The Chicken or the Egg?

If you are like everyone else you have been asked the age-old question, “What came first, the chicken or the egg?” The answer? Who knows? One can assume the chicken came first but then we are reminded that chickens come from eggs! The debate goes on.

We may find something similar in the diagnosing and treating of attention problems in both children and adults. In my years of experience as an EEG Neurofeedback Practitioner, I’ve asked myself the question many, many times. What came first the inability to pay attention or a life-event that may have triggered an inability to pay attention? Sometimes we just don’t know.

While it is true that there is a known genetic link in true Attention Deficit Disorder and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADD and ADHD), there may also be a number of contributing factors that may mimic symptoms that look like those of either ADD or ADHD. Something as simple as not getting a good night’s sleep can contribute to our inability to concentrate the next day. Conflict at home, a new baby, moving to a new home, head trauma, seizure disorders, even food allergies may significantly impair our ability to pay attention.

So what do we do when we have a child who is struggling in school both academically and in social skills? Perhaps the easiest route and the one that comes to mind most often, is to introduce medication to solve the problem. Unfortunately, we not only don’t know which medication will work, we often don’t know how the child is going to react to the new medication. It is true that medication can help in the short-run and chances are your child’s behavior and attention will improve drastically once he or she begins taking medication.

We need to understand what happens in the brain when a medication for attention problems is introduced. The medication takes the place of the neurochemicals that the brain produces. While that can be beneficial in the short-run, it can be detrimental in the long run. The brain is so designed that it produces its own neurochemicals, also known as neurotransmitters. These chemicals are important to regulating proper brain functioning. Without them, the brain becomes dis-regulated and will not operate optimally.

Certainly there are times when medication is necessary. As parents we must make the best choices we can for our children and in many cases that choice includes medication. There are other avenues to treating the symptoms of attention disorders that do not involve drugs. They are not as fast acting but may be safer and even more effective in the long run. I will not attempt to give you an all-inclusive list of alternatives to medication at this point. However, here are a few suggestions.

Before introducing medication, some investigation may be in order. Starting with a good physical exam is always a good idea. Don’t overlook the possibility that your child’s inability to pay attention may be the result of a physical ailment, perhaps even something as simple as a food allergy, so a trip to an allergist may be in order. You might want to try an elimination diet, which simply means eliminating one food at a time to see if there are any noticeable changes in your child’s behavior. Dairy products and wheat are very common foods that can contribute to attention and conduct problems.

Another known culprit is excessive amounts of sugar. Does your child crave sugary sweet cereals for breakfast, Twinkies for lunch, candy for snacks, and soft drinks loaded with sugar and caffeine? You might want to switch from cold cereals that are notoriously known for being loaded with sugar, to some hot cereal like oatmeal or Cream of Rice or Cream of Wheat. Even cold cereals that contain a minimum of sugar are often a much better choice than the sugarcoated cereals our kids will choose. It is not uncommon for a child whose diet includes inordinate amounts of sugar to find it difficult to focus in school and on homework. Good substitutes for sugary soft drinks may include fruit juices that are not loaded with sugar and good old bottled water. Use so called diet beverages with caution. Many contain excessive amounts of sodium and it has been shown that some people are allergic to the sugar substitutes commonly used in soft drinks.

Our children’s blood - sugar has been on a roller coaster all day and, likely as not, so have they! It was not unusual for me to shove a spoonful of peanut butter into the mouth of a cranky child when he came home from school. In a few short minutes, he’d be fit to live with again! Our bodies run on the food we give it. As the saying goes “junk in, junk out.”

Speaking of nutrition, it could be most beneficial to investigate which of the multi-vitamin and mineral supplements on the market today might be helpful for your child. Likely as not, your child doesn’t eat as well as he or she should and may not be getting all the things necessary for building healthy bodies. Of course, the body more easily and readily utilizes natural supplements. It is a good idea to choose a supplement that does not contain a lot of added colors and flavors and, of course, sugars. There are some really good protein drinks, powders, and energy bars out there that can supplement a child’s diet without them thinking they are eating or drinking something “healthy.”

Having worked in a psychologist’s office for nearly 8 years, I have seen many children and adults with attention problems. Many cannot get to sleep or if they can get to sleep, wake frequently. It is not uncommon for people with attention problems to say that they never dream and that their sleep is very restless. Others are sleepwalkers or talkers; some suffer from sleep apnea, a medical condition that causes a person to waken several times in the night just because they cannot breathe. Once breathing begins again the person goes back to sleep. Sleep apnea can be a very serious condition and should be discussed with your doctor. Nearly all people with sleep apnea snore heavily.