dryer/leaf blower to laughing within minutes. I always tried to either distract him from the tears and/or frustration or tell him he was overacting and to calm down (of ply him with food). I even found his cries as a baby triggering, it made me feel uncomfortable in a way I couldn’t really explain.
What I’ve later come to understand is that he was just expressing himself, in an attempt to experience the world in all its glory. I, with the best of intentions, was always tried to put a lid on the ‘uncomfortable’ emotions, partly because of my own discomfort and out of embarrassment at his behaviour when we were out. Again, my anxiety not his (are you starting to recognise a theme yet)
- Why was it so hard to potty train him and get him dry at night?
Our son was only just out of nappies when he started school and was still withholding and only pooing at night whilst asleep (which is very common for kids with neuro-diversity). However aged six he is still not dry at night.
Turns out being dry at night is a hormonal thing and your child will be ready when they are ready (no matter what rewards you offer or how hard you try!). When their nervous system has developed enough to signal to them they need to go, they will. Children with ADHD have a less mature Nervous system that their peers, so it only stands to reason that this ability develops later when they are ready.
I can’t tell you how I wished I understood this before spending some much time and energy worrying over something that just needed time. We actual came up with ways to help with the withholding, like sitting him on the toilet with an iPad so he was relaxed, giving him time to recognise the signs and so we now just work that into our day. Initially during potty training, we allowed him to sit on the potty and play with water so he could feel the sensation and recognise it which helped with becoming dry during the day. Getting dry at night is slowly happening and he is fine with that!
- Why does he not want to join in at parties or team games?
When our son was 3.5 we moved out of London in the hope of providing a cleaner, safer environment for him to grow up in and to help with some breathing issues he had at the time.
We didn’t know anyone in the area we moved to so when our son was invited to a party I thought great I’ll get to meet some other parents. We walked into the village hall and I think we managed 3 mins before he insisted on leaving. I have now been to a lot of kids parties of all different types and taken him to football, Karate, group swimming lessons wishing he would find his ‘thing’ but each time he would wander off to spend time on his own or refused to go again saying ‘he was tired’. We have later come to realise that this response is a coping mechanism for when he finds things too challenging.
However this didn’t stop me feeling frustrated thinking why isn’t he getting involved in games at parties and I was often embarrassed by his behaviour or concerned he wasn’t really enjoying himself…… But he now loves being at the parties just not joining in with organised games, again my problem not his!
- Why is he so loud?
Our son went from not speaking at all until he was 2 to being very loud. I used to wish he would speak then I’d cringe as he would yell rather than speak. We have a dog called Harry and one of the funniest early memories I have was walking through the woods in the very wealthy suburb of Highgate (lots of yummy mummies in Lycra) I had him in a back carrier and after hearing me say ‘Harry Sit’ numerous times he chose this moment to speak. He said clear as day ‘Harry SHIT!’
He now loves speaking to anyone who will listen and can explain very eloquently about subjects that are fairly complex, although he is still learning social ques and when it’s his turn to speak. His vocabulary is excellent and even more importantly he can apply that knowledge, although he is like a politician in many ways, he will always answer the question he wished he’d been asked! When questioned about what he enjoys most about school he said ‘problem solving’.
I’ve now taught him a scale of 1-5 and if he is shouting I’ll subtly signal to him to go down to a 3 (we have had his ears checked in case you are wondering) Basically, our son is a chatty, happy soul who is comfortable within himself, so I used to have anxiety about him not speaking and then he became a ‘chatty box’….he loves talking to people so again just me then!
- Why is he not more independent?
I still can’t leave him to get dressed on his own, he can do it but he just gets distracted. Unless I tell him it’s a race or that he’ll get more time at the park but this can mean missing underpants and t-shirts on the wrong way round. This is the same in the classroom, he needs reminders to keep on task and incentives to keep going. I’ve realised losing my temper rarely works as it gets us both stressed and I genuinely don’t think he is doing it to be difficult or naughty, there are just far more interesting things to be getting up to.
Eating is another challenge as he gets distracted and bored with it unless he’s starving. However, we have always understood that we need to make sure he eats well and that he maintains good gut health, which is key to an ADHD mind (sweetener is avoided wherever possible as it exacerbates ADHD symptoms).
We supplement with Zinc, Cod liver Oil and probiotics (we like Yakult and call it sweet milk), we also provide him with a drink at school that he loves including apple juice and honey (for natural sugars), Green Tea which helps him focus and half a Genius Minds capsule which is an excellent supplement containing all the things that seem to help him focus, without medication. He really likes it and calls it his concentration juice. I used to wish he would just get on with things himself and not require so much hand holding but I now realise its necessary to keep him focused and on task.
- Why is he seen as one of ‘the naughty ones’ in class by others?
Our son has always found it hard to keep focused on something that doesn’t interest him but my god if you get him onto a topic he loves he will engage you in great detail about this new area of interest.
