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Dealing with Distractions and Overreactions

Dealing with Distractions and Overreactions
Dealing with Distractions and Overreactions

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Faiza Elmasry

More than five million American children and teens have been diagnosed with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, a condition that makes it difficult - if not impossible - to focus and complete tasks. When Katherine Ellison found herself yelling at her son constantly to shut up, she didn't know that he had ADHD, nor that she had it too. Together, they embarked on a year-long quest to understand the disorder, investigating and trying different treatments.  Ellison chronicled their experiences in a new book, Buzz: A Year of Paying Attention.

Buzz Ellison had many problems in elementary school. He could not sit still, and was constantly jumping up and down in class, not paying attention to his teachers, not focusing on the task at hand. As a result, his mother Katherine Ellison says, he was always in trouble.

"His attitude towards school really changed. I think he got bullied both by his peers and his teachers who insisted that he could do things that he really wasn't capable of doing at that age and remembering things and they gave him a lot of negative feedback," said Ellison.

Katherine Ellison, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist, says she didn't understand why he behaved like that, and admits, her behavior was also contributing to the situation.

"I was making things worse often by being anxious or being impatient or not understanding him. I realized at some point that I really hadn't hugged him in a while. I wasn't smiling when he came into the room because we were having such a hard time," recalled Ellison.

Buzz was diagnosed with ADHD when he was nine. And, like many parents of children with ADHD, Ellison learned she had the disorder as well. She was in her late 40s.  

"It was a great relief to actually get a diagnosis, because I had spent a lifetime really wondering what was going on and why I seem to be different from so many other people I knew," Ellison noted.  "I, like many people with ADD, had a rollercoaster of a life. For instance, I got sued for $11 million for a reporting error that I made in one of my first years as a newspaper reporter. And two years later, I won a Pulitzer Prize. So these are the kinds of things that often happen when you got this disorder; you're capable of really amazing things and very humiliating, terrible things."

Ellison and Buzz decided to work together to deal with their disorder and write a book about their experience.

"My son and I started out by writing a contract together, which was terrific because it changed the perspective from being a shameful problem that we had to a joint business project," explained Ellison.  "I also knew that he would cooperate with me. He wanted a percentage of the profits from the book. I was willing to do that because all of a sudden we're partners rather than antagonists."

Mother and son delved into the world of ADHD for a year, researching various remedies, specialists and alternative therapies for treatment.

"The two of us spent a lot of time going to neuro-feedback sessions, a process that's a kind of bio-feedback for the brain where you're actually conditioning your brain with the help of computers to slow down, become more calm and focused," said Ellison.  "We tried meditation. We both really focused on getting aerobic exercise and we got counseling. And all of these things helped."

Ellison and Buzz also tried prescription drugs, which doctors often recommend to help youngsters cope with the symptoms of ADHD.

"I was completely against medication," recalled Ellison.  "I thought kids are being over-medicated, which they are, but it turns out that many kids are not getting the help they need. I want to really make clear that I don't believe meds alone or meds for life are good strategies. And I think that it must be part of a more comprehensive approach."

Although ADHD is an increasingly common diagnosis, there are many misconceptions about it.

"One of the biggest misconceptions is parents think that this is their fault," said Peter Levine, a pediatrician in California, who specializes in treating children with ADHD.  "Other parents will blame them for it because they see the way these kids acting and they will say, 'What's wrong with you? Why can't you control your child?' So parents will blame themselves. Another misconception is that the child really is not trying, because oftentimes these kids are trying harder than other kids to control their behaviors. That leads to a lot of frustrations."

Levine says the first step in dealing with ADHD is getting the facts straight.

"In America, the diagnosis rate in children generally is quoted in the range of about 3 to 7 percent of children," noted Levine.  "It's more common in boys, by about three to one. This is a highly inheritable disorder. They can't get over ADHD. I mean it's not something that you can make go away. As many as two-third of the children who have problems with ADHD will have difficulties as adults. You can't cure it. You have to find ways of coping with it."

One of the most effective ways to do that, he says, is changing ones parenting style. That's what Katherine Ellison did. She says she is now paying more attention to her son, spending more quality time with him, being less judgmental and giving him more positive feedback. And Buzz is responding with fewer outbursts at home and at school, more focus on doing his school work and a new interest in playing tennis.

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