You may wonder why your child is prone to anxiety. Why she so often resorts to tears, fears and avoidance behaviours. While there are many possible reasons for this, it is sometimes useful to consider the actual development of the brain and how this may contribute to becoming an anxious person.
A principle of brain development that was described by the neurologist John MacLean, demonstrates that the brain develops from the bottom to the top and from inside out. The more primitive systems, being the brainstem, pons and medulla, develop first. This makes sense because they are our survival systems, controlling unconscious functions like heartbeat, breathing and so on. The systems regulating our emotions (the limbic, thalamus, hypothalamus and so on) develop next. Finally, the cortical systems that act as an executive control centre including decision making, problem solving, attending, controlling impulses and more, complete development at about the age of 25 years. These are the ‘smart’ brain systems.
Brain scans and imaging have shown how the primitive brain systems take over higher systems in situations of danger or threat. This is due to the natural need to enhance our survival and explains why when faced with a threatening situation, we cannot think clearly or act rationally. Oxygen supply to higher brain systems is reduced so that more oxygen can be directed to muscles and other body parts required to protect ourselves by fighting or running away. When in imminent danger, we don’t need to stop to problem solve – we need to react instinctively to survive. This summarises the stress responses of fight or flight and is a useful mechanism when really needed.
The downside is that if the stress response is activated too much or too intensely at a very early age (within the first twelve months from birth), the development of neural pathways to the brain’s frontal systems becomes compromised.
The reasons for this are threefold. First, the primitive systems are activated very strongly and stronger wiring in the survival brain systems results in weaker wiring in the higher level ‘smarter’ brain systems. This results in the development of the ‘anxious brain’. Secondly, chemicals are produced that are linked to the primitive brain structures. These chemicals (adrenalin, cortisol and others) are geared towards enhancing primitive survival and inhibit chemicals such as serotonin, which is geared towards smart brain development. Thirdly, ongoing electrical activity (firing between neurons) in the primitive systems strengthen the neural connections so a viscous cycle results – with primitive brain areas being gradually more and more in control with less ability to use the higher level smart brain systems.
This is why a well developing brain needs a safe, enriched environment to develop. Secure, enriched environments downregulate the overactivation of primitive systems that result in an anxious brain developing. If the child’s environment is compromised, it constantly activates threat or risk of not surviving, leading to the protective behaviours that are seen in stress responses. It is simply devastating for healthy neural development. Remember too that it isn’t only an emotionally unsafe environment that can predispose a child to becoming anxious. Physically illnesses also convey a sense of dis-ease and insecurity so even in the most loving and attentive families, a child prone to illnesses may be at risk for developing an anxious brain.
In order to help, what is needed is a bottom-up approach. It doesn’t help to ‘talk’ a child out of being anxious. Remember that the higher brain systems aren’t functioning efficiently. You are not going to want to discuss philosophical matters while a snarling dog is rushing towards you. The child has to be helped to feel safe both physically (including health) and emotionally.
Some of the basic needs that should be met in order to promote development and wellness are:
- The need for control (having our survival needs met, such as being fed when hungry, comforted when distressed) and understanding the situation. The latter refers to a child needing help to appraise a situation and to understand why she feels as she does)
- The need for attachment (closeness of the primary caregiver; trust)
- The need for distress avoidance and pleasure maximization. (We are all motivated towards pleasant experiences and avoid unpleasant or painful ones. This includes physical, psychological, emotional or social states, which we automatically evaluate as either ‘good’ or ‘bad’.) A child needs more ‘good’ experiences than ‘bad’ in order to develop optimally.
- The need for self-esteem enhancement and self-esteem protection. A child needs to evaluate her or his worth as a person as valuable and worthy. Positive feedback from others and unconditional love are important to developing a healthy self-esteem.
Fortunately, we know that the brain is plastic and can be changed. Neural connections can be established or weakened so by contributing to the child’s sense of security, her brain can reorganize the neural networks and begin to shift the firing of primitive systems to those of the higher level systems.
