Increasingly, in my private counseling practice and in helping student counselors, I have become aware of more and more cases of young children with symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and it’s an area where parents are constantly seeking guidance. According to a study from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the Health Resources and Services Administration, a health care provider has diagnosed approximately 11 percent of children between the ages of four and 17 with ADHD in 2011—roughly 6.4 million children. This number has been increasing by 3% since 2003. Also, the number of children taking medication for ADHD has increased by 28% between 2007 and 2011.
Unfortunately, too many children are being misdiagnosed and or over-diagnosed with ADHD and given drugs as a primary form of treatment. As co-director of the Center for Collaborative Brain Research (CCBR), I have been working with other neurologists, counselors, and other helping professionals to study the effects of brain-based interventions such as neurofeedback on children with ADHD symptoms, and I have often found it to be a safer treatment with better results.
What is Neurofeedback?
Neurofeedback, biofeedback for the brain, is the direct training of brain dysregulation through which the brain learns to work more efficiently and effectively. It is based on electrical brainwave activity, and we use an electroencephalogram, or EEG, instrument to observe the brain in action from moment to moment. We then show the information back to the patient and reward the brain for changing its own activity to more appropriate patterns. This is training in self-regulation.
When brainwaves are dysregulated, they follow patterns that lead to negative or traumatic results for the patient, such as depression, anxiety, sleeping disorders, and ADHD. Neurofeedback is a gradual learning process that helps the patient regulate and normalize these brainwaves, allowing the central nervous system to calm down and function better. With the EEG instrument, we can see the patient’s brainwaves changing as they learn to self-regulate.
The main benefit of neurocounseling is helping children live life effectively without having to be on medication. One interesting effect on children with ADHD symptoms we’ve found has to do with the Default Mode Network (DMN), which is an essential brain function allowing for introspection and understanding the world of self and others. Children with ADHD often have difficulty activating the DMN during a resting state; however, after 40 sessions of neurofeedback, we saw that DMN activation was possible.
Parents, Children, and Neurofeedback
I recommend neurofeedback as an efficacious, alternative form of treatment for children with ADHD symptoms. As opposed to quickly diagnosing children and prescribing medicine that comes with its own set of deleterious side effects, we can approach these symptoms with self-regulation helping the brain treat itself in a natural, less invasive way. In fact, I have found that about 80% of children who have gone through multiple sessions of neurofeedback have gotten off of their stimulate medication.
Many mental health concerns have physiological implications, so I encourage parents and teachers to learn and be aware of the indicators associated with ADHD. Some physiological clues to look for are breathing patterns, sleeplessness, and agitation. Another example might be, if a child’s hands are cold, we know that this is telling us something about their nervous system. The child may be anxious, which is something we can use neuro counseling and biofeedback to address.
Another factor I have noticed in my research is how technology has impacted brainwaves. The increasing screen time children get with TV, computers, and other devices have resulted in functional and structural changes in the brain. Children are living a more sedentary lifestyle and not getting the proper amount of cardiovascular exercise. Sleep hygiene is also important. Parents need to be aware of the effect of technology in disrupting healthy sleep patterns.
All of these physiological and lifestyle factors play a role in changing a child’s brain functions and contribute to the prevalence of children being misdiagnosed with ADHD. By being aware of these environmental traps, we as parents, teachers, and counselors can gain a better understanding of a child’s well being.
My approach to treating ADHD symptoms in children and my approach to counseling in general has evolved for the better with my training in neurofeedback. Misdiagnosing children and overprescribing stimulate drugs can bring harsh side effects and prevent them from living their lives effectively. Neurofeedback is a safer, longer-lasting and more effective form of behavioral therapy and can be one of the first assessment and treatments steps in addressing ADHD symptoms.