Motivating Your Intense Child

big emotions | homeschooling ADHD | homeschooling | motivation

My kids have BIG EMOTIONS. All three of them are what you’d call “intense” children. And while our lifestyle change and food eliminations have definitely taken care of the more violent feelings and rages we used to deal with, it hasn’t changed my kids’ personalities. They still feel things in a BIG WAY, and sometimes, that can be a BIG distraction to homeschooling, especially when those feelings have them completely unmotivated to learn.

I wish I could say I always handle this the right way and patiently walk them through these moments. I don’t. But I’m learning. Here’s some of what I’m learning—from lots of trial and error—works best to motivate an intense child.

5 Ways to Motivate your Intense Child

  • Help them calm down first. Oh, this is so hard for me. Most of the time, I just want it to stop. (Make the noise stop!) It takes all the Holy Spirit power to keep me from launching into a logical discourse on why their feelings don’t make sense. But I’m learning. I know this isn’t helpful. It doesn’t matter how correct I am, logic is NOT what they need. Those conversations must wait until later, after they are calm. First and foremost, I have to discover what my child needs to calm down. And it seems that different children and even different situations sometimes call for a different answer here. Sometimes, the child needs space from the situation or the offender to calm themselves. Sometimes, it’s a creative outlet to work through or distract from the anxiety. Other times, they just need me to hold them and tell them everything will be okay.  No logic, just reassurance and prayer.
  • Have a conversation (after they are calm). And what I mean by a conversation is still not the logical discourse I’m tempted to lay out. Instead, what I’ve found works best is to ask questions, specific leading questions asked in a patient, calm, friendly way (not an accusatory way) to help draw them out. I give them possible responses. I assure them that their honesty will not hurt my feelings and explain to them that I want to help them but need to know exactly what kind of help they need from me. If there is a problem to discuss, I try to ask questions that help them see what lesson they need to learn instead of merely preaching to them (well, okay, there’s some preaching to). During these conversations, I do insist that they speak to me respectfully (which is why we save these conversations for after they’ve calmed down.) I don’t feel that it is healthy for them to yell at me when they are frustrated, so I coach them that they can feel frustrated and that they can be honest while still speaking respectfully.
  • Set goals together. After they’ve shared what is frustrating them, I ask “how can I best help you?” For one of my intense kids, finding the words to explain a feeling or emotionally-charged situation is very difficult. So during this part of the conversation, I provide a few choices for what may help the next time this situation comes up, and then I let them choose what game plan seems most doable for them. We set expectations and talk through natural consequences. Sometimes, we even come up with a code word or secret sign that I can give to remind them of our strategy before the emotions take them beyond the point of return.
  • Avoid “you against them.” This is huge, when I remember it. And I don’t always. When I do, it really turns a situation around. I try to set up our conversations as “me and them” against natural consequences. “I hate to see you lose this privilege because of a bad choice. How can I help you make sure that doesn’t happen?” “I’d hate to see you miss that party because you didn’t finish your assignments. I want to help you get your work done, but I can’t do it for you. I need you to work with me, and I will do all that I can to help you succeed. How can I help you best?” I’m the ally, not the enemy. I’m on their side, wanting them to succeed! 
  • Ask for their ideas to be motivated in their schoolwork.  Often, I’m surprised by how small their suggestions usually are. “I just don’t like being up in my room all by myself to do my work” [with lots of drama and high-pitched weeping]. “I just don’t like my colored pencils. They aren’t coloring right on the paper” [with same amount of drama and wailing]. Sometimes, they just need to buck up, for sure. But if making room for my child at the dining room table, buying her a $2 pack of colored pencils, or letting her finish her math with a pink pen is going to renew and motivate her to push through and try again, I’m all for it.

Bottom-line, I’m learning. I’m learning that the best way to motivate my intense children is by allowing them a measure of control. Often the emotions come when something out of their control has occurred. But they can control their choices and progress. Learning is their choice. That’s not on me. It’s the classic “take them to water but can’t make them drink” scenario. I can teach, but I can’t make them learn. Homeschooling takes both of us working together.

In those intense moments, I am there to calm them, to teach them to cope with frustration and disappointment, to remind them of their goals, and to offer my assistance to help them with those goals. I don’t remove consequences or bail them out, but I also don’t make it my fault when they make a bad choice. In other words, I can’t get drawn into their drama (Oh, so much easier said than done! I do know it); I have to be my child’s calm, and draw them toward the Prince of Peace.

Yes, there have been seasons (particularly before we eliminated our problem foods and triggers) where I felt that I did more counseling than actual homeschooling. There have been times when I put a big X through my plans and made a checkbox for “parenting” in its place. But when moments with my intense child have the lesson plans all askew, I try to remember that God had different plans for the day, that learning to cope with BIG emotions is truly just as important for this child as learning to multiply, and that some lessons just can’t be scheduled. 

If you homeschool an intense or anxious child, I would love to hear your ideas on how you cope with the BIG EMOTIONS and get school done, too. Comment on my blog, or join the discussion on Facebook or Twitter.