Stress is a major factor in children with learning difficulties, which is why Integrated Learning Therapy (ILT) practitioners address signs of stress in our clients. For more information about ILT, visit our website www.ilt.co.za. We also list practitioners around the country and elsewhere if you are looking for help.
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Your child hasn’t been diagnosed with dyslexia, dyspraxia, specific learning difficulty, ADHD or any other condition, but is often unhappy, unmotivated and underachieving. This is possibly a child with hidden difficulties.
Such difficulties can cause frustration, leading to poor behaviour, erratic performance or emotional outbursts as outward signs of underlying and unidentified difficulties. They may well learn to tolerate school and their schools tolerate them but they are actually underachieving academically, have low self-esteem and may rebel against society or begin to accept themselves as losers or somehow less capable than others.
These are the children who fly under the radar and struggle with what may well be developmental immaturities. They don’t receive the help they need to overcome developmental delays but these are impacting on their higher level functional skills such as handwriting, maintaining concentration and postural control and a whole lot more.
When a child has obvious challenges, either physical, mental or emotional, their needs are usually recognised and attempts are made to support them. The trouble is that sometimes parents feel something about their child’s development is not as it should be but don’t get confirmation from doctors, teachers or other professionals. A mother may have a gut feeling that her little girl is just not doing as well as she should be, when compared to others of her age. She is reassured and told not to worry, because children develop at different ages and her daughter is probably just a little slower. I wrote previously about the importance of ‘following your gut’ and want to remind you of that in this post. When you acknowledge your instincts and act on them by seeking out information you might create early opportunities to prevent longer term problems.
Integrated Learning Therapy (ILT) works with many children with developmental immaturities. The underlying cause of children not coping with skills needed to succeed academically can begin very early on in the child’s development. Understanding some of the underlying factors makes it possible to ensure that their challenges are addressed. In this way, underachievement can be prevented.
As parents, we hope that our children will develop normally, even though we expect that there may be some small delays along the way that will resolve themselves over time. However, not all children will ‘grow out of’ developmental delays unless they get support.
As an example, consider Sam. His behaviour and academic performance depends on underlying and invisible interacting activities in his body and nervous system. He may be a wriggler, but rather than merely being naughty or ill-disciplined, he may have sensory systems that are making it physically uncomfortable to remain still and focused. Sitting still and paying attention can only happen if a child has adequate postural control and balance. Being able to do this is the result of bodily systems working together. The vestibular system (the system of balance) arouses the child’s brain so that he can focus; his proprioceptive system (which gives us information about where we are positioned in space) help to maintain an erect posture; his tactile system (sense of touch) allows him to selectively pay attention. If these systems are not functioning as they should, no matter how hard Sam tries, he won’t succeed in doing what his teacher asks of him. He will try to please but in doing so, all his attention will be focused on keeping himself still in his chair. He certainly won’t be attending to the lesson.
When learning difficulties continue to go unrecognized, children learn strategies to cope with or simply avoid aspects of school life that are too hard. Progress is so slow – they are simply unable to learn as efficiently as their above average intellectual potential should allow. So some work really hard just to keep up their position at the bottom of the class; some struggle every day with extra reading; others take work home regularly because they cannot finish it in class.
As a general rule, parents know their children better than anyone else. Their concerns are often accurate indicators of a child’s underlying developmental problems. To help confirm this, there are a number of early indicators of slow development that need to be noted:
- Attention: difficulties sustaining attention in class
- Sitting still: children who wriggle and squirm
- Receptive language: understanding what is said to them
- Expressive language: how they are able to communicate to others
- Pencil grip: how they hold their writing instruments and cutlery
- Visual skills: eye control and seeming difficulties with early reading games and activities
- Body awareness of themselves and in relation to others
- Understanding body language and being able to respond to others who express themselves through body language
- Coordination: throwing and catching balls, walking, skipping, climbing, running
- Immature behaviour: difficulties sharing, taking turns, controlling impulses
Look for support
Follow your gut feeling by becoming knowledgeable about what to expect at certain stages of child development, the possible causes of underachievement and where to go for support.
