Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Fixing Overload Failure in Children

“I have found that the most dangerous disability is not any formally diagnosable condition like dyslexia or ADD. It is fear.”

Edward Hallowell says that fear of mishandling the large number of normal daily inputs is a major reason that gifted people don’t perform (in a 2005 Harvard Business Review article called “Overloaded Circuits: Why Smart People Underperform"). He continues: “Fear shifts us into survival mode and thus prevents fluid learning and nuanced understanding. Certainly, if a real tiger is about to attack you, survival is the mode you want to be in. But, if you're trying to deal intelligently with a subtle task, survival mode is highly unpleasant and counterproductive."

Hallowell explains that gifted leaders become so overloaded with inputs, information, and needs that their brain goes from an orderly and creative approach controlled by the frontal lobes to a survival mode of the lower brain characterized by “fear, anxiety, impatience, irritability, anger, or panic.” This overload creates a situation where the person “is robbed of his flexibility, his sense of humor, his ability to deal with the unknown. He forgets the big picture and the goals and values he stands for. He loses creativity and his ability to change plans. He desperately wants to kill the metaphorical tiger.”

The same thing happens to our children when they can't handle, as Hallowell says, “the hyperkinetic environment in which we live…Never in history has the human brain been asked to track so many data points. Everywhere, people rely on their cell phones ,email, and digital assistants in the race to gather and transmit data, plans, and ideas faster and faster…As the human brain struggles to keep up, it falters…” Our children are faced with the same overload, but with less maturity to handle it.

(This overload is subtle and pernicious. Without thinking, I just clicked to my email to read a response from one of six notes I sent earlier for work. And today is a vacation day!)

Hallowell suggests four approaches to either stop or control the overload. They are good ones to incorporate into our parenting, as we help our children reduce fear from our stimulated world so they can grow and live freely in the world of learning, creativity, and courage.

1.  "Promote positive emotions" by "building a positive, fear-free emotional atmosphere."  A critical role for parents is to make home a positive, supportive place; it is a hard world out there, even in First Grade.  Physical contact and relationship are essential; make time for them.  Let's start by turning off screens and their inputs and replacing them with people, play, and creative places in our homes.

2.  "Take physical care of your brain with sleep, good diet, and exercise."  Children should never suffer or do less than they can because of an adult's lack of attention in this area. The basics are so important.  Let's make sure our children sleep and rest enough, eat foods that are healthy and that maintain steady glucose levels (not white breads, sugars, and power drinks), take vitamins, and exercise regularly.

3.  Develop strategies that help handle the overload.  For adults and children, have chunks of the day when email and videos are banned.  Don't use screens as the default in parenting, make screens the exception. Create a neat space; your office or a child's room can be messy, but there should be a clear place somewhere.  Help your child organize and prioritize needs rather than adding unnecessary burdens or getting frustrated when they aren't done well.  Give your children an atmosphere for work that works for them.

4.  "Protect your frontal lobes by staying out of survival mode all you can."  Guard your children's inputs and stressors, reducing the ones you can and helping them sort out the others with a plan.  Give them chunks of time when they don't have to experience the pressure or inputs.  Do things like play games or read books that require their total concentration on one thing so they can forget all the inputs except the one pleasant one they are doing.

You might want to look at Dr. Hallowell's site Crazy Busy for ideas on being busy, Don't Miss Your Life for ideas on getting inputs and fears under control, and 45 Things about life in the workplace (the picture above is from this site).

Or, even better, memorize Philippians 4:6 with your child, "Be anxious for nothing, but in everything in prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.  And the peace of God, which passes all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus."  Maybe study Jesus' life together and how he handled pressures and crowds.  And model for your children, "Cease striving and know that I am God" (Psalm 46:10).

What does all of the input our children absorb do to them? Let me end with this quote from Luke's Commonplace Book, originating with Agatha Christie: "I suppose it’s because nearly all children go to school nowadays and have things arranged for them that they seem so forlornly unable to produce their own ideas."  How do we help our children control fear and its consequences from the overload?

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