However, in the classroom he finds it hard to keep up and his coping mechanisms can go one of two ways – either pretend to be incredibly tired or be silly to entertain his way out of a situation. I was told recently ‘ah yes I’ve been told he is one of the naughty ones’ and whilst all kids have a capacity to push boundaries and be cheeky, he is rarely really naughty.
He is kind and is learning to be empathetic, he can be extremely charming and very funny but these coping mechanisms can appear to be ‘naughty behaviour’. He is currently struggling at school and is well below his peers. This is likely to remain the case throughout his school life but right now he still enjoys school mostly. I used to wish he would calm down and try harder but I realise now he has a physical reaction to situations that he finds hard to understand and this means he can’t currently control them. However, my social anxiety about that is just that it’s ‘mine’ as he is otherwise very happy within himself.
- Why does he have no sense of ‘stranger danger’?
Our son would literally wander off with anyone willing to listen to his stories or stroll off in the park to somewhere that looks inviting with no sense of risk or potential consequences. Again, this can appear as being ‘naughty’ but he really gets caught up in a moment, causing me a lot of stress which is actually reasonable but he is still happily thinking everyone is kind and the world is a good place.
So what have I learnt?
- Why questions are a waste of time and energy
They build stress and the reality of the situation has always been he got there in the end. Perhaps because he was our first and only child we just focused on him too much but again hindsight is a wonderful thing! Whether he is developing at a rate that is slower than his peers because he was two months premature, which would have made him one of the youngest in the year or because of his ADHD, all are possible factors but none of these reasons helped me with the anxiety I felt daily about how he seemed different. Guilt is not a helpful emotion it keeps us trapped and anxiety means you don’t experience as much joy from a situation so I have decided to do the only thing I can do. Look at myself, my triggers and how I can make the time I spend with him enjoyable.
- Focus on things (and people) that build self esteem
We have found that Sam loves Beavers, Swimming (not as part of a group), tennis (121 coaching) and riding his bike (with no fear!) but I will no longer try and push him towards team sports. Children with Neuro-diversity and ADHD particularly tend to enjoy lessons that are one to one, with fewer rules to follow, and with a teacher that praises them and keeps their focus. Staying active is important for kids with ADHD but knowing the activities they will most likely enjoy means that you are not putting them in situations that will knock their confidence.
- Medication can be helpful but Gut health (aka the 2nd brain) is also key
We have chosen at this stage not to use medication however it can be extremely helpful for some and we haven’t ruled it out. In the meantime, we have researched supplements that help with concentration and focus and they appear to be helping.
As I mentioned above Genius Mind capsules contain a wide range of minerals, including Zinc which is vital for the ADHD brain. We also give him Cod liver oil which is proven to help with symptoms and Probiotics, as the gut is now known as the 2nd brain, and when that isn’t happy the rest of your nervous system is thrown out. A major one to avoid are sweeteners, unless it was from a natural source, as its bad for gut health, far worse than sugar.
- The importance of the Nervous System, especially for children with ADHD (sort your own shit out!)
Kids with neuro-diversity often appear less mature than their peers and more prone to a roller coaster of emotions. It’s why it is vital as parents that we learn to regulate our own nervous systems and to understand and address our emotional triggers to things that our kids do. Our experiences as a child and even from our ancestral linage play a big part in how we respond to our kids. (check out Epi-Genetics it will blow your mind when you realise that some of your anxiety is actually from your Great Grandparents and not yours in the first place)
I’ve also often wondered how my son seems to ‘keep a lid on it’ at school and then can have emotional outburst, including frustration and anger, when he is with me. I recently learnt this simple fact, that children do this for two reasons:
- You are their ‘safe space’ to help them deal with the all that has come up during the day that they couldn’t process at the time. Instead of squashing or suppressing emotions that you may find challenging like anger, aggression or frustration you should allow the child to express these constructively. Be witness to them, let them be themselves and allow them to feel what they feel, otherwise you will find they can’t manage their emotions later on in life.
- It’s now known that our children co-regulate with our nervous systems, if I get stressed or angry he then mirrors me so whilst it isn’t possible to stay calm all the time it’s important to get back to a more relaxed state to ensure your child can deal with these big emotions and then self-regulate back to a calmer state.
I now try to avoid dwelling on the ‘Why’ questions in order to reduce my anxiety. I am dealing with things that trigger me like playing with him (which I still find hard), his moments of anger or frustration that I find uncomfortable and my need to see that he ‘fits in’. Bottom line these were and always have been my issues and I don’t want to pass them on to my son.
With this in mind I have signed up to the 6 week programme called the Nervous System Reset which combines Play Therapy with breath work from @the_Reconnected and it is my hope that this will help me to learning to regulate myself and address my triggers in order to bring about positive change for both of us! Watch this space.
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