Being a parent of children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) can be one of life’s greatest challenges. Dr Adrian Cooper shares his research on how taking children on pilgrimage journeys can change the lives of those parents and their children
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) affects one in 200 children in the western world. It refers to a child’s inability to organize their thinking and behaviour. There are different degrees of intensity in ADHD, but usually children are extremely impatient and often violent. They cannot think about themselves in relation to their environment and they cannot resist temptation. In the under fives, ADHD is often hard to distinguish from general naughtiness or aggression, but when these children start playing with others at nursery school, their problems become more clear. At those times, children often find it hard to pay attention to games and other activities. They may distract other children. There may be continual problems in socially interacting with other children. They may fidget all the time. They often find it hard to calm down. They can also be impulsive, forgetful and can play dangerously without considering the consequences.
All the parents who contributed to my research interviews approached me following a series of programmes that I presented for the BBC World Service. Three of the mothers in that group of parents asked me to write this article for Kindred Spirit readers. They are Gina, an actress from Manzanillo, Mexico; Louanne, an administration clerk from Milwaukee, Wisconsin; and Lucas, a factory worker from Fraserborough, Scotland.
As the symptoms of ADHD became a daily part of everyday life for these three families, they were unable to enjoy time with their children. Each parent genuinely loves their children, but with the constant need for attention, violence to other children and the destruction of furniture and other possessions in the family homes, a balanced social life became impossible. All these parents described feelings of guilt at having to leave their children with nursery school teachers and how they often had to collect them before the end of the school day due to disruptive behaviour. Consequently, these parents became intensely frustrated by their childrens’ ADHD problems. They also felt trapped within a life of personal injury to themselves, a lack of understanding and support from teachers and other parents, and anger at the attitudes of family doctors.
Gina: When I had my daughter Tina… nothing much was known about ADHD. So we didn’t know what to do. There was no doctor who knew what to tell us. So it was up to us, really, to spend pretty much all our time watching out for Tina. No nursery school would take her for any length of time… we were just so alone and afraid of what might happen. It was hell, and we had no clues how to escape it.
Other parents in my research have also described themselves feeling “exhausted, mentally and physically everyday” and always “on the edge of a nervous breakdown”. Living in this way with their children, each of these parents felt obliged to challenge everything they had been told about child care and family life. As we sat together in our interview meetings, it was fascinating to learn how each set of parents reached this need for a complete re-appraisal, and how they moved from that recognition toward a need to take their children on independent pilgrimage journeys to Africa.
Even before the details of each pilgrimage were fully planned, Africa appealed to these parents as a continent where vast landscapes retain “a timelessness” and “energy”. Those same landscapes also retain a universal symbolism which the psychiatrist Carl Jung longed to see return to modern life, particularly within contemporary education.
Alongside the beauty and poetry of African landscapes, the financial and emotional cost of pilgrimage put each set of parents into serious debt which often served as a further source of frustration and anger. When these parents each arrived in Africa with their families, they all felt the weight of impatient expectation.
Through contacts in the film industry, Gina was able to take her family to the Adrar n Iforas mountains, located on the Algerian-Mali border within the Sahara Desert. Painted on those huge slabs of desert mountain rock are pictures of giraffe, oryx, ostrich and elephant dating before 5000BC. With temperatures in the shade well in excess of 100 degrees Fahrenheit, the intense heat slowed everyone’s activity to no more than a bare minimum. Even Gina’s young daughter, whose ADHD symptoms before their departure had reached unmanageable levels, was now slowed for the first time in years. The young girl amazed her parents by wanting to sit in the shade and look closely at the ancient rock paintings. Open mouthed with wonder, four year old Tina pointed out the animals which she recognized to her astonished parents. They had no idea that Tina knew the names of the animals even though they had tried to gain her attention with picture books at home on countless occasions.
Gina: We were very lucky that I was able to put that route together. And right from the start we called it a pilgrimage, because it was a prayer-journey like any other pilgrimage. But for us, it was a lot more intense than any other pilgrimage we’d ever been on… And we were so amazed that our daughter wanted to look at all the rock art. It was amazing. We’d never seen her so still and calm, and so concentrated on one thing…
The combination of a long air and land journey to Adrar n Iforas, the dry heat, the new diet which matched that of local peoples in the area and the extraordinary rock art of inspiring colours all contributed to calm Tina’s behaviour. In the cool evenings, Gina’s family and traveling companions walked elsewhere in the mountains, witnessing breathtaking sunsets that filled the huge Saharan skies with dazzling patterns of blue, pink, orange, red and gold.
