HealthyParent: The importance of properly identifying ADHD in children

With all due credit (or blame) to …

“Squirrel!”

… Pixar and Disney …

“Squirrel!”

We now have a handy shorthand way to …

“Squirrel!”

… talk to our kids about impulsivity and distractibility:

“Squirrel!”

In case you just woke up from the 20 century, in 2009 Disney and Pixar released “Up,” the story of octogenarian Carl Fredricksen’s effort to fulfill his boyhood dream of visiting South America. Carl is joined by a talkative and resourceful little boy scout named Russell, and a dog named Dug.

Never mind that Fredricksen makes the trip by floating his home on thousands of balloons across the continent. Never mind the beauty of the artwork or the grumpy-grandfather-overeager-grandson family dynamic. Never mind the powerful backstory about love and loss, the costs of modern progress and the value of dreams. Never mind even the fact that Dug, the dog, talks. It’s what Dug says that matters.

“Squirrel!”

Dug is very, very distractible. Nearly every one of Dug’s tail-wagging, tongue-lolling sentences is interrupted midway by an overexcited, breathless exclamation of, “Squirrel! Did you see it? There! Over there! By that tree! I’m sure I saw it! It was small and gray and it had a bushy tail!”

Dug is enthusiastic and fun and eager to share his exciting observations, but any sentence begun or task commenced or idea entertained is completely lost by those darned, intrusive squirrels. They’re forgotten as if they never happened. Squirrels appear (at least in Dug’s mind) constantly, which means that no matter how smart or wise or caring this conversationalist canine might be, he never gets anything done. He’s perpetually distracted. Sound familiar?

According to the fifth edition of the Dog Strengths Manual (“DSM,” published by the American Pet Association), Dug’s “Squirrel!” behavior is best described as Alert, Distractible, Hypervigilant and Dedicated (“ADHD”). Don’t let the medical jargon confuse you. ADHD in dogs simply means that Dug is doing the job that evolution has spent millennia training his species to do: He’s keeping his human companions safe by warning them of sudden threats. The fact that Dug is alerting the old man and the boy to harmless woodland rodents and not, “Rabid Feral Wolf!” or “Carnivorous Horde of Zombies” reflects nothing more than the studio’s wish to keep its PG rating.

(I know. I know. Under the APA’s “Goldwater Rule” it’s unethical for me to diagnose someone that I haven’t personally evaluated. Mea culpa. Pixar and Disney are free to sue me for defamation of dog or impeachment of pooch any time they like.)

That’s dogs. The same behavior in human children is another thing entirely.

“Squirrel!” behavior in kids gets in the way of learning. It can be disruptive and distracting to others. That same super-vigilant, off-task, abrupt topic-switching behavior in children (sometimes accompanied by shrill interjections like “recess!” or “MindCraft!” or “squirrel!”) tends to get kids in trouble with teachers. It tends to contribute to poor grades at school and can cost friendships. Unchecked, “Squirrel!” behavior in human beings can become associated with enough criticism, failure, and rejection that self-esteem falters, anger and sadness and guilt flourish. These latter outcomes – the elements of anxiety and depression- only compound the problem by making a distractible child even more so.

“Squirrel!” behavior can occur in kids for many reasons, only one of which is the familiar, over-

diagnosed psychiatric illness known as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (the American Psychiatric Association’s “ADHD”). Children with trauma histories learn quickly and painfully to be acutely attuned to their environments and may look ADHD-distractible. Children with very high anxiety, with super-caffeinated and over-sugared diets, and children with other neurological differences can all look and sound like Dug, each for very different reasons. The only way to understand why your son or daughter (or husband or wife or …) is so “Squirrel!” distractible is to consult with trusted medical and mental health professionals. But right now, here today, regardless of the why of your loved one’s “Squirrel!” behavior, we can all take an important lesson from Dug.

If the first step toward changing a behavior is recognizing it, then “Squirrel!” can be a very powerful tool. Condense your long lectures about taking turns and being a good sport and tolerating frustration and delaying gratification into a one-word, secret-code reminder. Why would you think that your distractible, impulsive child would pay attention to your 10-minute rant about distractibility anyway? He’s distractible! Stop lecturing. Go watch “Up” together. Teach him what “Squirrel!” means, and then use the single word as a reminder.

That therapist you’re waiting to get him in to see? If she knows what she’s doing, she’s going to use Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) to help your son have fewer “Squirrel!” moments. CBT is just the process of inserting words into thinking so that the individual can open the door to different behaviors. CBT inserts “squirrel!” between impulse and action so that maybe the exclamation never gets voiced. I hope that that therapist gets back to you soon, but in the interim you can start to use “Squirrel!” to help your kids better control their distractibility and impulsivity.

Oh … there is one more important thing you must do: Do not follow the squirrels! If the subject is math class and your daughter suddenly blurts out something about a new song she heard, do not ask about the song. If you and your son are discussing the weekend schedule and he abruptly comments about needing new shoes, do not ask if his feet hurt. Calmly label “Squirrel!” and resume the original subject. Every time you follow a squirrel (the song or the shoes), you’re rewarding the behavior. Behavior that’s rewarded, persists.

Dr. Benjamin Garber, Ph.D., is a New Hampshire-licensed psychologist and parenting coordinator. He writes and speaks internationally on subjects concerning child and family development. His latest book is “Holding Tight/Letting Go” available from unhookedbooks.com. Learn more about Garber and his child-centered services at HealthyParent.com. Find a collection of Garber’s popular press articles on his blog at bdgarberphd.wordpress.com. Garber welcomes your comments at papaben@healthyparent.com.