December 15, 2013

The "Out-of-the-Box" Child

Do you have an "out-of-the-box" child or adolescent? Do the typical, recommended parenting strategies seem to fizzle in your house? Do you notice that there's just something out-of-sync about your child when you look at a group of your child's peers? Think about what you, as parents, were like as children. If grandparents are alive to ask, find out if any of these qualities were present in you when you were young. Heredity can often play a role and hold a key in understanding the child.

Here are some of the factors that often underlie this difference:

1) Creativity -- Some highly creative children see the world differently. They may find it more challenging to put aside their ideas to make time for handwriting practice or spelling lists. Memorization may feel unbearably tedious. They may answer questions without wanting to show their work in math, because they arrive at answers in non-traditional ways. One highly creative student answered the question: "How are the two hands of a clock different? not by mentioning their length, but by joking: "They have no fingers." Make sure your creative child has outlets, whether in visual or performing arts, music, writing stories or even just having time for imaginary play.

 2) Intelligence -- While there is often an overlap between creativity and intelligence, some highly intelligent students have unique qualities unrelated to creativity itself. Some years, your child may have a teacher flexible enough to adapt to the child's needs. At other times, spending a lot of time on what s/he has already mastered can fuel frustration that comes out at home. Very bright children may worry about issues, like global warming or human mortality, that they are not yet emotionally equipped to handle. Here, parents can provide age-appropriate enrichment activities as well as act as advocates for their children with the school.

3) Temperament -- Some children seem to have been born slower to warm up or more difficult to calm and soothe. It seems to be in their "wiring." They need time to get comfortable in a new situation, rather than joining right in like their peers. They seem to be more cautious and fearful and/or less adventurous than others. They may have sensory sensitivities and react to loud noises or itchy fabrics. The key here is to know your child. Sometimes, all they need is some extra time to adjust or a chance to make their own choices when possible. Help your child develop flexibility a little bit at a time and understand his/her own sensitivities. If they worry a lot, help them think through what is likely to happen and what is highly unlikely. Remind them of times in the past when things turned out well despite their worries.

4) Learning Differences -- These may go unidentified and cause tremendous frustration in the child and the adults who may be trying to understand. Reading, writing and math learning disabilities can masquerade as laziness or defiance when the child seeks to avoid areas of difficulty. Motivation can plummet when the child is criticized for mistakes s/her can't help. Sometimes, identifying an auditory or visual processing disability can provide a framework for understanding the child's struggles. When schoolwork or homework seems more difficult than it should be, given the child's apparent intelligence, speak to the school and seek an evaluation. In many cases, this will be provided at no cost to the family.

5) Attention Difficulties -- These issues are often misunderstood to mean an inability to pay attention. In fact, children with ADHD struggle with regulating their attention and being able to pay attention on a consistent basis. They may become completely absorbed in activities they enjoy and not notice what's happening around them. This "hyperfocus" can center on a hobby or a computer screen. It can be hard to get the child to disengage at these times. Yet, at others, the child can't finish an assignment without becoming distracted repeatedly. Girls with these difficulties may not be noticed "spacing out" in class until they miss the teacher's instructions or forget assignments. Children and teens with attention issues often have trouble regulating their emotions as well. Their neurological development takes longer, and they may have "meltdowns" at ages well past when their peers have stopped having such outbursts. For parents, understanding the sources of these behaviors can be invaluable. Parenting strategies that empathize with the child while helping him/her learn coping skills are key here. It is critical not to blame children for what they can't help. At the same time, they need support while their skills develop. This support may include accommodations in the classroom.

An essential part of parenting an "out-of-the-box" child or adolescent is to seek out support for yourself. Find and talk to other parents whose kids may seem similar. Read about the issues involved so that you feel less isolated. Stay away from judgmental people as much as possible. Such individuals may blame your parenting for your child's wiring. With any of the factors above, whether they are strengths or challenges, consider seeking professional help if the difficulties that arise become significant. And, remember that your child is not the only one in the parent-child relationship who is worthy of time and care.