It’s a great thing that children have so much energy. Very few adults ever complain of having too much energy and you certainly wouldn’t wish tiredness and lethargy on any happy child!
But with all that said, it can still be somewhat concerning and also frustrating if your child will literally never sit still. And this can also end up getting them into trouble in class.
So why do children move around so much? How much is normal? And what can you do to help if it is becoming a problem?
To a certain extent, it is very much normal for children to have more energy than their adult counterparts. And there are a lot of very reasonable explanations for this.
For starters, children have more energy because they have more mitochondria. Mitochondria are the tiny ‘energy factories’ that are found in every single cell. These have the job of converting glucose into useable energy and thereby powering our muscle fibres and neurons. Children have more than adults and thus they can run around for hours without tiring.
Children also have highly plastic brains. Children are constantly learning because everything around them is new and exciting. This fills them with wonder and enthusiasm that you lose when you’re older and you’ve seen everything 1,000,000 times before. Again, this is normal, healthy and to be encouraged.
Finally, children have more energy because they (hopefully) have less stressful lives. Whereas you’ve spent your day in an office with a long commute either side, children are in school for half of that time and spend a lot more of their day relaxing or having fun with friends. In short, they aren’t bogged down and exhausted like we are!
This is all fine but it becomes a problem when your child has considerably more energy than other children their age and they struggle to control or direct it in a creative manner. If your child is constantly interrupting in class, not appearing to listen, bobbing up and down, jumping around… then this can be disruptive for their classes and can prevent them from learning properly, leading to them getting into trouble.
Likewise, if they have that much pent-up nervous energy, then it can actually be quite frustrating for them as they start to approach burn out!
So what is causing this?
One possibility is ADHD or ‘Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder’. This is an attention disorder, meaning that it affects your child’s ability to concentrate on what they’re doing for long. Nothing quite holds their attention as it should and as such, they are constantly jumping from one task to the next.
We now have a good idea of what causes this and it’s generally thought to be the result of low levels of dopamine (1). Dopamine is the ‘reward hormone’ that is produced in the brain not when we receive a reward or achieve something but rather when we work toward a rewarding behaviour, or when we’re doing something that we feel is important in some way.
Because children with ADHD have less dopamine, nothing seems quite as important and nothing seems quite as rewarding. Thus they struggle to maintain focus and are easily distracted.
Just because your child seems to be full of beans though, that doesn’t necessarily mean they have ADHD! Look for other symptoms to help confirm your suspicion, such as a lack of general concentration, constant interrupting, constant talking and daydreaming.
RLS is restless leg syndrome, a condition that causes us to continuously bob a leg up and down. People with this condition will often feel a slight discomfort (not painful) until they move the leg at which point they feel some kind of release. Despite the name, RLS doesn’t only affect the legs but also the arms and the whole body. So if your child is constantly moving in a repetitive manner, RLS is a likely culprit.
Interestingly, RLS also seems to be caused by low dopamine, suggesting a common thread between the two conditions.
Fortunately, RLS normally has no other symptoms and isn’t dangerous or unhealthy in any way. The main issue caused by RLS is the frustration everyone else experiences watching the constant movement!
Unfortunately, constant movement and fidgeting can also be a sign of anxiety and may even point to PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) which isn’t as uncommon in young children as you might think. Again, the key is to look for other symptoms and signs of anxiety that might help you to decide if this is indeed the cause.
For example, PTSD will also cause nightmares, reliving of the experience and possible trembling. As for anxiety, this is more likely to result in panic attacks or refusal to go to school or outdoors.
Fortunately, if your child appears to be ‘full of beans’ then it is unlikely that anxiety is the root of the problem, as you would probably have noticed the other symptoms first.
If your child is just very energetic, then the key to helping them is to make sure you help them burn off that energy and engage their brain. Children aren’t meant to sit for long periods and in fact, it is now suggested that encouraging students to stand up for a few seconds every so often can greatly improve their concentration and performance in classes.
You can help this with after school activities, long walks and lots of attention. Help your child to use that energy in a creative way, so that it doesn’t become a problem in lessons. Make sure they sleep properly too and eat a healthy, sustaining diet. Ironically, tired children can actually be a lot more difficult to control and to get to keep still, as we lose discipline the tireder we get!
Consider getting your child a fidget toy as well. These toys are designed to help children blow off steam and stay active and physical, even when they need to remain seated and concentrated. More and more research is now suggesting that having something to manipulate can actually aid concentrate and brain power!
If you suspect your child may have ADHD, RLS or another underlying condition (note that these conditions are not binary and it is possible to have ‘mild ADHD’), then consider speaking with your GP. Your GP may be able to recommend treatments but more important is the diagnosis which will help teachers to better understand the best way to interact with your child. Medication is not normally necessary and you shouldn’t be worried if your child does have ADHD – after all, some of the most successful people on the planet are known to have the condition (such as Richard Branson!).
Another thing you can do to help is to ensure that your child is getting a balanced diet. Low dopamine can actually be caused by a deficiency of zinc, magnesium and iron – so make sure they are getting plenty of leafy greens and meats. Omega 3 fatty acid may also be able to increase levels of dopamine.