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Note to a Parent

In spring of 2001, a parent wrote to Thom on an ADHD website to tell a story of her child being horribly emotionally wounded by his school, and asking what suggestions Thom had. Here's what he wrote:

Dear JF,

Several things occur to me as I read your story. The first is how callous and destructive our contemporary "factory" schools CAN BE, when it comes to children who weren't born with "standard factory issue neurology." The system works great for about half our kids -- the "average" ones who are temperamentally suited to repetitious tasks and auditory teaching styles. They'll go through school without a problem, and some will end up having quite average lives working in cubicles or factories or whatever.

Others will even find school fun, and go on to college and become teachers. Some will go from college to graduate school, and perhaps end up with PhDs in education or psychology. They and their teacher colleagues will look at children like your child and mine and say to themselves, "This kid sure isn't anything like I was, and I'm normal, so this kid must be screwed up," and slap a label on him.

Those people who have a particular type of neurology that allows them to successfully navigate through the school systems become, by default, the ones who are the arbiters of what "normal" is. And therefore they have little or no interest in changing the system -- after all, it worked just fine for them -- but instead will leap to labeling our children as "disordered" or "defective" or "diseased." They'll look for just about any option other than changing the system that worked fine for them, including giving our children drugs, institutionalizing them, and destroying their self-esteem. It doesn't matter that the "other half" of the kids are struggling with school, hating school, in pain from school: let's just find a way to shut them up and move them through.

This is true so terribly often regardless of whether the child has what the schools call a "learning disability" (I call them "teaching disabilities" - if a child can learn an entire language by the age of three, how come a teacher can't teach him how to read or do math?) or is gifted (or both).

Anyhow, we can sit around and rant about our schools all day long, but that's not going to help your child in the next week. So let's consider some other, more practical options.

First, I have to mention that I'm not your child's psychotherapist, I can only legally practice psychotherapy in the State of Vermont, and I'm not a physician and am not offering medical advice, either generally or specifically for your child. I don't know you or your child, so what follows is only the most abstract of generalizations.

1. Depression is a perfectly normal response to a world that isn't working. If someone close to us dies, we lose a job, the house catches on fire, the car dies, our spouse leaves, or any other life disasters (God forbid), it's *normal* to respond by being depressed. In fact, if a person didn't respond to such things by a period of introspection and "being down," that would be a huge red-flag warning signal of psychological imbalance.

The problem in this situation is that when people die or jobs are lost or whatever, life moves on and we normally move on with it. We go to, something else, change our situation, or let the passage of time heal the wounds. In the case you've described, however, this child is being wounded every single day. He can't escape it. He's being hit over and over again, probably hourly, in the most vulnerable areas of his psyche - his sense of self. And therefore he can't go through the normal grieving and healing and moving on process that people do when they find themselves in untenable life situations.

Therefore, my first suggestion would be to get him out of that environment as soon as possible. When our son was failing in 8th grade, we pulled him out of public school and sent him to a very small private school with a very eclectic academic philosophy (Horizon School in Atlanta). He loved it, and went from failing and having a psychiatric disorder that required drugs (ADHD) in the public school to being one of the top students at Horizon, and without medications. His "disease" vanished when we simply changed schools (which was when I first started wondering where the "disease" really is).

When our youngest daughter, in 7th grade, began to hate school and refused to go back to class after a particularly painful and humiliating conference with her teachers, we pulled her out and let her go to school on the internet from home, via In the public school, both of these children would have been beaten down and had their self esteem ruined (as happened to their older sister): the course was clear, the docs were prescribing meds, and the teachers already had a pocket full of labels (including ADHD) for both of them.

With these simple interventions of "get them the heck out of that wounding environment," THEY FOUND SUCCESS. Our son is now a senior at the University of Georgia and loving college, and our youngest daughter is in the pre-med program at Warren Wilson college (she began college on her 17th birthday). These were both children otherwise destined for a psychiatrist's office, both depressed and unhappy with school, and are both now enthusiastic, motivated learners who reject labels and consider themselves healthy and whole. It is possible to break the cycle of abuse by schools by simply removing children from the abusive schools.

