The Energy Challenged Child (Excerpt from Transforming the Difficult Child)
By Howard Glasser
A New Perspective
Although we have already described the difficult child from a variety of angles, we have conspicuously avoided what most authors on the subjects of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and other diagnostic categories of behavioral disorders typically start out with front and center.
This is because we most certainly wish to de-emphasize jargon and labels, which have gotten out of hand in case you haven’t noticed.
The difficult child has been assigned many labels depending on current symptoms, current fads in diagnostic thinking, who is doing the labeling and the labeler’s frustration with the child. Schools have become famous for rendering opinions on diagnosis, mostly out of frustration with the task of managing many challenging children.
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), Oppositional Defiant Disorder, Emotionally Disturbed, Behavior Disorder, Depressed, Conduct-Disorder, Incorrigible, Anxiety Disorder, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Adjustment Disorder are just a few of the many terms that can be attached to a difficult child. Many more children have avoided formal labels but pose difficulties to their caregivers just the same.
These are children who can also be described as being “Energy Challenged” in that they are consistently unable to handle or effectively control their physical, cognitive and emotional energy.
Often these children are like a Mercedes Benz with the brakes of a Model T. They are blessed with abundant energy, great potential, strong intelligence, and curious and creative natures, but they have limited internal patterning and limited tools and skills to manage their incredible flow of energy, emotion and thought. Dr. Russell Barkley aptly describes children who have been labeled as ADHD as having a disorder of self-control. They often are gifted intellectually, artistically or with special sensitivities but at the same time are overwhelmed by their intensity.
They may actually have a normal or superior amount of control but a far greater than normal amount of physical, emotional, temperamental or neurological intensity. Children do not come off an assembly line with evenly regulated energy systems.
To characterize the quality of being over-energized is to describe children who are struggling frequently to control or maintain appropriate behavior. These children require much greater effort, focus, inner-guidance and self-control than the average child to achieve and maintain success. Just as you have to work harder to meet the real demands of parenting such a child, an intense child has to work much harder than the average child to appropriately control and channel his intensity.
Over-energized children struggle with lack of inhibition. There are times when they cannot conjure up the inner control required to override their impulses to do the inappropriate… often in ways that place them in extreme conflict with their environment or the people close to them.
These may become children who are kicked out of school or childcare when adult frustrations accelerate, or who find themselves in out-of-home placements. Without tools to deal with their intensity, these children are prone to failure in most conventional support systems.
Under-energized children can also be energy-challenged and difficult, but in different ways. They may be children who are so sensitive or reactive that they often function in an overly passive, depressed, withdrawn or shutdown state. They are often overlooked in a busy classroom or family and do not actively seek to have their needs met in positive ways. They may also turn to misbehavior for attention, but usually in obtuse or inconspicuous and less pronounced ways. In some instances, this type of child is the “daydreamer,” “doodler” or “worrier” who fails to finish or undertake required work and responsibilities. In other instances the child is quietly defiant.
Difficult or energy-challenged children are often recognizable by the frustrations of those who love and work with them and their own frustration in failing to get in gear more than sporadically. The children we are referring to here invariably are not exercising the potential of their true worth and abilities. These children often defy treatment and educational techniques and are not being adequately served by the current school, home, juvenile and mental health programs.
Energy Is A Gift:The Other Side of ADHD
Anyone who has experienced the glory of focusing his energies and accomplishing a goal or a project or mastering a skill knows that energy is a gift. The problems occur when energy is disorganized and unstructured. Although energy-challenged children manifest malfunctions of control in pronounced ways, at one time or another we all are flawed in our ability to control our energies.
How many of us can stick to a diet for more than a short period, despite our knowledge of the consequences? How many of us properly avoid ultraviolet rays or the intake of foods that can lead to disastrous effects? How many of us are self-disciplined enough to exercise daily or build the inner controls and skills necessary to overcome our fears or to handle our strong feelings or negative thoughts?
The truth seems to be that we are all at least occasionally compromised in our healthy ability to apply self-control. Hyper-energized and hypersensitive children are at a serious disadvantage when it comes to applying the brakes because they have so much more to overcome. The brakes on a cement truck have to work much harder to stop the vehicle at 10 miles per hour than do those on a little Honda going the same speed.
Another important thing to keep in mind when dealing with children is that they are still learning to apply the brakes in general. This is a major part of the developmental overlay of childhood. They aren’t even close to our mature development in this department, and they certainly weren’t born with any ability to control. Babies have virtually no control at all. If they did, there wouldn’t be a diaper industry. Control is a process mastered through evolution and development.
As things stand, very few people envy anyone with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). An ADHD child’s inability to control his intensity and impulses is mainly looked upon as a curse. Children who are bouncing off the walls in over-energized fashions are considered by some to be a blight on society.
Having a lot of energy is not a crime, however. Energy is the essential element in all our accomplishments.
