Q: My almost 8-year-old son has always been excitable. He wears his emotions on his sleeve and often has trouble calming down. He had a great teacher last year, but this school year with a first-year teacher has been more challenging. He was doing okay, but it gets worse as the school year winds down and they are doing more fun, less-structured activities. I can help him at home, but it seems like his excitability and inability to manage his emotions are getting worse as he gets older. For instance, he's all over the place at baseball practice and games. The other boys are waiting their turn and he's jumping up and down, cheering and telling everyone what to do. When something goes wrong, his excitement turns into disappointment. Any tips or books to read to help him manage?
A: You are not the only parent whose child struggles mightily with the end of the year. The parties, functions and breaks in routines can make even the calmest child feel out of sync.
There are some tips and books that may be able to help you support him that I will provide, but first, we need to look at some of the red flags in your letter.
Here’s the deal with impulsive behavior in children: It is normal and too easily diagnosed as a “problem” in young children. The very essence, the hallmark, of young children, is impulsivity. Their brains are truly in the moment, and the younger the child, the more impulsive he is. Because maturity is not linear or smooth, children dip in and out of mature thinking as they grow. It isn’t like one day they are immature and then the next day, they are mature. But with a loving, consistent and boundaried environment, children make it to maturity.
It’s just a thornier path for some children.
When a child is sensitive (wears emotions on his sleeve) and impulsive (often has trouble calming himself down), you may see more explosions about seemingly innocuous issues, an inability to follow directions, an inability to sit still and focus or keep to himself, easily hurt feelings (feeling excluded, feeling like others are being mean), and tremendous guilt, sorrow and self-directed anger at his inability to control himself.
It is hard being a sensitive and impulsive child, especially in our culture where younger children need to sit longer and are expected to “listen” for developmentally inappropriate lengths of time.
To make this more difficult, children his age are rapidly growing and maturing. Around this age (7 years old) is when you typically see a child begin to hold on to emotions. The brain begins to regulate big emotions and hold on to reason in a more consistent, measured fashion.
Here’s what is tricky: Maturity is not always related to age. When the mind and body are sensitive and impulsive, it takes the brain longer to grow up. The brain has more sensory data it must sort through; hence it must slow down a bit. Think of it like this: You are driving to a destination that you have never seen and you are singing along with the radio. Suddenly, you realize you are getting close and need to pay attention to the directions. The first thing you do is turn down the radio. Why? Your ability to focus on the directions is the greater need and the music is distracting. For many children, they cannot turn down the music. Life itself is distracting and they cannot switch it off. The child needs to cope with the overwhelmed feeling, compromising maturity.
Every human has his or her own path toward maturity and your son will get there. In the meantime, try to find the source of his sensitivity and impulsivity. Children who struggle with regulation issues are more susceptible to depression, anxiety, substance abuse and suicide. Yes, that is a terrifying list. But you already are a parent who is involved, who cares and is trying to do what’s best, so I am confident your family can navigate this.
Here’s the plan:
1. Get through the end of the year with as little upset and drama as you can. Again, the end of the year is mayhem for all.
2. Use the summer to meet with your pediatrician and begin some testing. You can go through your (public) school for testing or you can do it privately.
3. Please use a wide lens when looking at testing. ADHD is the go-to diagnosis for many children with behaviors like your son’s, but there are potentially many explanations. Do not be afraid to advocate and dig further; this is important because if medication becomes an option, you want to be as sure as you can that the medication is actually reaching the part of the brain that needs support.
4. Bring the school administration, teachers, counselors and special-education department in on your pursuit. The school wants to be a partner in your son’s education; do not keep them in the dark.
5. Know this exploration is not a way to change your son; instead this is what parents and caretakers do to support the child we have in front of us. If your son needed glasses, you would do whatever was needed to make sure he had the right prescription, as well as make sure he sat close to the front in class. His eyes are not defective; they need support.
6. Look into these books and share them with the school: “Smart but Scattered” by Peg Dawson, any book by Edward Hallowell, particularly “Driven to Distraction.” “The Highly Sensitive Child” by Elaine N. Aron and any book by Michael Thompson. I also recommend any book by Tina Bryson and Dan Siegel , such as “The Whole-Brain Child,” to better understand a child’s brain and how it regulates itself (or not).
Stay positive, stay loving, stay boundaried, and good luck.