Early each morning, Tina would wake her parents, urging them to get up and take her elsewhere in the mountains. In this way, the little girl whose violent temper had previously driven her parents to tears, shame, guilt and despair discovered completely new horizons in her young life. Tina loved the mountains, although she often had to be carried along the steeper paths. But even at those times, she sat comfortably in her parents’ arms, never once punching them as she had done repeatedly at home in Mexico. Fascinated by everything she saw, Tina was forming a personal understanding of wild nature which she had never previously known. She was learning to appreciate towering walls of rock, the furnace of exhausting desert heat and the miraculous colours of dawn and dusk. The vastness of Africa became a part of Tina’s new way of being, and a new part of her thinking and behaviour. In the searing heat and bizarre environments, extraordinary changes took place in her young mind and emotions. Tina felt naturally compelled to be calm, and to enjoy being calm. She felt awed and dwarfed by painted pictures, the age of which she could not imagine. Gina also noticed how her daughter’s attention span lengthened and stayed impressively long as she sat patiently looking at the painted animals. It was a time of profound transformation for the young girl, and for her parents. Never again would Tina display any kind of ADHD symptoms which had led to smashed windows, ruined carpets and personal injury to herself and others.
Gina: That pilgrimage was an answer to the most intense time of prayer for my husband and myself. We prayed like we’d never prayed before. So Tina was the center of a lot of energies out there. Mountains, art, new diet, new experiences, new memories, being prayed for like never before. It was all there. And it brought us a level of healing that we never previously thought possible.
At night, wonderful new dreams formed themselves in Tina’s young imagination. They were full of swirling colours and dancing leaping animals. New rhythms were entering Tina’s deepest consciousness. New shapes and new possibilities filled Tina’s mind and soul every night during that three week pilgrimage. Each morning, Tina needed to wake slowly and to realize that she had bridged the divide between dream-time and wakefulness. It was a bridge that proved to be a vital connection between the young girl’s recovery from ADHD and the ancient energies of desert rock art. Through dreams, the separation between ancient and modern had been broken. Dreams allowed those ancient energies to talk to Tina in the most intimate way. They showed her a fresh and pure beginning. They offered her a new way of responding to wilderness and her place in that landscape which became increasingly real as more and more dreams formed and danced their way across Tina’s imagination. It was those dreams which helped Tina to move away from the curse of ADHD.
Tina: At that time, I didn’t have the words to tell anyone what the dreams meant. I was too young. But now, I look back on them and I realize that what they were doing was to break down a lot of boxes and walls. You know? The dreams helped me to be free enough to be as happy in my dream life as I wanted to be in my waking life. And the walls between those two sides of my life were broken by the power of those dreams… I really think it was the energy of those rock paintings, and being in the desert for that period of time which did that for me.
The other parents who appear in this feature both took their families, independently of each other, to the east African Masai lands between Tanzania and Kenya. But unlike Tina’s experience, the early weeks of those other pilgrimage journeys produced no difference in their children’s behaviour. Sickened and tearful with disappointment, both families persevered with their journeys, and tried to make them as interesting and varied as possible for their children. In each case though, it was the children who found the right moment for themselves to discover a reason to be calm. With Louanne’s son Charles, it was his first sight of the Ol Doinyo Lengai volcano. For Lucas’s daughter Sarah, it was the enormous Serengeti grasslands with herds of zebra and wildebeest, all hunted by packs of hyena, lion and wild dogs.
Watching their children carefully, Louanne and Lucas described how Charles and Sarah began their pilgrimage to Africa feeling defenseless and vulnerable in those vast new environments. But with gentle encouragement from each set of parents, the children learned to be still, gazing in attentive wonder at their extraordinary new surroundings. Alongside the inspiration of these huge natural monuments of Ol Doinyo Lengai and the Serengeti grasslands, Charles and Sarah also began to take an interest in the beauty of smaller objects. Individual pieces of broken lava fascinated Charles, while zebra and wildebeest calves made Sarah giggle with delight as she kept her attention on their magnified images which she enjoyed through her father’s binoculars.
