Coping with overactive children

At the birthday party of one of his friends, your3 year old son is overexcited, does not pay attention to you and does not participate in any games.  Most of the other children look well behaved, happily sitting down and eating properly while he is running around with a balloon. Should you be worried?

Behaviour like beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder! Good or bad behavior is a subjective term. Behaviour which is acceptable in one family may be shocking for another family.

So, aren’t children supposed to be running around, playing, climbing. Most certainly! It is absolutely normal for a 2 to 3 year old to be quite active, jumping, climbing. He will flit from one activity to another,can get overexcited and  be out of control in certain situations like a party or an outing. But as children grow older we expect that this overactivity comes down and their attention skills improve. If this doesn’t happen it becomes a cause for concern! So a child’s behavior also depends a lot on his age, hence we can’t compare a 2 yr olds behavior with a 6 yr old.

Now, there are definitely some children who are called overactive by their family. These children behave like they are driven by a perpetual motor and appear tireless as they continually run, jump or climb. They don’t share, are impatient and unable to wait their turn. They get bored easily. They ignore instructions. They want your attention immediately.They may have a poor sleeping and eating pattern!

Let me narrate a scenario which is quite common in some households.

I have seen mothers who run after their overactive child the whole day trying to keep pace with them. It is a well-known fact thatthe energy levels of 2-3 year old may surpass an athlete’s! So it’s little wonder that the mother soon gets exhausted and in turn irritable. Some of the mothers will, at this point shout or smack the child in an attempt to calm him/her down. The child may then throw a tantrum…shout, throw toys, hit his mother. After all he is just copying his mother!!

In this domino effect, there are two possibilities. Either the mother continues to shout back or she gives up and ignores the child. The child in turn, who has had great fun, continues his/her agitated behavior to attempt to get the mothers attention. The stress level of mother increases as there are few hundred things waiting to be tackled! Most often this leads to the child being put in front of the TV where he/she happily spends hours!! Mother happily finishes her work! Everyone is happy!

When the father returns home and listens to his wife’s account of the day’s events, he may trivialize them! On the contrary, he may feel the boisterous behavior is normal, especially if the child is a boy! This leads to the mother feeling unappreciated and an invitation for an argument or blame game! Dad may try to compensate by playing with the child for some time but more often than not, both father and child will plonk in front of the television to finish off the day!!

So, why are some children so active that handling them becomes very difficult at home?Some surveys have shown that up to 1 in 10 children are overactive and hard work to manage. Let’s look at some of the factors which cause over activity in children.

The behavior we see is a combination of nature and nurture. This means that some children are inherently overactive but the way they are handled makes all the difference in the outcome. So overactivity and poor attention skills can be inherited, but poor parenting skills worsen the scenario. Boundaries and limit setting is very essential in children. Unless this is done they will be unaware about what is acceptable and what is not. Inconsistent reactions from the parents are very common…..in a family as well what is ok for the father is unbearable for the mother! If it is a joint family, the inconsistent handling may be much more!

The other most common factor known to cause attention problems in children is excessive exposure to electronic media. The all pervading electronic media leads to multiple problems in development in children. With early exposure to electronic media, language development suffers. With the passive stimulation, creativity is affected. There has been found to be a huge negative impact on the child’s communication and socialization skills. Also the pictures on tv and computer are constantlychanging, causing excess stimulation. In contrast, the child’s environment is fairly constant in daily life and does not show excessive change. Hence normal life becomes boring as nothing exciting is happening every minute. Children get bored easily and start seeking stimulation. Their attention span decreases and purposeless activity levels increase. Also children learn by copying. They imitate what they see and hear. Adult language, aggressive behavior seen on tv will be copied!! It is essential that children are not exposed to e media from early on. TV s are not to be used as ababy sitter to get you thru the day. TVs are not to be used to encourage feeding in children.

There are thought to be various dietary factors. We do know that foods containing caffeine like fizzy drinks, coffee, chocolate can act as a stimulant. Also in some children artificially colored and flavored foodstuff may worsen overactivity.

Some children are simply bright curious children who need to be stimulated in the right way to channelize their energy.

So, how do you cope with overactive children? It is certainly not easy. While you let him know that your love for him remains undiminished, the overactive child also needs to knowthat you and all the adults in his life expect a consistent reasonable behavior from him. Of course, the trick and the hard part thereafter is for everyone to show consistency in handling his behavior.

You have to help the child develop good listening skills. You should remember that the overactive child is not trying to deliberately disobey you when you call him but that he maynot always hear you when you call him across a room because of his difficulty in paying attention. To overcome this difficulty, it may help to go down to his level, gently hold his head to make sure he is looking at you and listening. Give short and simple instructions as he may not remember too many things at once. Get him to repeat back what you have asked him to do.

Overactive children get a lot of attention for their ‘bad behavior’. They are criticized, called naughty or worse still a bad boy! Try to pay attention to their good behavior. Catch them being good and praise and encourage them.

Some situations like a party or shopping brings out the worst behavior in such a child. Plan your shopping so that you are in and out of the shop in the fastest time! Remember he gets bored quickly so involve him if you can. Shouting and hitting certainly doesn’t help and it also shows your child that hitting is acceptable.

Involve him in physical activities to channelize his energy levels. Plan various activities to improve his concentration span. Books, Puzzles, Blocks, coloring activities, using a timer may help. Star charts are very effective in rewarding good behavior as it visually reinforces and encourages positive behaviors.

And most certainly restrict electronic media viewing in children to not more that 1 hr a day and try to engage them in interactive play from early on.

These instructions are easier said than done, but if they are consistently followed over a period of time, you will be rewarded with remarkable, good behavior and you can then cherish that behavior.

Despite consistent application of these instructions, if behavior does not improve, talk to your doctor regarding help.

Overactivity in some children canalso be a symptom of medical condition like Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). ADHD is known to be hereditary, or it may be seen in children who have had problems around birth, child born too early or too small (low birth weight). It also goes hand in hand with other conditions like epilepsy or learning problems.

If you are unable to cope and are constantly running after the child, there are  concerns or complaints from school regarding his activity and concentration or his behavior is causing problems in academics or in the social field,  you need to consult your Pediatrician.

There are some other developmental problems in children which you may have heard of. Conditions like Autism, autistic spectrum disorder, dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyspraxia, etc are various conditions which are called as neurodevelopmental disorders in children as the behavioural and developmental issues seen are neurological in origin i.e. originate due to some problems in the development of thebrain. Autism is a severe disorder in children and problems are seen in the child’scommunication and socialization skills. Learning disabilities like dyslexia, dysgraphia,dyscalculia are conditions seen in children who are struggling significantly with their reading, writing or arithmetic skills in school despite having an average intelligence.Recently it has been observed that increasing number of children are displaying these problems and the cause for this increased numbers is still under research. However all of us need to be aware of the existence of these problems, so that if any symptoms are seen you can discuss them with your doctor.

 For this you need to be first aware of the various developmental milestones expected at various ages in children. If you have any concerns regarding your child’s development, behavior or learning ability you should discuss this with your doctor who can guide you further.

Dr. Leena Deshpande
Developmental Pediatrician

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