Category Archives: Anxiety

The hell of homework – just add ADHD

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Most days, I don’t think about the fact that M has ADHD. It’s just part of him, like his hair colour. He takes medication to help him focus and reduce his anxiety. Over the years, I’ve developed strategies to minimize his triggers and help him learn to cope; at this point, they’re so internalized, I don’t consciously think that reminding him to take his keys in the morning or giving him a head’s up before he has to get off the computer or the TV is related to his ADHD. Yes, he’s messy and has a trouble organizing himself to do household tasks, like clean up his room. But he’s a 12-year old boy. I have brothers, so I know full well that this is pretty typical of this age group.

Recently, M was having some significant challenges completing his school work. His home room teacher advised me that M hadn’t turned in several assignments. It was the end of term, and M needed to submit these assignments, so his teacher could mark them. It sounded simple – M would spend a couple of nights at home and get caught up.

It was, however, anything but. Just getting M to the table to start working was a battle of near-epic proportions. One night, his dad spent 20 minutes getting him to stop standing on his head in a chair and sit down and finish a geometry work sheet. M insisted it was “too hard,” and claimed he didn’t understand the concepts. Once his butt was actually in a chair and he focused on the questions, he knew most of the answers and finished them in about 15 minutes.

Next up was a geography project and finishing up some french vocabulary. I assumed that we could build off the success of the night before and get both of them done without too much of a struggle. Wrong. Once again, M declared it was “too hard for him” and refused to work on his geography project. He refused all offers of parental assistance and, with great drama and a few tears, enumerated all the reasons he couldn’t do the project. This was met with insistence from both parents as to why he should and could do the assignment. Matt insisted he didn’t care if he failed or not. Tempers flared and there was much strum and drang. Everyone was exhausted by the time they went to bed.

It wasn’t until a couple of days later that I realized what was going on  – this kid has ADHD. It makes it much more difficult for him to organize himself. It was less about not wanting to do an assignment or a project (although there’s certainly an element of this too); he isn’t able to look at an assignment and mentally break it down into the requisite steps. Not that this comes naturally to very many 12-year-olds, but for M, it’s even more challenging. It’s as if he lacks the necessary program that allows his brain to sort out the information and organize it in a meaningful way. If the project is at all complicated (i.e., involves several steps) or unfamiliar to M, he shuts down. Even more frustrating, when M did complete an assignment, he’s forget to give it to his teacher so it could be marked. Even when he put it in his agenda, he’d still carry it around for days before handing it in.

You would think that as his parent, I would have put tow and tow together sooner. But M’s elementary school had a “no homework” policy. We had our hands full dealing with his behavioural challenges (also ADHD-related), so no homework was fine by us. M’s transition to middle-school has gone better than I expected, so maybe it wasn’t a big surprise that I didn’t immediately make the link between the homework battles and his ADHD.

Once the penny dropped, I started trying to map out a plan to help M learn to organize himself. His dad and I could push and pull him through middle school, but high school isn’t far off and he needs skills to manage the work load. Fortunately, I have a good friend with an older child with ADHD, who gave me a number of good tips. The experts suggest that consistency is key for children with ADHD and suggest that students use an agenda which parents and teachers check regularly. M has an agenda provided by the school, but he told me that his teacher wasn’t actively using it any more. My friend suggested that an electronic organizer might work better. M doesn’t have a phone but I figured his iPod would have some sort of app he could use. However, when I asked him about it, he wasn’t very keen (he did, however, take the opportunity to lobby for a phone).

The last step was to meet M’s home room teacher and the Learning Support teacher. M already has accommodations through his IEP and the teachers were very helpful in terms of coming up with ideas to help him. Although M wasn’t keen on my suggestion to download a calendar on his iPod, his teacher helped him set it up. Most of M’s teachers post weekly summaries of the class work, so I’m checking the website on a regular basis. M used to forget to bring worksheets home but most of them are available on the website, so we re-print them as necessary. it’s not the most environmentally friendly approach, it cuts down on the excuses. M does most of his written work on the computer, both at school and at home, as he’s started saving everything on the Cloud. Even better, he set this up on his own. He seems to be taking more responsibility to do his work in class – when I reminded him about his current french project, he told me he still had several classes in which to complete it.

I don’t expect that we’ve “solved” the homework challenge. As I’ve learned over the years with M, there’s no such thing as an easy fix. I don’t expect him to rush to the table every night to do his homework. He did spend some time one day this week working on an assignment before his dad or I got home – his dad reminded him, but he did it. This is progress.