A middle-ground program that keeps kids in school but still lets them find space for success and change is one started in Montpelier, Vermont by Deborah Bogart, a friend of ours. It's called "branching out," and has been tremendously successful. You can read about it on the web at If you don't have a program like that near you, you may want to drop Deb a note and ask about how you could help start one. (Tell her I said hi. <g>)

There's a reason why the children of the rich and powerful do not go to public schools, why few of our US Senators were educated in public schools, why John Kennedy and George W. Bush avoided public schools, why virtually none of the CEOs of the Fortune 500 went to public schools. The secret known to the American elite is that we really have two very separate school systems in America: private and public. And the public schools are designed to produce the worker bees of our culture, and designed to do that regardless of the cost to the children involved. (I write about this at length in "Thom Hartmann's Complete Guide to ADHD," my newest book.)

The wounding of our children is not their main concern: producing their "product" of "standardized education" for "standardized workers" is. So getting non-factory-issue-neurology kids out of that milieu is, in my humble opinion, the first and most important intervention we can do as parents.

2. There are a number of interventions parents can do to help children maximize their brain power. The first is to reduce or eliminate exposure to the neurological drug of television. In 1955, fewer than a third of American homes had televisions. By 1965 it was over 95%. (And today more than half of all American children have a television in their bedrooms.)

This transformation was a huge neurological experiment, as is so well documented in books like Pearce's "Evolution's End" and Mander's "Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television" and Winn's "The Plug-In Drug." The experiment seems to be producing fruits, and they're not healthy. It's not the content of television that's the problem (although that's what they want to talk about), it's the fact of visual and auditory input coming into a child's brain at the same time.

Prior to TV, children learned to visualize after hearing words. This started with stories around the fire 200,000 years ago, then moved to the written word 6000 years ago, and to radio 80 years ago. In every case, children heard words and then had to imagine visual images. We call this "auditory processing" because they're processing auditory information into pictures. If I say, "Think of a pink elephant," a good auditory processor can pull up a picture in an instant.

But a child raised on hours daily of television will often have a problem with auditory processing, because they've had little experience with having to imagine pictures in response to words. Across America and Europe, many parents are restricting childhood television viewing to only a few hours per week (particularly young children), and many are also removing TV from their homes altogether. The results, although anecdotal (no drug company has offered to fund this research), seem startling: children start reading, playing with others, and learning social skills and learning how to learn.

Another option is EEG Neurofeedback. This is really just a computer-based way of teaching children how to pay attention, with a computer instead of a teacher telling them, "You just drifted off, pay attention now!" Because the computer is monitoring their brainwaves and can offer this feedback within a millisecond -- whereas a teacher may require ten minutes to realize a child is off in space -- children learn quickly (usually 10 to 30 sessions) how their own attentional mechanism works, and how to get control over it. You'll find a lot of information on this, including good science peer-reviewed university studies, at and , among other websites.

Another option is to help your child learn how to learn. Sylvan Learning Centers and other programs, as well as local people who work as tutors, can be a huge assistance, particularly for those children who never really learned the systems and strategies of how to learn. For most children, once they taste success they will bolt ahead into a new, brighter, and positive future.

Another thought is coaching, both for you and for your child. ADHD coaching is just now developing as a science and art form, but it's growing rapidly. We're developing a coaching network, although it'll be a few months before there's anything about it on my website. We're doing this because we've found telephone coaching to be one of the most effective and least costly forms of intervention for families in crisis...and the big benefit is that coaching is goal-oriented so it helps parents and children move toward a positive future instead of reacting to or wallowing in a painful past. (Coaching is *not* therapy, thank goodness.)

There are many coaching sites on the web, but Optimal Functioning Institute trains ADD-specific coaches at Three people in the field I know and trust are also Sandy Maynard, Nancy Ratey , and Terry Maitlen , although there are also many others out there, including my own Shadow Coaching program.

And, finally, I'd encourage you to check out books on the use of "logical consequences" as an addition to your bag of tricks for parenting. Based in the work of Alfred Adler, my favorite book on this topic (which we used as a child-care manual when I ran the residential treatment program for abused children) is "Children: The Challenge" by Rudolf Dreikurs and my favorite video-based training programs are offered by Active Parenting Publishers and written by Michael Popkin, PhD (who wrote the foreword to my first book on ADD, and so I know and can recommend).

I realize this is rather a grab-bag, but not know your family or child I figured I'd toss it all out there. Hope something helps!

Good luck and God speed.


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