Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Healthy Habits: ADHD Interview with Dr. Thomas Armstrong

Did you know that up to 70% of parents take their kids off medication during summer break?[i] Approximate when 6.4 million kids[ii] diagnosed with ADHD will be returning to school and their drug cocktails this fall. In order to be diagnosed as ADHD, symptoms should be observed in multiple settings (i.e. school and home), and this disorder may be over-diagnosed. 

In this newly revised edition THE MYTH OF THE ADHD CHILD: 101 Ways to Improve Your Child’s Behavior and Attention Span without Drugs, Labels, or Coercion, psychologist and learning specialist Dr. Thomas Armstrong looks at the effects of medication and the industry that has made it so common, with about two-thirds of the book dedicated to non-medical strategies to help kids with ADHD. I had a chance to interview him to learn more.

  Q & A for Motherhood Moment Blog

  • What are some of the dangers of over-medicating children?

There are certain side effects or risks associated with ADHD-drug use.  First, there are the minor side effects such as sleep problems, decreased appetite, headaches, stomach aches, and/or irritability.  These can often be controlled through physician supervised changes in dosage.  Second, there are more serious side effects such as nervous tics (e.g. facial contractions), moodiness, or ‘’spacey’’ or ‘’zombie’’-like behavior, which might require a change in medication.  Finally, there are reports of much rarer side effects that include bone problems, cardiovascular events, psychosis, and even unexplained sudden death.  The fact that there are these sort of risks connected with taking ADHD drugs means that parents ought to look into non-drug interventions first before considering medicating their kids..

  • What are some strategies for kids who exhibit some signs of ADHD besides medication?

My book The Myth of the ADHD Child,  describes 101 non-drug strategies that parents can implement with their ADHD-diagnosed kids.  Of course, I don’t expect parents to try all 101 strategies!  I’ve included a questionnaire in the book to help parents decide which strategies might be best suited to their unique child.  Here are a few of the interventions that I discuss:

  • Diet – new research is showing that a junk food or fast food diet is associated with ADHD behaviors while a Mediterranean diet (whole grains and legumes, lots of fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, fish high in Omega 3 oils such as salmon, trout and tuna, lean meats, and extra virgin olive oil) can help ameliorate those problems.

  • Exercise – this strategy is obviously a good one for promoting good physical health, but it’s also been seen to be an excellent way to improve the behavior and attention span of kids diagnosed with ADHD.  The exercise should be moderate-to-vigorous and involve continuous motion (such as with running, swimming, playing soccer, or bicycling).

  • Creative Arts – kids with hyperactivity, distractibility, and/or impulsivity have all this energy but often no really good place to channel it.  By involving your child in music, painting, drawing, collage, drama, dance, or other creative outlets, you’ll be feeding the novelty that kids diagnosed with ADHD need a higher dose of, and giving them a way of constructively using their super-charged energy.

  • Limit Entertainment Media – I believe one of the reasons for the epidemic of kids diagnosed with ADHD is the fact that they are spending too much time texting, surfing the Internet, playing video games, and engaging with social media.  Research is showing that too much of this is associated with ADHD-related behavior, so limit entertainment media (educational media is fine) and eliminate as much as possible exposure to violent media.

  • Nature – there’s good research out there saying that the more time kids spend in nature, the less they engage in ADHD-related behaviors, and the wilder the environment (e.g. hiking in the woods), the more the symptoms decrease.  So, encourage your child to play in the park, take walks, volunteer for ecology-related activities, and as a family, take vacations in National Parks, on lakes, and/or in other natural settings.

  • How can parents know when medical intervention is appropriate?

Parents should always consult with their doctor before initiating medication use for their kids, changing dosages, or terminating the use of drugs (some ADHD drugs have withdrawal effects that should be supervised by a physician)  But if a number of non-drug interventions such as those suggested above have been tried and the child still seems to be spiralling downwards in terms of his behavior at home and school, then the prescribing of medication by your physician may be warranted.  It’s especially important that the physician regularly monitor the drug(s) over time to help alleviate potential side effects, which may warrant dosage changes or the use of another drug that works better for your child. 

  • How can teachers maintain appropriate expectations of students, allowing for diverse personalities in the classroom?

Some recent studies have shown that when kids diagnosed with ADHD are engaged in active learning (e.g. sharing ideas, writing, reciting, building), their behavior becomes indistinguishable from typically developing children.  Kids identified as ADHD have a need for more stimulation than the average child, so a stimulating curriculum (which is good for all children) is the best sort of classroom for them.  Of course, there are always times when it’s going to be boring (e.g. test-taking time, reading, listening to lectures), but research suggests that it’s okay for these kids to fidget (it helps them focus), and some teachers have given them squeeze balls to keep their hands busy, and even ‘’wiggle furniture’’ like a stability ball to sit on while they work. I think that if the teacher provides a lot of variety in the way she teaches in the classroom (including hands-on learning, music, visual media, time in nature, social interactions, drama etc.), the more she’ll be attending to the diverse personalities in the classroom, including kids diagnosed with ADHD. 

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