This recent experience is also a reminder to me that my child does have challenges. They may not always be obvious on a day-to-day basis – he’s doing well these days, so it’s easy to forget about his ADHD, etc. Sometimes, though, I need to dig a little deeper and figure out why he’s acting a certain way. It’s too easy to attribute his behaviour to stubbornness or teenaged attitude. That’s not fair to him. While sometimes he wishes he didn’t have ADHD, he’s managing it, rather than the other way around. This too, is progress.

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Back to school – so far so good

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Heiwa elementary school %u5E73%u548C%u5C0F%u5B...

Heiwa elementary school %u5E73%u548C%u5C0F%u5B66%u6821 _18 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Almost 2 weeks into Grade 6 and M’s had the best start to any school year so far. I’m probably jinxing it, just by talking about it. But no calls from the principal. Not a single one!

No news is not always good news – in the past, the school has not always advised us when there’s a problem looming, until M’s in crisis. This year, the supports the school committed to last June were in place on Day 1. M has an EA, the same one as past year, at least for a few weeks. He will continue seeing the school social worker. And we finally got the psychologist’s report (the assessment was done last spring), so he can get a computer on a permanent basis, rather than from time to time, depending on availability.

It also helps that M has the same teacher as last year. Most of the kids are the same too – last year, it was a Grade 5/6 class. Rather than re-distribute the students among the two Grade 6 class, they kept the group together. Having combined grade classes is great, but school is chaotic enough for M. Any amount of continuity is a good thing. M had a couple of good buddies in the class, so he had a social safety net going back this year. The school post the class lists a couple of days before the first day back, so M knew who else would be in his class.  usually there’s one child that M doesn’t get along with, but he said he likes everyone in the class.

Since it’s only Week Two, we haven’t had much feedback on his behaviour or his academic progress. His EA told us last week that M had been participating actively. After a little pep talk from the teacher and the EA, M even did part of the class’s cursive writing assignment. Last year, M consistently refused to do the writing assignments,  even with the computer. He claimed not to be able to write in block letters, let alone cursive.  If he started an assignment, 9 times out of 10, he didn’t finish it.

From the school’s perspective, managing M’s behaviour has been a much bigger issue that whether or not he completes his work. The EA’s primary function is to assist M in resolving issues with his classmates and other students when they happen. The EA also acts as a buffer between M and other children, especially during recess and other less structured activities. When M is stressed, his ability to make good decisions is practically non-existent. He would often misinterpret another child’s behaviour as a slight or aggression and either lash out or obsess about what had happened. We’ve learned the hard way that M’s anxiety can trigger some pretty rotten behaviour. Other kids don’t want to be around him, which makes him feel even more anxious and socially isolated. It’s like watching a hamster running round and round on a wheel. Except in M’s case, we know the wheel’s going to hit the wall at some point. That’s usually when we get a call from the principal.

But the phone lines are quiet so far. We’ve had a couple of emails from the EA, indicating that things are going well. M still isn’t doing what he’s asked the first time, but when prompted, he usually complies. That’s progress too.

Over the last couple of years, whenever I’ve remarked about how well M’s doing, he’s hit a rough spot almost immediately afterwards. But it’s hard not to share good news. So if I get a call from the principal tomorrow, I only have myself to blame.

Fear fighting

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One Fear illustration from Book of Fears

One Fear illustration from Book of Fears (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

M is afraid of the cottage.More specifically, he is afraid of sleeping at the cottage because the walls are made of wood and they could catch fire. Never mind, that we’ve never had an issue with random fires in the almost 50 years since the cottage was built, there is a working fire alarm right outside his room and we aren’t using the fireplace (it is hotter than Hades at the moment). I tell him all this, repeatedly. It doesn’t seem to help ease his mind.

M’s fear of sleeping at the cottage is not new. He’s expressed it a number of times this summer, usually as we’re getting ready to go to the cottage.  By the time we get there, he’s generally feeling better and is able to go to sleep in the room with the bunk beds and wooden walls where my brothers and I slept when we were kids.

As an adult, I recognize that M’s fear of sleeping in a wooden bed with wooden walls is not rational. However, I understand that for him, it’s real. As he has pointed out to me on several occasions, he doesn’t sleep particularly well when we are at the cottage – he very often has trouble falling asleep and then he’s up at 6:30 or 7:00 am.

Anyone with a passing knowledge of cause and effect will recognize that this is a spurious relationship at best. M could have trouble sleeping at the cottage because his room is close to the main living area and the walls are thin. Plus, he tends to wake up early on weekends and that’s when we are usually at the cottage. It could also be due in part, to the fact that it’s an unfamiliar bed. I often wake up early too.

These are all good arguments. But none of them matter to M. He’s still afraid of sleeping in his bed at night.

That’s the tricky thing about fear. No matter how much our rational minds – or our mothers – tell us it isn’t real, it sure feels that way. Especially when you’re a child with an active imagination, lying awake in the middle of the night in a quiet cottage in a strange room and an unfamiliar bed.

