Psychologists have a thing for mice. We love to test those little guys. We put them in water, in mazes, in cages, and on lush, grassy fields.
Let’s create fields in your mind. A lovely one, where you feel peace and joy.
Our bodies are made up of traits that are good for our survival and the survival of our species. Every part of us has a function, a purpose. For example, the function of eyes is to see. The function of taste buds is to determine the nutritional value of food and avoid eating poisons.
Our emotions evolved right alongside our bodies. What is the function of emotions? To answer this, think about good ol’ Uncle Caveman. How did fear keep him alive? That’s easy, when he saw a Sabertooth tiger, Uncle Caveman got scared and ran away! Fear gave him the adrenaline, energy, and focus he needed to stay alive.
How did anger keep Uncle Caveman alive? It helped him bargain for his interests better. When another tribe tried to move into his cave, anger created the right motivation for Uncle Caveman to keep his cave (good thing too, what with all those Sabertooth tigers running around). Anger helped Uncle Caveman protect his interests.
What about shame? Shame is a very social emotion, more so than other feelings. When Uncle Caveman did something that disgusted, disappointed, or angered his tribe, he felt shame. Being part of a tribe was critical to Uncle Caveman’s staying alive. The formula is: Alone = Death, Part of Tribe = Survival. Shame helped Uncle Caveman act in pro-social ways so his tribe would not kick him out. (So he had to stop tagging the wooly mammoths).
Sadness for Uncle Caveman was caused by a loss of some sort. I hope one of his children wasn’t eaten by a Sabretooth tiger, but I can’t promise that. Say it happened. Well, sadness did two important things for Uncle Caveman’s survival, and the survival of his tribe. 1) He never forgot that Sabertooth tigers can kill. He told everyone he knew. And he never again asked a Sabertooth tiger to babysit his kids. 2) It made him yearn for his child, and for connection to others. Guess what, this story ends well. Uncle Caveman’s baby actually was hiding that whole time, and since sadness had motivated Uncle Caveman to search for his kid…they lived happily ever after.
Emotions helped Uncle Caveman make decisions that helped him stay alive. The function of emotions is to help us make good decisions, so we don’t get hurt, used, ignored, or run down.
Evolution is a SLOW process. In fact, our bodies are very alike to our cavemen ancestors. Sure, we know a lot more. And we use Facebook and soap. But our bodies—and our brains—are not so different from good old Uncle Caveman!
Emotions evolved in humans like everything else; what was adaptive to the species remained. Emotions are critical to our decision making! That’s why therapists tell people to “understand your emotions.” If you did that better, you’d made better decisions. I promise.
If we all had perfectly tuned emotions, life would be good. But, we are individuals within a species, and we each have different characteristics. That applies to our eye color, height, IQ, athletic ability, and—of course—emotional experiences.
Many mental disorders are characterized by too much—or not enough—of certain emotions. Depression is too much sadness. Anxiety Disorders are too much fear. Personality Disorders may be too much shame and anger. When you notice your feelings remain far beyond their function (remember, they help you make good decisions), they can seriously interfere with your life. If your emotions have outlived their usefulness, talk to a trusted adult (p.s., Sabertooth tigers are not good confidantes). It’s time you had some help.
He doesn’t accept himself. Against this intensely negative self-focus, your compliments don’t stand a chance.
Once upon a time, a scientist named B.F. Skinner was playing with rats and pigeons. He had this idea, that all behavior had to do with consequences. Wait! This story gets better. Mr. Skinner invented a fancy box for the animals. The box had levers, lights, loudspeakers, food–the works. The box’s floor was an electrical grid. After a series of experiments, the animals did what Mr. Skinner wanted them to do (like press the levers) when they were rewarded. If the animals did something wrong, the poor little guys got electricuted. The animals learned, over time, to do the “right” thing and to avoid doing the “wrong” thing. And everyone lived…happily?…ever after.
Well, Mr. Skinner did anyway. His work is famous in psychology. He showed us that rats, pigeons, and people are motivated by consequences. Our behavior is shaped by our environment. When a behavior is rewarded, we do it more. When a behavior is punished, we do it less. Mr. Skinner shrugged off Freud’s ideas about mysterious, inner drives and urges. Behavior is as simple as A-B-C: Antecedent, Behavior, Consequence.
Understanding Skinner’s work can save you hundreds of dollars in child therapy. If you want your kid to behave, then use consequences.
This is SUPER important: ld When you reward a desired behavior, they’ll do it more. Punishing a bad behavior works, but not as well as rewarding a good behavior.
So what’s a reward? Giving them something they actually want, or removing something they don’t want. Rewards are as unique and individual as your child, but most kids feel rewarded by: more leisure time, less chores, more freedom, less demands, more praise, less criticism, and so on. If you reward kids consistently, their behavior will get better. Also-once in a while-going above and beyond with rewards works too.