In their own time, both children transformed their parent’s pilgrimage journey into a life-changing wilderness experience. They learned from what they saw, touched, heard, tasted and breathed. Every day, the families watched the harsh, jagged, unsentimental dimensions of wild nature. They learned to appreciate the harmonies of colour and sound, birth and new life, which changed continually through each day and night. Every day, the parents saw small but important changes in the behaviour of their children as their imaginations became warmed, inspired and transformed by what they encountered.
Lucas: Me and my wife are both Celtic Pagans, so just about everything we do has some kind of spiritual dimension to it… So as soon as the idea came to us to take the family to Africa for as long as we could afford, we called it our pilgrimage. It had to be. It’s an important word, pilgrimage, because it shows how we thought about the project. We wanted to spend time in a place where human life began, and we hoped that sense of new life would become part of Sarah’s healing. That’s what we were looking for, and it’s what we eventually got.
While the children were learning to respect the energies of the east African landscapes, both sets of parents found their awareness of the place deepen in response to its life-changing possibilities. It is a reverence which most western people have lost, so it is particularly important when it is discovered by children whose vulnerability from ADHD was slowly being replaced by a strength born of curiosity for extraordinary wilderness environments. For their anxious parents, the discovery of those vital energies only served to confirm the wisdom of making their pilgrimage journeys in search of the healing they desperately needed.
As weeks passed, the energies of land and life in east Africa became seen as being of practical benefit as well as mystical significance. Their children became more calm and happy in their behaviour. Laughter replaced temper tantrums. Questions and family discussions replaced arguments, tears and frustration. And the spirit of east Africa moved through those families to change them for ever. But once again it was the power of dreams which sealed the success of that healing.
Charles: When mum and dad took me to Africa, I know my behaviour was pretty bad. I really was screwed up, so nothing happened for quite a while. Then I started having these amazing dreams which were so clear. They were as clear as being awake… And I was dreaming about things from Africa which I hadn’t even seen. And yet they were being a part of my dreams… and those dreams really put the brakes on my violence and temper. All I wanted to do was to think about the dreams and what they meant.
Sarah: That’s how it was for me. It was like those dream images and pictures were so powerful they were bigger than anything I’d come across before. And all I wanted to do was to sit still and look out over the plains and to think about them. It was amazing, but it so helped me.
Charles: I remember one day I woke up from this incredibly intense dream. It was really vivid, and it made me feel so happy. All I wanted to do was run. So I got up and started to run and run. I felt I had so much energy, but running was all I wanted to do. It was an amazing feeling, just to run and feel great… and to feel free from everything that I’d had wrong with me.
As with Tina’s recovery, new connections helped these children to move beyond the frustration and anger caused by ADHD. For the first time in their lives, they felt a calming presence that replaced the need for violent actions and verbal abuse. Just as Tina had confirmed in her recovery, connections between dream-life and waking-life were vital to the healing process. Further connections between the children and the African landscapes were followed by bridges being learned between animal life and their own lives. African music and dance became new areas of fascination and fun for all members of the family as the ancient energies of those life-changing rhythms worked their transforming power in their souls.
As stories and proof of these experiences of pilgrimage and healing spread throughout their neighbourhoods, the parents were contacted by other families whose children live with ADHD. Consequently, the parents whose experiences are told in this feature have been able to apply their knowledge to help other families. Where it is not financially possible for parents to take their children to Africa, they have been encouraged to explore other wilderness areas closer to home, for as long as possible, and in ways where their children’s ADHD can become reduced, and in many cases replaced, with a fresh and more calm form of behaviour.
As these other parents tell more families about their successes in working with the ideas described in this feature, new and independent self-help groups have grown up organically. None of the parents in my original research have ever advertised their experiences in using pilgrimage and wilderness environments to help their children move beyond the challenges of ADHD, and they have never formed any kind of official structure or organization. They simply offer their growing experience when it is requested. When we met, and learned from each other during my research, the first lesson which each of the parents wanted to emphasize is a need to be intensely suspicious about the use of medication by doctors when they diagnose ADHD. Quite simply, medication is an easy option which can often have unexpected side effects that differ with each child. Medication should therefore be compared to the value of other forms of treatment, such as family pilgrimage routes to areas of wilderness, ideally in collaboration with the advice of a sympathetic health professional.
