Dear Dr Justin,
I'm writing to you as a mother of 4 all under 9. I have bi-polar and am concerned for my first 2 children! My oldest is 8 and gets upset over the silliest of things. He has always been sensitive, however it has gotten a lot worse from the start of this year! He refuses to talk about what’s going on. Also I’ve been very concerned about his drawings! I fear he has issues with his father, for he always draws his dad mad and that really concerns me!!
My next son is 5. He gets mad very easy and chucks tantrums and answers back all the time. I’ve tried smacking, sending him to his room, bribing, taking things off him, and now I’ve put him in to Auskick in the hope that will help his anger issue. His dad thinks he has ADHD. I don’t believe in ADHD, I believe in just parenting! I love my boys very much and I want them to be happy not upset or angry! Please help me!!
Dr Justin responds:
When we board an aeroplane, we are told that in the event of an emergency oxygen masks will fall from the ceiling of the plane. Then we are told that if this happens we should fit our own mask before we help others. As a child, this frightened me. Would my parents really sort out their own safety before they helped me? It was only as I got older that I realised the simple truth that if they did not look after their own wellbeing, they would not be in a position to help me.
The same principle applies in parenting. With the stresses and challenges of every day life, we need to make sure we are getting enough “oxygen” so that we can be helpful to those we love and wish to help. With four young children and your mental health challenges, this is especially true – and challenging – for you. In all the rush and busyness of life, I’m going to suggest four things that can help you specifically: exercise, sleep, keeping a regular gratitude diary, and time with your husband. All four probably seem laughable, but you might be able to find a few minutes each day for each of these, and they can help you get that oxygen mask fitted so you can help others. (Please also stay in touch with your GP or psychologist about psychological interventions to help you as well.)
Let’s talk about your eight year-old son. Some children, like your son, feel estranged from their parents, lack resilience, or feel angry. This may be just how they are – their temperament – or it may be something in their environment that is promoting such feelings. The following recommendations may be helpful:
Sometimes children do not want to speak to their parents out of fear or insecurity (or anger – which is typically based on fear or sadness). In this case, many children are willing to write letters, or have a diary consisting or written exchanges between you and them. Little love notes in lunchboxes or under pillows can also strengthen the relationship. And if he is struggling with Dad, perhaps they might write to one another as well.
Research shows that touch has a powerful influence in our relationships. It can soften harsh moods, and draw people together. When children are touched by mum or dad as we walk past them – perhaps with a hand on the shoulder, or a squeeze of their arm – they feel acknowledged and recognised.
Name Feelings to Tame Feelings
If your son is getting upset at silly things it can be easy to get cranky, or ignore him. Instead, see his upsets as a chance to draw close and understand his world. Try and identify the feelings he is experiencing as you turn towards him, and help him to regulate his emotions by being calm and kind.
If you are worried about your son’s relationship with his dad, the best way to improve things is for him to spend time with his dad. Send them on dates, for milkshakes, bike rides, or overnight camps. Time in relationships strengthens relationships when both people are trying to make them work.
For your second son, it is terrific that you are keeping him active, but we need to talk about the way you discipline him. Discipline is not about punishment. Discipline is about teaching good ways to act, and unfortunately the strategies you have chiefly relied on are ineffective teaching strategies. Can I recommend you get hold of my book, What Your Child Needs From You, and take a close look at the chapter on discipline? It will help enormously.
Lastly, and importantly, please know that ADHD is real. Yes, it is often over-diagnosed. Yes, it is often misunderstood. Yes, it is often used as a crutch. But it is real, and it does affect children (and adults) everywhere. Please have your son assessed to allay any concerns. If you are unhappy with the assessment get a second opinion.
It is true that many issues related to ADHD symptoms can be traced back to parenting. But good parenting is not all that a child with real ADHD needs. Appropriate intervention and treatment will make a difference if your child really does have ADHD. If he doesn’t, then focus on good parenting.
In summary, your sons can become more resilient and easier to work with through time, attention, touch, communication, and love. But to do that well, it is important to “fit your oxygen mask” and ensure you can be at your best. So get the attention you need, and have your son checked out too. Forget punishment and focus on teaching good ways to act, which is what the best discipline is, and in time your children will ideally mature and become easier to work with.