It’s pretty common, after a few sessions with a therapist, that parents are given instructions on how to use a behavior chart at home. (Thank goodness no one recommends Mr. Skinner’s electrical box.) Behavior charts can be very simple or pretty complex. Start with a simple one. You can do this with your child. Decide how many behaviors your child will work on. Kids ages 2-5 should have only about 4 chart behaviors. Kids ages 6-10 can have 8 chart behaviors. The limit for older kids should be 10 chart behaviors. The behaviors should be specific, but simply stated. For example, “If I use it, I clean it.”
Get a piece of posterboard. Make 8 columns from top to bottom. Leave the leftmost column blank. In the second column, at the top, write “Monday.” Moving left to right, write the remaining days of the week-one in each column. Leaving room at the bottom of the page, make as many rows (lines from left to right, under the days of the week) as you need for the chart behaviors. Write each behavior in the leftmost column, one per row.
At the bottom of the chart, write the exchange rate. How many daily stickers does your child need to get the reward? To start, shoot for about 80%. Same for the weekly stickers reward. Then, as behavior improves, make the ratio of behaviors-to-rewards higher, so that the child will eventually need 100% stickers to get rewards.
What’s the deal with the stickers? Once a day (about 2 hours before bedtime), you and your child will review the behavior chart and discuss how he did. He gets a sticker in the day’s chart behavior, only if he did it. He does not get a sticker if he did not do the behavior. Apply or withhold the reward as appropriate.
Stick to your plan, mom and dad! If your child did all the chart behaviors, then he gets the reward. Period. Even if later he misbehaves or you feel angry with him, he still gets his reward. Same goes for withholding the reward. If your child did not do the chart behaviors, no reward. Not even if you feel sorry for your child. Not even-especially not even-if your kid is throwing a tantrum about not getting the reward.
A behavior chart should be used consistently for about 3 weeks, before you can determine if it’s effective or not. Use Mr. Skinner’s research to mindfully reward your little rats and pigeons! This stuff really works.
A common ADHD treatment is stimulant medication. Methylphenidate is popular, with trade names of Ritalin, Concerta, Daytrana, and Metadate. An amphetamine salt (trade name Adderall) is also used quite a bit.
Dosages are typically prescribed based on a child’s size. It is not uncommon for these dosages to be too high. Parents may notice a trade-off in symptoms, for example, when their child’s attention is improved but he is more physically agitated. This is one clue that the dosage may not be appropriate. Or, an “over-medicated” child might be sluggish, less creative, and (while medications are active in his system) lose his spunky personality. In other words, too much medication can smother the best parts of ADHD.
Stimulant medications take effect quickly. Within about 30 minutes, medication impacts thinking and behavior. Measuring the impact of stimulant medication has historically been difficult. Parents are left to their own observations, the hard-to-read self reports of their child, and input from teachers. With detailed behavior observations (such as how long a medication takes to act on the child, and what happens as the medication wears off), some gains can be made.
But, there is a better way to determine if a stimulant medication is effective. It’s called the Test of Variables of Attention (TOVA). It’s simple, short (about 20 minutes), and accurate. This test can be repeated time and again. A recommended use of TOVA is to compare a child’s “baseline” (performance without medication) against a medication trial. For example, baseline results can be compared for how a child does with 5mg methylphenidate. Since results are ready as soon as the test is finished, physicians and parents have real-time information to consider dosage or prescription adjustments.
A common finding from the TOVA test is that dosages are too high–meaning that unnecessary side effects can be reduced with the lessening of medication, while positive effects can remain. Test results can be very helpful for prescribing doctors. They also give parents clear directions on next steps in treatment and help with peace of mind.
The TOVA is also used as a standard part of ADHD assessments. From 2003 to 2007, there was a 22% increase in kids with parent-reported ADHD, according to the CDC. Research continues to find higher rates of ADHD. There is no single cause of ADHD, but some factors are known to contribute to it.
The “organic movement” has roots (pardon the pun) in studies about harmful effects of pesticides. Pesticides Linked to ADHD Symptoms. A new study (conducted by Canadian researchers used data collected from nearly 1,140 children participating in the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey) suggests more bad news about pesticides. There seems to be a link between level of exposure to pesticides and the development of ADHD symptoms. This MSN Childhood Health article (by Leah Zerbe Rodale) states that “this study is the first to look at everyday exposure levels in children from around the country. And as it turns out, U.S. kids are exposed to harmful levels of pesticides in their food, day in and day out.” The take-home message is: avoid using pesticides around your own lawn, and–if possible–try to buy organic foods.