Anyone, though, who has experienced either unharnessed energies in themselves or in another knows that it can seem overwhelming. Just think to the last time you had too much caffeine or were extremely nervous or excited about an upcoming event.
Energy is something that we all have in common. It is absolutely essential to every aspect of our endeavors. Without energy, it would be hard to accomplish anything, as is evident when we are feeling run down.
In a like manner, managing our energies is another task we all have in common. It seems that a lot of what we do is a matter of self-regulating our energy systems. When our energies are on an even keel, the management requirements are usually simple.
When our energies drop or explode, the job of managing them becomes much more complex and difficult. Let’s say, for example, that you or I feel nervous, angry or just plain excited about something we just heard about. We are now in the position of having to handle an extra boost of energy within the bounds of what is okay. If we are angry and we handle our anger inappropriately, then we often may be judged on the basis of an impaired level of skillfulness and the choices we have made under stressful conditions.
We all have been overwhelmed by our energy at one time or another and we all know the feeling of having our brakes, or our ability to control our energy, falter from time to time.
The key is, you wouldn’t throw away a Mercedes Benz if the brakes weren’t up to snuff. You’d find a brake specialist, and if they were scarce, you’d probably insist that the one you located teach you the tricks of the trade in case the problem ever crops up again. There are too many treasured features of the car to abandon it, but it sure could under-function if the brakes were on the skids, so to speak.
Most ADHD children simply have underdeveloped abilities to apply the brakes and to contain their strong feelings and impulses. Their energies periodically or even frequently overwhelm them.
They do not consistently get to enjoy the positive impact their energy can have on a project or personal endeavor. If they do, it only happens on and off, seemingly with no rhyme or reason.
What’s the difference between a highly efficient, energetic, successful child and a hyperactive child whose behaviors have fallen into patterns of impulsiveness, distractibility, poor response to directions, school failures, poor self-esteem, anxiety, anger, poor peer relationships or more?
The only difference is in how the child harnesses and directs his or her energy. It’s the same energy with different manifestations.
It’s hard to throw yourself fully into any endeavor successfully unless you feel self-assured. Take, for instance, a job situation that at first glance was new and confusing. One who knew exactly what was going on could approach the required tasks with absolute confidence. The ability to apply one’s energies fruitfully is diminished to a large degree when there is anything less than clear understanding and a reasonable hope for success.
Energy-challenged children also require clarity of expectations and experiences of successfulness. Success leads to being self-assured in managing one’s energy in a positive, confident and competent manner.
Getting A “Brake”
So, can we reach down deeper into the tool kit to see if there is a brake application to match the energy level of the modern high-powered, deluxe model vehicle? Can self-control be developed and augmented to match the intensity of the energy-challenged child? Absolutely!
We can moan and groan about the Model T brakes all day long, but it won’t change anything. The brakes cannot change themselves. Likewise, no amount of urging the challenging child to apply the brakes will work for more than a couple of minutes, hours or days at best.
If the brakes on my car weren’t working, how much would be achieved by standing by the car and demanding improvement? “When I come back in five minutes, I want you to be working.” Fat chance. Even if a miracle occurred and they worked again temporarily, the likelihood of long-term functioning is remote. The situation requires a mechanical solution: an intervention through action.
So many parents that we see are at their wit’s end because the behaviors of their child have escalated beyond their own abilities to help. Ninety-nine percent of the time these are people who deeply care and who have gone to great lengths to apply the methods at their disposal.
Unfortunately, they are also frequently condemned because schools, neighbors and extended families often attribute the continuing behavior problems to inadequate parenting.
It is so easy for the parent of a difficult child to feel blamed. Teachers, principals, other school personnel, as well as significant others in the family or the neighborhood are notorious for assigning blame, unintentionally or intentionally. Even therapists do it. The use of the term “dysfunctional family” has reached nauseating proportions.
Telling a family that their child must be on medications to remain in school is yet another way of communicating to the parents that they are having no impact and there is no hope of their having an impact.
In our experience, blame is almost entirely unwarranted. We know this because when we give parents who have been so accused different and stronger methods, not only does everything fall into place behaviorally for the child, but the parents come out shining and rightfully feeling great about the changes they have fostered.
The irony is that they usually have to expend a lot less effort using the new techniques. Handling problems on a frequent basis consumes a lot of energy.
Although many societal factors would have us believe that these families of difficult children are dysfunctional, they are far from dysfunctional when they have the right tools for the job.
It’s the tools that are culpable, not the parents, the teacher or the child.
Taking the Dive
This book is about the steps necessary to build success and competency, for both you and your child. It will involve some effort, as does anything involving change and energy. However, it will be surprisingly simple and the rewards will be enormous. It should be heartening to know that these strategies are designed to empower parents and teachers with powerful, non-conventional tools that work in a short period of time, even with very difficult children. In essence, you will be given all the tools necessary to become the therapist for your child.