Peer Pressure Rules

Peer pressure has gotten a bad rap. When we think about peer pressure, we focus almost exclusively on the detrimental effects of negative peer pressure. We have forgotten that peer pressure is also one of the strongest shapers of positive social and academic behavior. As adults we use it to push ourselves to the next level. From workout buddies to peer-reviewed academic journals, peer pressure is a powerful motivating tool.

Over the weekend my sons were playing Minecraft with some friends and one child decided to destroy structures built by the others. The peer pressure correction was swift. The other kids worked together first to disable his character by “killing” him then, when that didn’t work, they banned him from the server for a week. The peer pressure and consequences for his anti-social behavior were swift, effective, and temporary. His friends even comforted him after the banning. They reminded him it was for a short period of time and let him know that although they understood how much fun it is to blow things up in Minecraft, he needed to restrain himself if he wanted to play with them.

Navigating peer group rules develops executive function. it also teaches children how to behave in society in a way that is difficult for adults to mimic. As children get older, their view of themselves and their place in the world is increasingly defined by how they see themselves in their peer groups. Are they the clown, the smart one, the loner, or are they lucky enough to have a peer group that allows them to be a multidimensional, complete person?

While we cannot choose their friends, we can stack the deck in favor of more positive peer interactions by getting our children into academic and extracurricular programs that emphasize acceptance, hard work, respect, and kindness. One of the huge benefits of getting your child into “the good” school is not the staff or facilities. It is the other students. Surround your child with high achievers that value academics and your child will study more to fit in.

Finding a positive peer group is especially important for highly and exceptionally gifted children. These children are capable of academic achievements above and beyond average kids their age and it is their intellectual peers that will pull them to excel. Of course, it is important to help your child find their true peers. If your 15-year-old is working on cancer research, then his intellectual peers are not regular 8th and 9th graders. Yet it isn’t all about academics. Gifted children’s sometimes volatile passion and asynchronous development can make it difficult for them to feel fully comfortable in a regular, age-mate peer group. By giving them opportunities to develop friendships with gifted children of various ages, they are more fully understood and accepted.

Here are some rules for evaluating positive peer pressure.

  1. The pressure is focused on modifying behavior, not changing the person. In other words, the uniqueness of each individual in the group is valued and accepted.
  2. The group applies pressure consistently and even-handedly to all members of the peer group without one child being relentlessly singled out.
  3. The consequences for failing the peer group’s expectations are temporary and not emotionally or physically scarring.
  4. The pressure and resulting consequences are not acted out publicly. There is no record of it on Facebook, YouTube, other social media, or the Internet in general.
  5. The peer group moves on and past mistakes are forgiven and forgotten.
  6. You, as a parent, agree with the values and goals the peer group emphases.

The right kind of peer pressure encourages all of us to push ourselves harder than we would otherwise and helps us reach new goals. One of the most important jobs for parents of gifted kids is making sure they are surrounded by helpful peer groups. Then we can sit back and let the positive pressure do its magic.

Improper regulation of neurotransmitters in ADHD – Coursera ADHD – Week 5

This week’s class gave us a more detailed look at the neurochemistry of ADHD. Much of it focused on monoamines, catecholamine synthesis, chemical structures, and neurobiology of the brain. I’ll attempt to distill the information down to what I, as a parent, find most helpful.

The neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine are deficient or dysregulated in ADHD. On the molecular genetic level, research shows that the genes most likely linked to ADHD also affect dopamine and norepinephrine.

The entire mechanism of motivation and attention is complex and involves multiple brain areas and neurochemicals. Although it was not covered in detail, the transmitter serotonin is also thought to modulate brain function and affect the symptoms of ADHD. Because the system is so complex, researchers feel that the issue with ADHD might be more a dysregulation of the neurotransmitter system where the release of chemicals is out of sync than a systematic deficiency of dopamine or norepinephrine. That being said, most ADHD drugs work by increasing their production and/or slowing their re-uptake to extend their effect.

One of the lecture slides was a great venn diagram showing serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine functionality. The diagram here, from the World of Caffeine website, is a more complex version of the one used in class. It shows how the three monoamines balance to create optimal attention, motivation, mood, and cognitive function.

World of Caffeine also has a nice summary of how caffeine affects the neurotransmitters. Caffeine is frequently the ADHD stimulant medication of choice for adults with ADHD symptoms.

Outside of the formal lecture, responses to the office hours questions were also posted this week. Amid general course and detailed brain anatomy information, were a few answers about kids and ADHD that stood out:

  • ADHD diagnoses decrease with age due most likely to several factors including the disorder naturally improving with age in some individuals.
  • The current definition of ADHD and system of diagnosis will not over identify children if clinicians are careful in their assessments and look for other explanations for problems with impulse control and attention regulation other than ADHD. However, too often our healthcare system doesn’t allow adequate time for evaluations. This can also lead to missed diagnosis.
  • Exercise and diet cannot prevent the onset of ADHD but they can help improve the symptoms. Dr. Rostain recommends the book Spark by Dr. John J. Ratey for anyone interesting in learning more about using exercise to improve ADHD.
  • ADHD is linked to poor sleep. It is possible the same brain difficulties that lead to ADHD symptoms also interfere with sleep regulation.
  • Although autism and ADHD  are entirely different entities, the same genes are involved.
  • Psychosocial stress increases ADHD risk and insufficient sleep diminishes focusing and productivity for everyone.
  • Brain training can build focus, attention, and cognitive processing but there is limited data on which programs are most effective because the field is very new.
  • There is no correlation between ADHD and IQ other than as a group, children with ADHD have a slightly lower average IQ of 95 rather than the 100 of the general population. This little fact, to me, says that if a child who is highly or exceptionally gifted has symptoms that look like ADHD, extra care should be taken in trying to determine what is actually going on. It might be ADHD but it might just as easily be normal behavior for a stressed, high-energy, gifted child.

In a few of the office hours answers students were referred to Judith Warner’s recent article on ADHD in Time. The gist of the article seems is that ADHD is a true medical condition and if we get too worried about over diagnosis we run the risk of having insurance companies or congress deny effective treatment options to vulnerable kids. She states that it is a developmental disorder not a symptom of social pathology.

Yes, ADHD is a real problem and is classified as a developmental disorder. Yet, carefully treating kids negative affected by it does not preclude an in-depth discussion on modern childhood. It is a disorder triggered or amplified by certain environmental conditions. This makes it all the more important to closely examine what has happened to childhood over the last 20 years to see how we may have turned on the ADHD genes.