7 Critical Mistakes Parents Make
These are the 7 Key Mistakes adults commonly make when trying to help a child with learning impairments, ADHD, low self-esteem, and other conditions that affect learning, performance, and self-esteem:
1. Failing to understand the neurological (brain) basis of the problem. This includes the relationships between emotional and behavioral symptoms and the way the brain works. If you don’t understand that the child or teenager is grappling with a problem that originates in the brain, then you run the risk of commanding a child to change behaviors and experiences that he or she is simply unable to do. This can result in the child taking failure and criticism personally and reacting with social and emotional withdrawal, hostility, anxiety, and depression.
2. Overuse of punishment to motivate change and success. Research conclusively demonstrates that punishment is effective if one wishes to get another person to stop a behavior, but it is not effective in getting the person to do more of another behavior. So, punishing a child for "not doing his homework," does not translate into more homework getting done. What punishment usually results in is a greater effort toward avoiding being caught, thereby avoiding punishment. In addition, Add/Adhd, LD, vision and socially impaired children make mistakes so frequently that they eventually become immune to punishment, e.g. a parent who takes away possessions after poor grades eventually find the child then stops getting upset about being punished. Positive reinforcement of clearly communicated, objective and achievable goals results in an increase of desired behaviors.
3. Failing to understand the negative messages children hear when their intelligence is consistently praised instead of their resiliency. Being told you are smart becomes a trap for a child with learning difficulties. After hearing it enough times, the child comes to believe that either a) adults are telling the truth in which case the child is now guilty of failing to use his gifts and can become frustrated that he cannot use them when he wants to or b) that adults are lying and the client is really "dumb." Praising resilience teaches children and teens that success comes from persevering through difficulty. It can also inoculate children against stress and convey the message that success is the result of a behavior the child can choose.
4. Failing to screen for sensory processing problems (visual and auditory) that amplify learning difficulties. Sensory problems can produce symptoms that look just like those produced by ADD/ADHD. i.e., both conditions can produce poor attention and concentration, failure to stay on task and failure to complete assignments. On the flip side, identified, treated, and accommodated sensory difficulties de-stigmatize academic and emotional struggles and can lead to improved performance and raised self-esteem.
5. Being ignorant of the cardinal rule of intelligence: Just because you are smart does not mean that you know how to successfully do everything. One very bright client of mine appeared to be "lazy" because he wouldn’t take the initiative to do simple things like ordering a pizza despite the fact that he was smart enough to teach U.S. History 101 to college students when he was only 15 years old. Once people took the time to explain to him how to do a normally simple task like ordering carry-out, he ceased to act "lazy" and responded with pride at his ability to do something he had never done before on his own. People incorrectly tend to assume that because an individual can do advanced things or understand advanced concepts he or she automatically knows how to effectively read, write, study, and deal with life's mundane practicalities. This is a common experience for intellectually "gifted children" and their families.
6. Believing that a person with ADHD or LD, anxiety or depression can simply will their symptoms away. Children with ADD/ADHD and other learning and performance issues suffer from brain-based difficulties that do not simply disappear because the child wishes them to. ADHD people, for example, frequently do much better when they work hard, and parents often see them work hard right before a deadline. A false assumption then is that the impending due date has made the child start to "care more" and thus "work harder to do better." The reality is that crises like a late rush to meet a deadline activate the brain in a way that compensates for some of the under-arousal the ADD/ADHD brain normally demonstrates (e.g. increased neuro self-stimulation, increased release of dopamine and increase production of the Basal Ganglia). Other forms of unconscious compensation are the use of sugar and caffeine to stimulate the brain's ability to focus and organize. Looked at this way, one can see that the child's brain is reacting to the threat in a way that makes school or other work more doable. The main problem is that the late rush seldom produces top quality work. Another problem is that the human brain is not designed to perform under stress for long periods, and the last-minute rush seldom proves to be a viable strategy for school, college or work success. Likewise, emotional problems such as depression and anxiety cannot be wished away. They must be treated with a program that helps the person develop new skills, insight, and self-esteem.
7. Misinterpreting a child's apparent disinterest in trying or failing as a lack of interest in or motivation to succeed. I cannot tell you the number of parents who have contacted me to ask for help with a child who appears to have lost all motivation to succeed and has simply "given up." This is an alarming experience for most parents because it arouses in the parent the same feelings of powerlessness, frustration, and fear the child or teenager is experiencing. I view the apparent surrender as a form of self-protection. Think about it: If you went to school or work and struggled, failed, and fell behind every day, wouldn't you feel pain? What looks like "not caring" to the parent can actually be the child's attempt to protect his or her fragile self-esteem. A way of saying "I can’t seem to control if I succeed, but I can control my reaction to failure. I don’t have to agonize about every setback." Parents can get closer to their children when they accept and acknowledge that the child or teenager is doing his or her best to cope with a repetitive, negative experience. Accusing a child of not caring when he or she is really just being self-protective can make the child feel misunderstood, and worsen the situation.
I provided these 7 critical errors and how to correct them because I believe that increased, positive understanding leads to true success. One of the first ways a parent can improve his or her effectiveness is to remove self-defeating behaviors, however, it is hard for parents to give up "doing something" if they do not have some encouraging options. I seek to provide such options to my clients, their parents and other helping professionals (e.g. teachers, administrators).