In the field of neurodevelopment ILT practitioners can be a useful resource as they deal with brain development and the underlying causes of learning difficulties at very low levels (meaning they look at very early development to trace back to areas of concern). Many of them also have backgrounds in occupational therapy, psychology or teaching, meaning that they can call on knowledge from various fields.
For more information and a list of practitioners around the country, visit the website www.ilt.co.za. Also lick on the video link to see and learn more about the ILT approach: https://youtu.be/OC_UIi26tNE
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 Goddard-Blythe, S. 2009. Attention, balance and coordination: The ABC of learning success. Wiley-Blackwell.
Your child’s teacher has asked for a meeting and possibly she shares information that confirms what you may or may not have noticed at home. This usually revolves around your child’s behaviour in school and terms such as ‘distractible’, ‘disruptive’, ‘inattentive’, ‘difficulty completing tasks’, ‘daydreaming’, ‘social problems’ and more will pepper the conversation. Often the suggestion is made that he or she be tested for ADHD. The reason is that this might provide a diagnosis of the problem, leading to the usual medications for the mental disorder. But what is this ‘ADHD test’? How does one test for this condition and what procedures are followed?
The truth is that there is no test for ADHD. There are no objective diagnostic criteria for ADHD – no physical symptoms and no neurological signs. Neither is there a blood test that can give markers for a possible ‘chemical imbalance in the brain’ or brain scan findings. In fact, there are no physical or psychological tests that can be done to verify that a child has ADHD.
What is used is mere observation of behaviours in a consulting room, contents of a questionnaire filled in by teachers and parents, and perhaps a report from a psychologist noting inattentive behaviour, poor sequential memory and restlessness during an intelligence test, tests of academic standing or personality test. None of the latter test results can be used to diagnose ADHD. In other words, it is only the presence of behavioural symptoms of ADHD that constitute the ‘test’. One of the most popular checklists used for diagnosis is called the Revised Conners Questionnaire.
The symptoms are listed in the publication used by psychiatrists for diagnostic purposes and known as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – 5th edition (DSM-5). If the child shows about 6 of the behaviours listed for either hyperactivity/impulsivity or inattentiveness and these have persisted for at least 6 months, the diagnosis of ADHD can be made. The Conner’s Questionnaire consists basically of a variation of the traits listed in the DSM-5.
Because it is common for children to behave well in a doctor’s office, many examining doctors don’t see the signs of ADHD during the brief consultation you are given. Instead, doctors prescribing the drugs used to treat ADHD may do so on the grounds of reports from teachers and parents. This is startling to consider because the doctor is supposed to then treat a presumed disease or disorder with brain-altering drugs without having seen any sign of it.
Get a second opinion
It isn’t extreme to suggest that parents seek out a second opinion regarding the reasons for a child’s behaviours and difficulties. While drugs might provide a welcome relief for all concerned, including an extremely hyperactive child, they are only treating the symptoms. The real, underlying reasons for the observed behaviours and the distressing symptoms suffered by the child may go unnoticed and untreated and continue to plague the child for years to come. Indeed, many continue into adulthood with stubborn challenges that impede the realization of their potential and happiness.
Many professionals are legitimately concerned that ADHD has become a ‘catch all’ diagnosis. Making it more difficult is the truth that there is no actual test to prove that the condition exists in a particular child. Because of this, one can’t be surprised that the quick fix has been to rely on medications such as Ritalin and other drugs to take care of the problem. While they may be helpful in the course of treatment of the real causes, drugs have become an overused starting place.