The second piece of advice which parents in the original research wish to pass on to others is to watch their children’s behaviour for even the smallest signs of calm when ever it appears. Where those signs become evident, they should be patiently and gently developed.
Louanne: The big mistake ADHD parents make is as soon as they find something that calms their kids down for a while, they put pressure on them to do those things all the time. So what I tell parents is to take it easy. Or try to, anyway! Talk to your kids. Find out why they like doing something. Try and get involved. Give lots of love and hugs.
Stimulating a new dream-life for children is something that these parents always recommend to people who ask for their help. At first, it seems an impossible and naïve idea to try and calm ADHD children to get ideas into their imaginations. But if new pictures and posters are introduced all round the family home, then even the most rebellious child will notice them, and may even begin too look at them carefully.
In the same way, if new tribal music is heard playing at home, and new fragrances are encountered too, the child will begin to be aware of new experiences beyond those which she or he has previously taken for granted.
Susan: I heard about these guys and their success with their kids, so I searched them out… and at first I was totally skeptical. I thought no way was this going to work for my son… but I played along with it, and at first nothing happened… but about three weeks later he gave me a look like it was from a new child. And I asked him “what’s wrong”, and that was when he told me about these dreams he’d been having which helped to calm him down… so my advice is not to be so skeptical!
The posters and other new items which have been most successful often have some kind of tribal content. Some have shown African tribal scenes. Others have shown tribal- living from other parts of the world. In every case however, the pictures have shown groups of traditional peoples living in deep connection with their land and environment. It is that connection which is the vital common factor in all the posters and other art which have been successful in helping children living with ADHD to transform their lives.
When these parents tried to talk with their children about the posters they put up round the family home, they also tried to make up stories and games about them if the children have been young enough to appreciate them. Through these stories, parents can allow their children to discover new ways of thinking, and new characters and ideas to fire their imaginations. With every telling of the stories, the children can be directly involved by the parents asking them how they think the story will develop. In this way, the children are increasingly interested in the story’s construction. They identify more closely with the characters and events surrounding them, and start to engage with ancient energies connecting humankind to our environment which can serve as a source of deep healing. Thelma: I can’t begin to tell you just how hurtful and violent my son was. He really was bad. So I never thought any of this stuff would work. I’ll tell you that now. I was not convinced. But I tried it! Believe me, I would have tried anything. And the effect was amazing. That’s the only word for it. I started the story off about this group of tribal people from Namibia, and he just ran with it, and took it over… And he was laughing at the silly situations he was putting those people in… to see him laugh was so much of a joy I cried in front of him… but that didn’t stop him carrying on with the story, and drawing and dancing… It was so wonderful to see.
When families can afford to embark on a pilgrimage to Africa or other wilderness environment, they are always recommended to do so. There is nothing more important or life-changing than to encounter those extraordinary landscapes at first hand, seeing, breathing, touching, hearing and tasting experiences which have remained largely unchanged for thousands of years. In those environments, new dreams have come most easily to children within only a few weeks of them first encountering the wilderness.
However when the costs of those pilgrimage journeys are found to be prohibitive, other healing strategies which are directly inspired by wilderness journeying have also been found to be successful. In those cases, children are encouraged to make up their own stories of traveling to far-off places. They are encouraged and helped to create their own characters and to research on the internet the kinds of places and peoples, music and colours which they might encounter on those journeys. In so many cases, the parents with whom I first completed this research have told me that children who are helped to create those extraordinary stories have become calmer, self-aware and more sociable.
In a world where dreams are still poorly understood, it is clear that they can have a powerful and healing influence on young people’s lives. Dreams identify connections between those children and their environment, and between their imaginations and extraordinary new possibilities which they never thought possible. In a very real sense, dreams take these children out of their former selves and introduce them to completely new ways of living. In doing so, they bring a level of healing which was previously thought to be impossible.