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June 2000
HOW TO HELP MORE DIFFICULT CHILDREN
By Dorothea McArthur, Ph.D.

I recently attended a continuing education seminar by Robert Brooks from Harvard that was entitled, Children with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder or Learning Difficulties: Strategies for Building Motivation, Self Esteem, Hope and Resilience. Dr. Brooks spoke of his personal journey through 30 years of work with these children. He has a son, now 32, with learning difficulties. He feels that he almost lost his relationship with his son because he would come in the door every night and the first words out of his mouth were "Have you done your homework?" For four years, this child did no homework. Now his son is designing and maintaining Dr. Brooks' website www.drrobertbrooks.com. Dr Brooks made the following points in his seminar: It is an obvious fact but we often forget that children are born different. Within three months after birth, they fit into one of three categories.

  1. The Easy Child: These children act in ways that say, "I am going to make you look like a great parent." They are truly easy children to raise. The parents of these kids have a lot of good advice for the parents of the other two kinds of kids.
  2. The Slow to Warm Up Child: These children are born shy, but with support become more outgoing by the age of 12.
  3. The Difficult Child: These children feel that life is not fair. They see the world as not providing adequately for them. Some of them have Learning Difficulties and/or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. They tend to be insatiable, wanting to "suck you dry" leaving you feeling like an inadequate parent. They may to be hypersensitive to touch and to noise. They often experience you as yelling when you are not. A towel can feel like sandpaper to them. They lack organization and consistency in their behavior.
Brooks advised us, "Never judge a parent unless you have walked in their shoes." There are terrific parents out there not evident from their kids' behaviors. The following are a few of many points that he made about working with these more difficult children. Few people understand just how worried these children are about being loved and being successful when they grow up. They don't feel intelligent. Their self-esteem is extremely low. They don't like compliments because they don't believe in them. They often believe the praise is false. Many of these kids have lost hope. They say, "What is the use." The feelings of loneliness are very profound, especially when they have finished their formal education.

We cannot expect these children to change unless we are willing to change the way we treat them. It does not help to punish, reject, isolate, or take away the activities in which they are interested and do well. These kids have three basic needs:

  1. The need to belong, to feel connected, to feel welcome
  2. The need for self determination
  3. The need to feel competent
Never say, "Try harder." or " If you did another hour of homework, life would be all right." Difficult kids hear this all the time from parents and teachers. There is no test for trying harder. We don't know what it is like to walk in their shoes. We do not know if they are not trying as hard as they can. Instead say, "I think that you are really trying."

Don't get into an argument with these children, they will always find a loophole. Validate them instead. Do not try to discuss something while your kid is arguing with you. Try not to say what you don't want said to you. If you get frustrated, you can take a "time out" instead of the child. In your darkest moments, try to keep your sense of humor. Empathy is a key concept in working well with these children. It is "the capacity to put yourself inside of someone's shoes and see the world through their eyes." It is not sympathy or feeling sorry for them. Therefore it is important to ask these kids just how they see you at the moment. Have them draw, write, or give you a description so you can see your relationship with them through their eyes. Empathy means saying, "I know that what you are trying to do is not easy. It is not easy for a lot of kids. Maybe we can figure out a way to handle this together. It gets easier over time.

If you wish to tell a child something, preface it with: "I have something to say to you. If you feel criticized, will you please tell me?" When they tell you something say, "Thank you so much for letting me know." When interacting with these kids, ask yourself, how can I say this so that we both problem solve? Is what I am going to develop hope in this child? Being fair is not treating these kids the same way as other kids. Being fair is giving them what they need.

Children love to help and to make a difference, and come up with a solution. Give these kids choices. "You can choose to do three out of six problems." However, it is always wise to have a backup plan that will aid in being successful. These kids have some excellent ideas. When they come up with a good idea, tell them, "That was a great idea! Can I share it with others?"

1500 difficult kids reported their most positive memories of school. They involved being noticed or recognized or being asked to help out. The most negative memories involved public humiliation for not understanding. Our schools need to provide a curriculum for caring in addition to academics. These children have learned not to have a good day because it will be held against them for the rest of their lives. People might say, "You were able to do it last week, why can't you do it now?" Instead focus on what they were able to do to make it a good day. Many difficult kids are doing well in other areas of their lives. Be sure to help your child build on these strengths so that they can feel competent. Focus on their skills. Therefore, speak of your child as not a "LD child" but a "child with LD."

The most important key to success is to have "one person who stood by this child and believed in him/her " or a charismatic person from whom this child gathers strength. Try consciously to minimize the fear of making mistakes, by letting these children know that mistakes are a normal and necessary part of learning. Adults make them too. Engage your entire family in a community service project that your difficult child can handle well.

In study done by Raskind, M; Goldberg, R; Higgins, E; and Herman, K entitled Children with Learning Disability Grow Up: Results of a Twenty Year Longitudinal Study, the researchers found that the following "Success Attributes" alone determined whether these students did well in adult life. These attributes were:

  • Self Awareness and acceptance of LD
  • General Self awareness of all strengths and weaknesses apart from LD
  • Pro activity
  • Perseverance
  • Emotional stability
  • Appropriate goal setting and self-directedness
  • Presence and use of an effective support system.
The participants in this study said that they had been profoundly affected by their LD diagnosis. Many said that they lived in fear of their LD every day. They felt beat up by the constant tutoring and remediation. The recommendations in this article are related to achieving these "success attributes." They are healthy recommendations for raising all children, but are essential for the more difficult child. Dr. Brooks likes to collect stories from LD and ADHD children. He answers every letter or e-mail and he uses some of these stories in his lectures. Dr. Brooks also has a list of excellent books on this subject.

Dr. McArthur is a psychotherapist in practice in Los Angeles. She is the President of the Independent Psychotherapy Network.

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