Professionals who take the time and trouble to explore all the possible underlying reasons for inappropriate and maladaptive behaviours usually cast their nets wide. Amongst other possible offenders giving rise to ‘ADHD look-alike’ behaviours are:
- Food and dietary issues, including allergies and intolerances
- Unhealthy digestive systems, affecting brain function
- Family dynamics, including parenting techniques
- Delays in brain development needing correction
- Irregular functioning of certain neurological systems needed to support behaviour and learning
- Neurological and physiological impairment due to pollutants or toxins
- Stress and other emotional factors
- Academic factors, including academic deficits or extremely high intelligence
Choices available to parents
Many parents are ready to accept that their child may have ADHD but are not willing to give them drugs. This is understandable and commendable but it doesn’t help to ignore the condition. These days, many strides are being made in the identification and treatment of those behaviours making life difficult for families.
Integrated Learning Therapy (ILT) practitioners offer an holistic evaluation of such children (and older individuals). Very often we do identify the real cause – and with the cooperation of the family, are able to offer substantial help through a home-based treatment plan. This means that there aren’t weekly (and expensive) visits to a therapist but the family manages the programme in their own homes at times convenient for them.
For more information about our services and a list of practitioners available around the country, visit the website www.ilt.co.za.
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Sometimes a child just doesn’t feel or act right. He may complain about feeling sick; he may misbehave in school, appear hyperactive or whine about being tired. Some children complain that they can’t concentrate in their classrooms; others seem to complain more at home. Parents may suspect medical or emotional factors underlying a child’s dis-ease. But there is another avenue to explore: these children may be suffering from an environmental illness.
Environmental illness (EnI – not to be confused with Emotional Intelligence) is a name for a variety of medical and/or neurological problems that can affect almost any area of the body. In addition to typical allergy symptoms such as asthma, hay fever and itchy skin, EnI sufferers most often have some combination of health problems such as headaches, extreme fatigue, hyperactivity, pain in muscles, legs or joints, persistent bowel (digestive) problems, bad breath, constant stuffy nose, irritating twitches, wiggling legs and/or a wide range of neurological problems ranging from ‘brain fog’ to depression.
There are many factors in schools and homes that can contribute to EnI. We tend to be familiar with the dangers of asbestos and lead but less aware of the potential impact of poor air quality due to dust, moulds or chemical pollution in and around a building. Chemical pollution results, amongst other things, from pesticides, car exhausts, paint, new carpets, cleaning products, disinfectants and even perfume. Other factors include foods and beverages as well as seasonal pollen. Any of these factors, whether alone or in combination, can unquestionably trigger serious health, behaviour and academic problems
Who is most likely to be affected?
Most of us spend time in offices, homes or other indoor environments and are exposed to air-borne pollutants both inside and outside the buildings. We seem to cope and are healthy so are concerns about EnI valid or scaremongering? In response to such criticism, we could look at the statistics and wonder why so many children suffer from allergies and asthma; why so many are found to lack the ability to concentrate and learn efficiently at school; why so many are compelled to take supplements and medications to help them.
The number of children is growing and those who show the signs of EnI are most often those with known allergies or allergic relatives. They typically suffer from hay fever, eczema or hives and may fall ill easily because their immune systems are not able to cope with offending substances.
- A history of health problems, sometimes dating back to infancy
- Sudden inexplicable changes in how they feel, look, act, write or draw
- Erratic school performance; sometimes able to learn and remember and at other times find it very difficult
What to do if you suspect EnI?
Children with EnI problems can be helped to overcome them. Sometimes huge improvements can happen at any age, in a few hours or days. What needs to be done is to get help in identifying the culprit. For this, it is highly recommended that you consult a Functional (or Integrative) Medical practitioner. They will spend considerable time with you to try to establish whether EnI is present in your child and, if so, what to do about it.
