The Race Car Brain

There are some children whose brains and bodies always seem to be racing. The parent may feel like they start playing with blocks with the child and then the child runs off to paint and while the parent is still putting blocks away and cleaning up paint, the child has already flipped through a few pages of five different books and is climbing the bookshelf.

Talking to them may also feel like this – they ask a question, and as you start to answer it, they ask another question, and before you can answer that one, they tell you what they had for breakfast. Parents (or teachers) may feel like they can never quite catch up.

It’s easy to fall into patterns of continuously scolding them to “stop!” or “pay attention!” It’s easy to see them as problem kids. However, they have a lot of important strengths, like curiosity, enthusiasm and energy.

Dr. Ned Hallowell* would say to these kids: “Your brain is very powerful.  Your brain is like a Ferrari, a race car.  You have the power to win races and become a champion. However, you do have one problem.  You have bicycle brakes.  Your brakes just aren’t strong enough to control the powerful brain you’ve got.  So, you can’t slow down or stop when you need to.  Your mind goes off wherever it wants to go, instead of staying on track.  But not to worry… we can strengthen your brakes.”

Strengthening their Brakes

We can do several things to help them slow down and learn new skills, like a longer attention span, persistence, and impulse control:

  • Routines: having predictable schedules, where they know what to expect and know what is expected of them. Visual schedules may help.
  • Break it down: they may have a very hard time doing a big task, but find it easier if you break it down into small specific tasks. So instead of saying “clean up this mess”, say “we have four steps – the first step is to put the Legos in the basket – when you’re done with that, let me know and I’ll tell you step two.”
  • Practice sticking with a task: try setting a timer and say “we’re going to do this activity together for at least five minutes. When we give persistence muscles a workout, they get stronger.” (Before you do this, try to get a baseline of how long they typically stick to a task. If they typically can do 3 minutes, you don’t want to set a timer for fifteen… that would be too much of a stretch.)
    • Use a timer they can read and see the progress on (like an hourglass where they can see that their time is halfway up, or a kitchen timer, where they can see that the dial is halfway toward zero are both easier to understand than a digital countdown)
  • Tell them what to focus on. Instead of just saying “focus” or “pay attention” tell them exactly what to pay attention to: “I’m going to tell you the three things we need to do today, so I want you to listen till you hear all three things.” Or “right now the priority is eating breakfast – can you focus on counting each bite you take till you get to ten?”
  • Physical supports: Some children focus better in a class when they sit on a ball where their body can wiggle or they spin a fidget spinner while their brain pays attention. My child could focus better when he wore a weighted vest because the pressure gave his brain some tactile stimulation. Some children focus better if there’s some white noise or quiet background music. (It’s over-stimulating for others.) Experiment to see what helps your child.
  • De-clutter. Too much stimuli can over-activate these kids. If they’re in a room with just a few toys, they do fine. If they’re in a room full of toys and decorations, they flit from one to the next non-stop. (Read about “How Many Toys is Enough.”)
    • These kids LOVE novelty! But instead of buying more toys, I like providing new experiences outside the home – taking classes or going on field trips gives their brain the novelty it craves while still keeping a home environment that helps to settle them with familiar items to explore in depth.
    • You can also mix up existing toys without having to add new – like putting the toy dinosaurs with the blocks, or using toy cars with the paint.
  • Connect to their interests. If there’s something they have to do, but it doesn’t capture their attention, find a way to make it more engaging. For example, if they need to practice writing their letters and they are dinosaur fans, you don’t have to practice writing the words a teacher assigns – they could practice writing pachycephalosaurus.
  • Brain and body breaks: Make sure they do have plenty of opportunities to play and burn off lots of energy.
  • Spend more time outdoors. Nature can be very calming to people whose brains are always racing.

Discipline and Race Car Brains

It’s important to know that some discipline techniques that work well with other kids don’t work well with these kids. Parenting advice is not one size fits all.

Check out: 8 practical tips for parents of children with challenging behaviors. For my racecar kid, I found the book Incredible Years by Stratton had the most helpful discipline tools. I wrote several posts on discipline based on these techniques. Find links to them here.

I also find neuropsychiatrist Daniel Siegel’s writing on brain development to be very helpful. He says the “downstairs brain” is responsible for survival and emotions. It’s fully developed in a toddler. The upstairs brain is responsible for advanced functions like language, decision-making, impulse control and empathy. These take years to develop. When a child is very upset, extreme emotions block their ability to use
their upstairs brain. They “flip their lid” and regress back to the downstairs brain. When they’re in this state, you can’t reason with them, you can’t ask them to make choices, you can’t expect them to “use their words.” Learn more: http://msue.anr.msu.edu/news/understanding_the_upstairs_and_downstairs_brain.

So, if you have a racecar kid in the middle of a meltdown, you’re not going to be able to reason with them or have long discussions about the implications of their choices. They can’t pay attention to a deep discussion when they’re at their best, and especially not if they’ve flipped their lid. They’ll do better with clear rules, concrete statements of what behavior you want to see, and quick consequences for misbehavior. See more tips in the Discipline Toolbox.

Is it ADHD?

*Note: Hallowell, who coined this metaphor, specializes in ADHD, so he is using race car brain to describe the ADHD brain. I am using it more broadly.

Many toddlers or preschoolers who may seem like racecar kids may slow down as they get older and develop better brakes, so may not ever be considered ADHD. They still benefit from this early learning of skills to slow themselves down and you’ll benefit from using these tools to keep those early years a little calmer

However, many race car brain kids do get diagnosed eventually as ADHD. About 9% of children do have ADHD. Learn about criteria for an ADHD diagnosis and deciding whether to have your child assessed for ADHD, and how to access testing.

6 thoughts on “The Race Car Brain

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