Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Help for Hypervigilant Parents

guest blog by Sheila Grant, MS, RN

As a recovering, card-carrying hypervigilant mom, I have vast experience with the associated behaviors. I was constantly on the lookout for any potential danger and jumped in to ensure that my children were spared from any discomfort. (They weren’t spared anyway.) With a longstanding compulsion to protect my children at all costs, I was on guard, on edge, and exhausted.

To be fair, I had good cause to be concerned and protective. When my two young children were diagnosed with ADHD, they were constantly getting into one scrape or another. Arguments with neighborhood kids, upsets at school, difficulty doing the smallest tasks, and verbal impulsivity were frequent occurrences. I cringed every time the phone rang, hoping it wasn’t a neighbor or a teacher calling to tell me my child was in some sort of trouble.

All parents want to protect their children, but the urge to protect children can become even more intense when the child is diagnosed with ADHD, because we know the child will have unique challenges. It is appropriate and prudent to offer the type of support and care he or she needs.

Effective and critical strategies to support your child include getting comprehensive evaluations and following up with appropriate therapies, including medication, academic supports, IEPs, coaches, and therapists. Being available emotionally and physically to guide a child is important for all parents, but it is critical for those parents who have a child with ADHD. These behaviors are indicative of concerned and caring parents who want to support their children and help them to cope with the challenge of having ADHD.

So, then, what is hypervigilance and what does it look like? Psychologist Lynn Margolies describes hypervigilance as being hyperalert to danger and hypersensitive to one’s environment. There is a constant scanning of the environment to protect or guard against a real or imagined threat. Severe, acute anxiety accompanies hypervigilance and may lead to mental and physical exhaustion.

One way to tell if you are hypervigilant is to recognize how you are feeling. Are you constantly tense and on guard? Are you in a state of panic, is your heart racing, and is your stomach upset? Do you feel an urgency to act? Do you listen in on your child’s phone conversations to ensure she is being socially appropriate? Have you followed your child as he drives through the neighborhood to ensure he is going the appropriate speed? Are you lying awake at night obsessively reviewing what you could have done better that day in regards to your child? Do you believe you are the only one who can help your child? Are you consumed by your child’s difficulties, to the point that you do not have a moment to enjoy life? Are you feeling anxious and depressed?

Hypervigilance doesn’t protect you or your children from danger and may even cause you to make mistakes. Being in a constant state of fear may impact your ability to focus and concentrate as well as your physical and mental well-being. Hypervigilance renders you ineffective in solving problems and navigating your way through the challenges of raising a child with ADHD.

Paradoxically, the effort to protect your child at all costs has the opposite effect of what you hoped for. Jumping in to fix all of your children’s problems ensures that when they become adults, they will have difficulty solving their own problems. As parents, our job is to help our children, teens, and young adults learn how to solve problems—not to jump in and fix them. Obviously, it is a fine balance and the problem-solving must be age-appropriate.

When you are on hyperalert at all times, you send your children a strong message: “You are not capable of caring for yourself or managing your life, so I will.” You may not be saying this out loud, but your children get the message loud and clear.

Here are five tips to help you get on the road to less hypervigilant parenting:
•    Find a supportive community; create a circle of care.
•    Get help for yourself.
•    Get the help you need for your child; ensure appropriate supports are in place.
•    Consider a spiritual perspective.
•    Remember this is a marathon, not a sprint. Pace yourself.

The dance we parents of children with ADHD are required to learn is tricky; the steps are complex and there are always missteps on the journey. We must balance our role as parents to be concerned and available without harming ourselves with excessive vigilance and anxiety over the lives of our children who have ADHD. When we manage our own anxiety and become more centered and calm, our children will surely benefit.

A longer version of this post appeared in the February 2015 issue of Attention magazine, available through our free app, which you can download on the App store. Current CHADD members can access it through the app at no extra cost.

You can also join the conversations about parenting kids with ADHD on Attention connection, your social network for all things ADHD!

Sheila Grant MS, RN, is co-coordinator of Chester County/MainLine CHADD where she facilitates the parent support groups. She is a psychiatric nurse on the adjunct faculty at Immaculata University.

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