Typical ways to address problem areas are:
- Making a few simple changes in school, home or work area
- Avoiding obvious adverse chemical exposures
- Following an allergy diet
- Improving nutrition
- Treating yeast overgrowths and other digestive tract issues
The good news is that children tend to bounce back fairly quickly when their chemically sensitized bodies are helped to avoid offending substances. Their immune systems are more resilient than adults so they respond faster to appropriate therapies.
If you are truly concerned by your child’s actions and suspect that his or her health is not what it should be, yet your GP finds nothing significant to explain it, you may be rewarded by thinking a little ‘out of the box.’
Integrated Learning Therapy (ILT) addresses learning and behavioural concerns by looking for all possible underlying causes of a child’s challenges. Visit our website to find out more about our approach. www.ilt.co.za.
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 Rapp, D.J. MD. Is this your child’s world? 1996. New York: Bantam Books.
Leanne Gray, of The Prepared Environment, shared some ideas about children’s focusing on her blog and I appreciated them so much that I’m hopefully disseminating them further!
Focused attention is necessary in the classroom and in the home. We all know how annoying it is when we trying to speak to someone and their attention is clearly wandering. Even more important, teachers despair when children struggle to maintain focus on a topic or a task. So what should you be doing to help them learn to focus?
First of all, we know how difficult it is to return to something that we were doing after we’ve been interrupted. For example, the phone rings and we have to break concentration to attend to the call; or our child rushes in with news that distracts us from a task. Keeping this in mind, how often do we interrupt our young children when they are attending to something and in the process, teach them to be easily distracted? For example, a young child is trying to master tying their shoelaces. Do you become impatient and offer to help too soon?
We interrupt by asking questions, commenting, offering praise or encouragement – even smiling. Try to be more patient. Realise that very young babies can focus on something for a very long time. Their brains take much longer to process than ours and children as young as 3 years old can spend up to 20 minutes focusing on an activity. If this happens with your child, don’t interrupt with anything. Wait until she is clearly finished, then perhaps offer an encouraging remark.
If he is playing with jumbo crayons, let him play. Don’t interrupt by telling him the crayon’s colour is blue and getting him to say ‘blue’ after you. Don’t take away the box she is trying to open and do it for her. Don’t help her butter the slice of bread she wants to eat.
In other words, don’t interrupt children when they are focusing on something. It’s very easy to interrupt a child and you might find it takes some practice to stand back and let them persevere by themselves. See their endeavours and play as opportunities to practice the ability to sustain attention on a task – without being distracted.
Speaking of distractions, try to create an area in your home where your child can be focused without too much in the environment that may draw attention away. Don’t allow them free access to a multitude of toys – let them choose one or two toys at a time and focus on those. Don’t always have the TV or radio on where the child is playing but keep the area quiet and inviting.
Be careful of allowing too much screen time and electronic ‘toys’. Remember that it has been recommended that children under the age of 2 years should have no screen time at all and until aged 5, only up to one hour of quality, parent-chaperoned use.
Then be cautious too about the plethora of modern toys available that interfere with the ability to focus. Media-type toys, or active, fast-paced ‘learning’ toys can have attention-robbing qualities. No children should engage in play with toys that result in a trance-like state. No learning happens in these situations but they may be negatively affecting children’s developing minds and fracturing their ability to focus and pay attention.
The kinds of toys children benefit most by are concrete objects, real experiences and social interaction. Magda Gerber (http://www.magdagerber.org) wisely said: ‘The best toys for babies don’t do anything.’ Just like the old adage about how children typically throw the toy away and play with the box in which it was packaged!
So the bottom line is to refrain from keeping your child happy and amused and solving all her problems. She needs to practice on her own, make mistakes, and go through difficulties.
