Raising a child with ADHD can be like living in a fun house…you never know what is around the corner. There are thrills, there are laughs, there are screams. Things are not as they appear and it is scary, wonderful, and exasperating all within 5 minutes. Without strategies for juggling all the changes and challenges, parenting a child with ADHD can feel overwhelming to say the least. For me, finding mindfulness for myself and my children gave us the tools to weather the challenging times with more compassion, patience and resiliency, while also allowing us the awareness to be able to enjoy the great times. I mean, my kid is hilarious and amazingly empathetic and I need to be in the right frame of mind to be able to really connect with and enjoy her.
Currently, there are numerous studies being done showing improvements for those with ADHD in many areas, when they are trained in mindfulness. A study out of UCLA found a marked decrease in hyperactivity and increase in executive functioning. A study by Lydia Zylowska (UCLA) showed 78% of participants noticed a reduction of overall ADHD symptoms when they regularly used mindfulness practices, even practice sessions as short as five minutes. Nirbhay N. Singh, a professor of psychiatry at Virginia Commonwealth University and Director of the Commonwealth Institute for Child and Family Studies, Richmond, Va., and his colleagues performed a study where both mothers of children with ADHD and their children were given training in mindfulness. They found that compliance increased as did positive interactions and happiness in both mothers and their children. Many more studies show the same thing – a mindfulness practice supports children with ADHD and their families in more productive and positive experiences and interactions.
When we first started a mindful practice as a family, we had one very specific goal and that was to be able to make a transition (any transition) without screaming and crying (by her or us)! From this one simple goal, our practice grew and changed to meet the very evolving needs of our growing child. We have tackled bedtime, mornings, meal time, classroom work, homework, and sibling interactions to name a few. One thing that has remained constant is a mindful practice as the anchor that we come back to over and over again.
Practicing mindfulness has many benefits for a child with ADHD and is a practice that the child can use through his or her life as different challenges present themselves.
It is an exciting time to be a brain researcher! Studies have shown that the amygdala, the emotional center of the brain, shrinks and is less active in someone who has a regular mindful practice. Children with ADHD often have great difficulty regulating their emotions and have emotional changes that are fast and furious. Mindfulness gives them the ability to have more awareness and better control over their feelings and responses. As a parent, mindfulness gives us the ability to recognize our own emotional triggers (such as half the contents of the refrigerator on the counter after she “made” breakfast), so we are able to take the time to respond to what we are feeling in a productive manner, rather than a knee-jerk, often fly-off-the-handle, reaction.
Attention and Focus
Trying to keep the attention or focus of a child with ADHD is about as easy as herding cats. Practicing mindfulness supports a child with ADHD in bringing focus back to the present and “being in charge” of the attention. Mindfulness teaches us how to pay attention. Over time, the child is able to notice when attention has wandered and can bring it back. A child with ADHD has many thoughts and feelings that can change rapidly. With mindfulness, we are able to focus our attention more on these ideas and emotions, and are thus better able to help our child navigate through everything going on in his or her mind and body.
FMRI studies have shown that a regular mindfulness practice increases the grey matter in the prefrontal cortex. In fact, a recent study out of Harvard University showed an increase in grey matter after only 8 weeks of participation in a mindfulness program. The prefrontal cortex is the area of the brain responsible for executive functioning, which includes planning, critical thinking, problem solving and impulse control. All of these tend to be very difficult for children with ADHD. When children have a mindful practice, they are able to take a pause and respond to a situation rather than react. When they can choose a response, they have better control over their actions and have the mental time to plan and problem solve rather than react impulsively.
Self-Esteem and Confidence
Children with ADHD often struggle with self-confidence. They are often given negative feedback at school, in sports, and at home about things that are simply very hard for them to control. These negative loops can cause children to have low self-esteem and feel different than their siblings or peers. According to CHAAD, the National Resource on ADHD, 10-30 percent of children with ADHD also have a serious mood disorder, such as depression or anxiety. Dr. Amy Saltzman, a holistic physician and mindfulness coach, conducted a study with 4th through 6th graders. After 8 weeks of mindfulness, the students reported a marked decrease in anxiety. Mindfulness researcher Kristen Neff has found that mindful self-compassion helps to decrease depression, lessen self-judgement and improve emotional well-being. Children are able to learn that thoughts are just thoughts and have no real power. They are able to acknowledge their emotions and feelings without over-identifying with them. Doing this supports children in being able to address the feelings of depression, anxiety or sadness and move on. Mindfulness also supports us as parents in cultivating self-compassion. It is not always easy. We are not perfect and will lose our patience, say something we didn’t mean, or react to our child in a way we wish we hadn’t. Practicing loving-kindness in these moments helps us treat ourselves with compassion and reconnect with our child in a more positive manner.
Mindfulness is not a silver bullet for ADHD. It will not alleviate all the challenges. What mindfulness will do is give you and your child tools and experiences that help emphasize the positives and more skillfully address the challenges. It will make the fun house of ADHD a little less unpredictable and a lot more enjoyable!