According to current estimates, about 11% of American children ages 4 to 17 have been diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)—a population of about 6.4 million. Drugs are often considered the first line of treatment for these children, but concerns have been raised about side effects, overuse, and whether they are detrimental to children’s creativity and ability to express themselves. Since ADHD also affects teachers, parents, and siblings, it has been widely questioned whether medication is sometimes chosen because it’s the most expedient way to maintain order within the school or home.
Now an important new book offers a viable, nonmedical treatment plan to help kids with ADHD. The Impact of Empathy: A New Approach to Working with ADHD Children (Blossoming Books, October 2014), by Emilia Costa, M.D.—a former professor of psychiatry and psychotherapy at La Sapienza University in Rome—and Daniela Muggia—a thanatologist and winner of the prestigious Terzani Award for the Medical Humanities—offers a compelling alternative to a trip to the drugstore. In a long-overdue reassessment, the authors show parents, teachers, and therapists how to instill a state of inner peace in children that defuses the confusion and anxiety of ADHD and how to help kids develop effective coping skills for long-term self-care. Drugs can actually hinder the development of these coping skills. “Pharmacological agents in fact induce behavioral changes, but they are not capable of teaching children how to make these changes on their own,” the authors claim.
Lessons from End-of-Life Care
Tapping case studies and extensive research on alternative and complementary methods of treatment, the authors discuss empathic/compassionate listening, Jungian-inspired guided imagination, and other techniques for treating ADHD in children. Some of these empathy practices are similar to those used in end-of-life care. Children can learn to cultivate internally peaceful states through the Empathic Care at the End of Life (ECEL) method, which is taught in many graduate school programs, hospitals, and hospices. Bringing together the fields of Tibetan thanatology (the science of death and dying), neuroscience, and an understanding of quantum physics, the ECEL method shows that a state of inner peace achieved through meditative training can significantly soothe confusion and anxiety—especially in a troubled ADHD child.
A key to the success of the ECEL method is the child’s natural state of empathy and receptivity. The stronger this state is, the better frame of mind a child has to receive and assimilate guidance from caregivers trained to access and maintain a peaceful and compassionate state of mind. By learning to experience the state of mind of people around them more directly, the children can replicate this state within themselves. With practice, they can then ratchet down their ADHD symptoms and consistently behave more appropriately—all without the use of drugs.
Crucial to the success of this caregiver intervention is listening—really listening—to the child. Since a restless or obsessive child often cannot verbalize the inner conflict, empathic listening is very useful for getting to the child’s needs that are the basis for this behavior. By learning to listen in a compassionate way, caregivers can bring the moment into a peaceful space, which then becomes accessible to the child.
Behaviors of children with ADHD, the authors contend, are often misunderstood as “willful” acts, even though their actions may only reflect internal suffering. A troublemaker may actually be “a sage in disguise”—a very intelligent child whose boredom with standard classroom learning leads to daydreaming and distraction. Putting these children in touch with their true feelings about themselves can enable them to find a way to solve the problem, without being expressly told how.
Equipped with this landmark book, caregivers will have valuable guidance on how to:
- Establish trust with a child
- Understand the child within the context of his or her entire life, which may be the key to the problem. Is there parental discord? Was there a recent loss of a loved one?
- Provide training so the child can choose not to enter a loop that will lead to disruptive or inattentive behavior
Readers will learn about the benefits of autogenic training, which involves passive and progressive attention and concentration on different parts of the body. By inducing a state of calm, narrowing the field of consciousness, and fostering an attitude of introspection, autogenic exercises help eliminate, improve, modify, and normalize negative effects caused by tension, anxiety, and stress. This training has been successful for psychological and physical recovery in sports, school, and work environments—even as preparation for spaceflight and other extreme situations.
The authors also investigate the benefits of meditation, whose resume for wellness seems to grow ceaselessly. Studies show that just a few minutes of transcendental meditation twice a day can improve attention and impulse control…reduce stress, anxiety, and anger…and hone the ability to contemplate what is happening in one’s mind. Almost everyone, according to the authors, suffers from attention deficits. “Try to observe your breath for ten minutes and see how many times you are distracted by a thought or an attempt to keep it out of your mind, or by the thought about thought that you created immediately afterwards!” they tell the reader.
The Impact of Empathy also examines the cultural issues, practices, and beliefs in today’s society that have led to overmedicating. Additional resources and scientific information provide more evidence supporting a new, nondrug paradigm in ADHD treatment that taps into natural human healing capacities instead of overriding them.
How important is The Impact of Empathy? A comment by Dr. Ervin Laszlo—renowned philosopher, scientist, and two-time nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize—says it all: “It will prove to be essential for those who care for children with ADHD and also for the rest of us who live in this world.”