By James J. Crist, Ph.D., CSAC, author of What to Do When You’re Scared & Worried, Mad: How to Deal with Your Anger and Get Respect, and coauthor of Siblings: You’re Stuck with Each Other, So Stick Together
Brain Awareness Week, March 11–17, is a wonderful opportunity to think about all the amazing things our brains are capable of. Although there is still much to learn, we know a great deal about the brain and how it works. We know that the brain has an amazing ability to learn, adapt, and modify itself based on experience. We know that trauma or abuse in early years can have devastating consequences for brain development and a person’s ability to connect with others. We know that different areas of the brain control different functions, and that problems in the connections between those areas can lead to problems in learning, behavior, thinking, and feeling.
By understanding the brain and how difficulties in brain functioning affect kids and adults—and by being able to explain these things to kids in ways they can understand—we can do a better job as teachers and parents. Here are a few ways to do so.
Help Kids Understand Themselves
I’ve been working with kids, teens, and adults for over twenty years. I keep information on brain structures and functioning in my office so I can explain to kids in simple terms what’s going on with their brains when they’re having problems. For example, when talking with kids who are seriously depressed, it can be very helpful to show them a drawing of the human nerve cell and how we believe that lower levels of certain neurotransmitters such as serotonin can lead to depression. It also helps to show them how medications can work in the brain synapse so that the amount of serotonin they do have works harder to help them feel less depressed. With kids with ADHD, I can show them how the prefrontal cortex, which is the “control center of the brain,” appears to be less active in people with ADHD, causing problems with inattention and hyperactivity. By prescribing stimulants such as Ritalin, Concerta, or Adderall, the control center is activated so it can provide greater focus and self-control and improve a person’s executive functioning skills.
But we also need to help kids understand that brain differences are not an excuse. Parents often complain that their children, once they learn they have a disorder, will deny responsibility for their actions. “What can you expect from me?” the child will say. “I have ADHD—I can’t help it.” It’s important for parents, teachers, and children to understand that problems in brain functioning may explain why a task such as focusing in school is made more difficult by the presence of the disorder. However, the disorder does not excuse the behavior or relieve a child of responsibility. It simply means those kids have to work harder and use different strategies to make sure they stay focused, stay more organized with their school and home materials, and remember to do their schoolwork and hand it in on time.
Help Destigmatize Disorders
Another benefit of understanding brain functioning is that it can help destigmatize disorders. For example, a book for teens with ADHD titled I Would If I Could helps show that it’s not necessarily a lack of motivation or willpower or a moral weakness that keeps kids from achieving at a higher level. They would focus better, be less fidgety, and work harder in school if they could. Another book, You Mean I’m Not Lazy, Stupid, or Crazy? sheds light on low self-esteem adults and kids with ADHD often have. Knowing that ADHD and other disorders are legitimate problems that stem from brain differences—and that treatments are available for the disorders—can provide hope for kids who often feel like they are not as good as their peers. It also helps teachers and parents not blame themselves for feeling like they’re doing a less than adequate job.
Empathize with Students
Dealing with children with disabilities or disorders in the classroom is more challenging than ever. It is difficult to teach a class of 30 students where eight or nine may have individualized educational plans (IEPs) that you have to accommodate. It’s easy to get frustrated. After all, years ago there were no such accommodations, and kids seemed to do just fine—or so we thought. But today, because we know more about these disorders, we have an obligation to work harder to help these kids succeed. It’s important to understand that a student who is talking out in class is not always doing so deliberately, though it may feel that way. Most likely, that student is trying the best she can and may be acting out due to frustration at not being able to stay focused, impatience at not understanding the material, or anxiety about her performance. With that in mind, we’re able to respond more empathically to these children, while at the same time setting necessary limits.
Be a More Effective Parent
In their wonderful book, Brain-Based Parenting, authors Daniel A. Hughes and Jonathan Baylin make the case that effective parenting requires using a healthy parenting brain. For example, consider what happens when a child gets angry: His amygdala, which is the fear center of the brain, switches on due to a perceived threat, and his prefrontal cortex essentially turns off. This has been termed “neural hijacking.” The fear center of the brain shuts down the thinking center so that the body can get ready to engage in a fight-or-flight response. In today’s society, most threats are not physical, but the brain responds the same way that it has for thousands of years.
So how does this apply to parenting? When your child erupts in anger, it helps to understand that child as being hijacked by the fear center of the brain, and thus not capable of thinking clearly. It’s not fair or helpful to the child to get angry in return, which, for many of us, is a natural reaction. We cannot expect kids to exert the kind of self-control we expect from adults. (Though in all fairness, many adults struggle with the same self-control issues.) The best way to help a child in this situation is to be soothing, both in your tone of voice and in your approach. Using a calm tone, say something like, “I hear how angry you are, but it’s hard for me to listen when you use that tone of voice. If you can lower your voice a bit, we can talk about what’s upsetting you.” This gives your child the best chance at calming down quickly so that the conversation can get back on track. Validating a child’s feelings is soothing to the emotional brain and helps the thinking brain get back in control—which aids in problem solving. This is easier said than done, of course. As adults, we have a greater responsibility to maintain self-control if we are going to have any chance of teaching children how to develop self-control.
Teach by Example
Remembering that kids learn by example may give you the extra boost that you need to stay calm, even when others around you are not. In their book Buddha’s Brain, Rick Hanson and Richard Mendius talk of the importance of developing “equanimity” as a way of engaging the brain’s “circuit breaker” to avoid overreacting and stay calm when dealing with whatever situations arise—something for which we all can strive.
How are you using Brain Awareness Week to be a better parent or teacher? Are you doing anything to celebrate the brain this week? Please leave a comment and let us know.
Dr. James J. Crist is a psychologist specializing in children with ADHD, depression, and anxiety disorders. He is the Clinical Director and a Staff Psychologist at the Child and Family Counseling Center in Woodbridge, Virginia, where he provides psychological testing and individual, couples, and family psychotherapy for children, adolescents, and adults.
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Brain-Based Parenting by Daniel A. Hughes & Jonathan Baylin
Buddha’s Brain by Rick Hanson & Richard Mendius
Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman
I Would If I Could by Michael Gordon
You Mean I’m Not Lazy, Stupid, or Crazy? by Kate Kelly & Peggy Ramundo
ADHD in HD: Brains Gone Wild by Jonathan Chesner