A New Adventure: Taking on ADHD diet

When my homeschool year wrapped up, I embraced the summer break with the resolve to see if we could get to the bottom of some of our health issues through diet. It’s been a roller-coaster two years: two of my kids diagnosed with ADHD and some serious toddler issues, my husband had two back surgeries, a month-long bout of stomach bug (which ended in my toddler hospitalized for three days for dehydration), my husband’s second kidney stone, plus my own mysterious cramping and hormone concerns. Just for myself, I’d experimented with diet and realized I had very extreme issues with milk. Even trace amounts in baking goods would have me doubled-over in about 15 to 20 minutes. So with all that circling around in my head, I really wanted to give diet-change a serious look. We went gluten-free in June, and by July we tackled the ADHD elimination diet called Feingold.

I began keeping a detailed journal of everything everyone ate and daily notes on behaviors and moods.

What the ADHD diet eliminates

To start with, all dyes and preservatives and artificial anything are eliminated. This includes the hidden, non-listed preservatives. For instance, a package might be labeled “preservative free, no additives,” but the packaging has been sprayed with the preservative so the food is still contaminated even though it doesn’t have to be listed as an ingredient. Or, the product may list “corn, oil, salt” but the harmful preservative is in the oil that was used (but that doesn’t have to be listed either.) Bottom-line, Feingold does detailed research, sending out questionnaires to companies to find out which products truly are clean. I’ve learned the hard way, their list is pretty right on.

This also includes shampoos, toothpastes, hand soap, chapstick, laundry detergent, etc. I thought we were doing okay with dyes until I started looking more closely. You would’t believe where these things hide. Even fresh produce at restaurants is often injected with dyes to make them look brighter and fresher. Medicines, vitamins, and supplements are another surprising culprit. Again, no wonder my kids were having trouble.

Next the diet eliminates certain fresh fruits and vegetables that have been, from vast experience, shown to be problematic because of something called Salicylates, natural pesticides that plants produce to ward off bugs and disease. Even though it is natural, some people are extremely sensitive: tomatoes, grapes, apples, berries, cucumbers, almonds, coffee are some chief offenders. Some of these can be potentially be added back into a person’s diet once the key-offenders are found.

But the core of the diet is keeping a journal, making notes of everything, and watching for the patterns that surface. I’ve been blown away. And because I knew from personal experience how fast a reaction can happen, I could see my kids’ moods and behaviors shift just as quickly after eating certain foods.

How long does the ADHD diet take

A long time. It feels like an eternity. We’ve been doing this for 9 weeks, and we are not yet where I want to be though I’ve definitely seen progress and made connections. This is not for the faint of heart. I’ve read many articles that say you can’t treat ADHD with diet, and that specifically Feingold is only 1% effective or “outmoded.” And here’s why I think they say that: it’s stinking’ hard! This is all or nothing: no exceptions. This is not “give it a try for 2 weeks and see.” This is life-altering, leaving status-quo forever. There is no dabbling in this. It’s jump in with both feet. And no lie, it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

I spent 4 hours on my first shopping trip and did a lot of crying those first few weeks. It seemed impossible.

Also, it gets worse before it gets better. I couldn’t have done this without wonderful moms on the Facebook groups telling me to hang in there and helping me trouble-shoot. The detox of all the crap leaving their little systems is akin to a drug addict going through withdrawal. It’s ugly. But here’s how I knew to stick it out. While I’m thankful for medicine to help us through this transition time, I was always baffled why some days the meds seemed to work, some days it seemed to be too much, and some days it didn’t work at all. Now, it all makes sense, depending on what they ate and what their bodies were dealing with.

What I have learned from the ADHD diet

I’ve learned my kids have three categories of reactions: aggression and violence (corn, corn starch, corn syrup is awful for this); nasty, mouthy, catty remarks and general moodiness (dyes and hidden preservatives, also some salicylates for us, and high-sulfur foods for my daughter); and just plain impulsive off-the-wall silliness, as in what is typically thought of as ADHD (fruit and salicylates, our first hint before it gets really ugly). Note: Everyone is different; the triggers for my kids may not necessarily be the same as someone else’s, though there are often similarities.

I’ve learned that, since cutting my own salicylate consumption, my daily migraines are gone (I only had two headaches last month. That’s it!) The ringing in my ears disappeared when I switched from almond milk to rice milk (almonds are a salicylate). I’ve learned that I can have a few of these fruits and veggies in small amounts and not in the same day, limiting the number I eat in a week.

I’ve learned that bananas are gassed with a corn-based spray to make them ripen faster, causing severe tantrums in my toddler (biting, pinching, and scratching himself; screaming and kicking on the floor; throwing furniture; and other extreme stuff). And that he is back to his happy, easy-going self when I watch what he eats. Also, diet-cheats caused potty accidents almost without exception.

I’ve learned to bake everything. This is huge for me. I hated baking. But going gluten free, milk free, corn free, pretty much left me with no other alternative. And I’ve learned that I really enjoy baking, and my bread machine.

I’ve learned that all the “I could never” excuses, are really just that—excuses. And the Lord has taken all of my “I could never” statements and made me eat them, literally.

I’ve learned simplicity. As complex as these changes are, I’ve learned to keep meals simple and uncomplicated. And they are still delicious. I’ve learned to pack lunches and snacks for everything. I’ve learned you find new favorites. I’ve learned diet changes don’t have to be isolating.

I’ve learned a lot. It’s been a hard journey, but an unforgettable one. And yes, it’s been totally worth it.

Curious about Feingold? Here’s a great ebook pdf that will give you an overview of what’s involved. And if you have questions, I’d love to be there for you and answer all that I can. I know this is a tough road with lots of judgement and misunderstanding, no matter what route you choose. No judgement here; we’re all just doing the best we can for the kiddos we love.