We all have fears. Some of them are healthy – despite the fact that he can swim, I’m afraid of M swimming alone, without adult supervision. I’m also apprehensive about him getting hit by a car when he dashes across the street without looking.

These fears are manageable. I can remind M to look both ways before he crosses the street and trust, that at 11 years of age, he’s going to do it. I can stress the importance of not going in the water alone. Since my cousin’s have the same rule for their kids, there’s not much risk of an unsupervised swim. At least not this year.

But it’s those little niggling fears that most of us (i.e., adults) keep stuffed inside ourselves, that are the hardest to deal with. Children are generally more honest about what haunts them in the middle of the night. At the very least, they are less afraid to name it. I rarely talk about the fact that I am terrified of losing my mother. She’s not ill. But she is 81. While the women in my family are hardy – my grandmother and her sister were both into their 90s before they died – I know my mother won’t live forever. But this fear lives with me and when my brother’s girlfriend made a casual comment last night over supper about the possibility of my mother’s passing away sometime in the future, I practically bit her head off and served it on the BBQ. Clearly, I have some work to do on this issue.

Naming our fears is hard. Especially since they have a nasty habit of jumping on our chests in the middle of the night and demanding attention. As parents and adults, we have a tendency to dismiss our children’s fears. Especially, since children don’t always have the best timing. What do you mean, you’re afraid of water slides after we paid $100 to come here? While M is not a particularly fearful child, he does feel things strongly. Just telling him not to be afraid of sleeping at the cottage isn’t going to resolve the issue. And it isn’t very respectful. it may not be my fear, but it’s his and it’s real.

Pointing out the fact that the cottage has fire alarms and the electrical wiring is in good shape, didn’t seem to allay his fears. So I started asking M how I could help make him feel better in his room. Putting up a fire alarm? Bringing his white noise machine from home? Sleeping in another room?

M rejected most of my suggestions out of hand. he probably would have been happy to sleep in another room, but all the other beds are full. His grandmother would be quite happy to have him sleep with her, but he prefers to sleep by himself.

So far M’s been sleeping quite well in his room he sleeps. Talking about what he was afraid of seemed to have helped. It’s 8am and he’s still asleep.

No rest for the worried

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Robert Plutchik's Wheel of Emotions

Robert Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While M is an anxious child, he is not necessarily a big worrier.   We know from experience that sudden changes in routine, like getting a new EA at school cause his anxiety to spike.  But when he found out that the EA would be away for a couple of weeks, M didn’t spend a lot of time fretting about it ahead of time.   Like most 10-year old, M tends to live in the moment.

Except Sunday nights.  That is the one night all the worries come home to roost,  As a consequence, M has trouble falling asleep on the one night we want him to have a solid night’s sleep, in preparation for the week ahead.  

This past Sunday,  he seemed to be having a harder time going to sleep than usual.   M’s light goes off at 9 pm and he generally nods off shortly after.  But at 9:45, he was still awake.  I have learned that the direct route rarely works with M – if I ask what’s worrying him, he’ll say “nothing”.  So I sat beside him and started talking about what we had done during the day.  I told him how much I liked the picture he’s painted me for Mother’s Day and  how I appreciated his help distributing poster for an upcoming school event. 

After a few minutes, M asked me how long the women in my family lived.

Me:  They live a long time.

M:  How long?

Me:  My grandmother was 93 when she died; one of my great-grandmother’s 100; and Grandma Edie was 101. 

M was silent for a few moments.

Me:  Are you worried about Mommy because of Ms. M (our neighbour, who is ill with cancer)?

M:  Yes.

Me:  I am a healthy person and cancer doesn’t run in my family, so I don’t think you have to worry.

M:  How do you get cancer?

Me:  It isn’t something you can catch from someone else.  There are lots of types of cancer and the causes are sometimes complicated.

My answer seemed to satisfy him and he started to tell me other things that were bothering him:

– the upcoming school trip, since he would be with his whole class

– the fact that supper would be lasagna which he doesn’t like

– not being able to sleep because he needs his white noise machine

– bugs (anything with more than 8 legs is scary)

– the fact that he wasn’t hungry at lunch because of his meds.

Given the length of his list, I am not surprised M was having trouble falling asleep. 

Me:  Do you feel better now?

M:  Yes.

Me:  I want you to give all your worries to me and when I leave, I’ll take them with me.

So I kissed him good night and mimicked trying to drag a heavy object out of the room and push them out the door.  I’m not much of an actress, but it seemed to be enough for him.  He was asleep a few minutes later.

Next Sunday, I won’t wait until almost 10pm to check in with M to see what’s on his mind.  We’ll kick those worries to the curb much earlier, so he can rest a little easier.