The Prepared Environment can help you know when and how to offer help to your children. Read more about how to do that at the following sites:
0-3 years (https://www.thepreparedenvironment-com/blog/8-steps -to-help-infants-and-toddlers-do-it-myself
3-6 years (https://thepreparedenvironment-com/blog/four-steps-to-offer-as-little-help-as-possible-primary
6-9 years (https://thepreparedenvironment-com/blog/how-to-offer-your-elementary-children-as-little-help-as-they-really-need
Integrated Learning Therapy is focused on helping children fulfil their potential. If you enjoyed this post, please visit our website at www.ilt.co.za and Like and Share our Facebook posts.
We also offer courses for parents to understand the root causes of learning difficulties and challenging behaviours. For more information, email us at email@example.com.
Is bread really the staff of life for all people? The answer is almost certainly that it might have been once but in our modern times, the preservatives that are used to keep it fresh for longer might be underlying the difficult behaviours associated with ADHD.
These days there is a lot written about how diet affects learning and behaviour. Some families try to avoid certain foods – sugar and highly coloured foods are examples. But if you have a child who is struggling with really challenging mood swings, fatigue, defiant attitudes, eczema, asthma, poor progress at school, perhaps you need to look more closely at bread.
One of the major preservatives in bread is Proprionate. If you take this post seriously and read the labels on the breads your family eats daily, you’ll see that it is added to virtually all commercially available bread and rolls. The official name is Calcium Proprionate and it is a mould inhibitor, also found in various cheeses. The food scientists claim that it is harmless and they base this opinion on the fact that it occurs naturally in the human body. That may be so, but there is limited evidence as to how much is tolerated by our body and how high doses may affect the body.
Many South African families rely on bread for meals and snacks throughout the day. Breakfast, school lunches and afternoon snacks are often based on bread. It is an easy, relatively cheap and quick hunger satisfier. But this high intake of bread is accompanied by a high intake of proprionate.
One person who realised the link between proprionate and a myriad of mental and health problems is Sue Dengate. She is an Australian researcher and writer who spent years trying to understand the underlying reasons for her own children’s extreme behaviour and learning challenges. Her efforts have resulted in her founding the FAILSAFE eating approach which is widely followed in Australia and elsewhere. Her website is a font of knowledge about how intolerances to food and food additives – including proprionate – affect both brain and body.
For example, she mentions how some breastfed babies stopped their constant screaming when their mothers switched to preservative-free bread; how children were able to first reduce and then stop their ADHD medication after giving up preserved bread, even how high-functioning adults suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome regained their energy after excluding certain breads.
Bread preservative may not be the only additive causing problems but this post focuses on it because it is probably the additive eaten most often by people who think they are eating a healthy diet. So many of us can cope with preservatives, colourants and flavourants but that isn’t an argument for closing our minds to the possibility that the challenging ADHD-type behaviours that we struggle with daily might be caused by or at least worsened by modern foods. The children that we’re focusing on are more vulnerable to many of the potential offenders found in our environment, including foods. The fact that other children are not affected by these things is not an excuse to ignore the possibility that one or many more potential offenders are affecting the brain, immune system and other bodily systems in an ‘ADHD’ child.
So what bread can be eaten? I don’t have a list of breads free of Calcium Proprionate but recently found a brand at Pick ‘n Pay that was free of it. Otherwise, ciabatta is a bread that is proprionate free. The reason is that the preservative would kill the micro-organisms that produce the gas that form the holes in the bread. Artisanal breads available at the increasingly popular farmer’s markets may also be free of preservatives but you would be wise to check on this before buying. Investing in a bread making machine would be another option.
For more information about Sue Dengate’s amazing work, and full instructions as to how to follow her FAILSAFE diet, visit her website at www.fedup.com.au.
Integrated Learning Therapy (ILT) tries hard to ensure that every possible avenue is explored when unravelling the causes of learning difficulties and puzzling behaviours. You might be interested in learning more by taking our Parent’s course, which aims to share with parents many of the reasons why your child is not thriving in and out of school. Find out more about this correspondence course by writing to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We are pleased to offer the course at a special parent’s discount for the months of July and August.
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