Hyperactivity is a big deal these days. Between the surge of ADD/ADHD diagnoses and the overwhelming sugar + sedentary activity problem in America, more moms are concerned that their little ones are hyperactive than ever before.
True hyperactivity, however, is less common than you think. The typical little boy can make you pull your hair out with all his bouncing, throwing, stomping, running, and yelling. But most of this is normal. Young children have tons of energy and often not enough output. Some kids are more high-need than others in this department, but it is not uncommon to need to go out to the playground every day, even twice. Don’t confuse the unwillingness to sit still with real hyperactivity.
So what does true hyperactivity look like? Real hyperactivity is usually related to a neurological sensory problem which manifests in uncontrollable gross motor movements. A very common symptom is the actual inability to still one’s body. If a child is literally unable to stop moving, sit in a chair, or focus attention on something, it disturbs him. He wants to pay attention but he can’t. One mom friend of mine described how her little boy’s therapist suggested using a lead jacket to help him sit in his chair at school, but he still couldn’t do it. He felt like jumping out of his skin. He fidgeted everywhere to try and get some of the anxiety out but eventually he had to jump up, throw off the vest, and walk around. He was literally driven to move… he didn’t feel right unless he was moving, so in effect, moving from his perspective gave him the same peace that most people feel when they are sitting still. You could see this problem at mealtime too; he had to eat standing up and rocking slightly because when he sat still he couldn’t concentrate or keep his hands still enough to drink. This type of anxiety, even depression, and maladaptiveness (disturbance to one’s lifestyle) is what real hyperactivity looks like.
Other symptoms in a little child might include:
- inability to read letters unless moving
- inability to keep hands to himself—pulling hair, tugging clothes, wringing hands, pushing or pulling people
- avoidance of activities that require concentration or listening
- tics or nervous twitching
- general inability to keep arms, hands, feet still (rubbing eyes, stroking hair, moving seamlessly from one fidget to another)
Now this doesn’t mean you should ignore your child’s signs if they are more mild. It just means that you shouldn’t go rushing for Ritalin. You might be able to work with a private therapist or in the home, and get good results. In fact, I would definitely try this first.
Several things in the environment can trigger hyperactivity, and you have probably heard of all of them:
- sugar (yes, it really does make a difference)
- other dietary disturbances or allergic reactions
- bad sleeping habits (“wired” behavior comes out when over tired or unable to fall asleep)
- overstimulation (too much chaos, activity)
- understimulation (not enough structured activity, too much TV or video games)
- lack of self-directed play skills (boredom)
- not enough active or outside play opportunities
- stress (parents fighting, school too hard, sibling rivalry, etc)
- lack of discipline in the home; training
I would try addressing all of the above with my child before sending him to the doctor about it. Especially the lack of structured activity and/or discipline in the home… some organized play each day, some outside time for jumping, and some training lessons regarding sitting and quiet play can go MILES in helping your active ones calm down. While some children are definitely more passive and exhibit self-discipline more naturally, the vast majority of them are not going to pick it up on their own without help and opportunities from parents. Simply, you can’t wait for your child to outgrow hyper behavior. They need to be helped. Hyperactivity that is truly due to lack of behavioral training will respond within months to lifestyle changes like these.
Other hyperactivity can be masquerading as sensory processing disorder. In cases like these, organizing activities like pushing, pulling, lifting, bouncing or other gross motor actions send calming signals to the brain and can help children concentrate. This is why preschoolers take frequent breaks and recesses. It is actually normal for kids to need to run around the playground before they do storytime or math; it is just not normal when it reaches a certain extreme. Occupational therapists may also suggest deep pressure, brushing, or the weighted vest/blanket if it helps your child organize his sensory input. Eventually the children usually outgrow the need for these props, or they can be sublimated into something appropriate for school (stress balls, bean bags, etc).
I have found, with three active little boys, that they really need a combination of activities in order to achieve the right balance. They need “monkey time” as I call it—time to jump around and be silly, even if it means running around the house… something my ideals threaten to trump. And if it’s dark, cold, or wet and they’ve been in all day, they need it all the more. They also need structured gross motor activity like doing small jobs around the house or taking objects up and downstairs where their energy can be channeled into purposeful ends. They also need quiet times—naps, listening to music/story, or watching a video each day. And they need low-key play times where I help them organize themselves to think and be controlled. Play-doh, legos, a worksheet, or stringing beads…fine motor things like this are very good. All these kinds of activities put together in a day vary the level of stimulation to the brain and challenge them to use different parts of it, maintaining balance. Left alone, the kids would probably overdose on one type of stimulation (either overly aggressive or overly passive, and always unorganized), leading to unbalance and inability to control themselves.
So the main principle is: a child who is demonstrating mild hyper behavior is likely reflecting hyper emotions, urges, or thoughts within. Your job as the parent is to guide or channel them until the energy works for the child instead of against them. This can be very taxing for a parent of a truly high-need child, and my empathy goes out to you. But don’t give up. Lots of times the preschool ages are the hardest. Chances are that your child is a leader and doer, and this is truly a virtue if you can confront it consistently.
Note: it is probably not a good idea to try and diagnose hyperactivity in the infant year. Babies have disorganized neurological systems, and it takes different babies different amounts of time to organize themselves. Large developmental changes regarding gross motor development and hormones make babies startle a lot, interfere with their sleep, and feel driven to explore. This is usually all very normal. I wouldn’t worry about it unless you see something that is really abnormal, or if something your baby is doing seems to be causing them more distress as times goes on (i.e. your baby used to be able to bring Cheerios to his mouth but now finds himself unable to control his hand, arm, or body when doing this). Bring anything like this up with your pediatrician immediately.