Tressa Reisetter is a Twin Cities neuropsychologist, which means she’s a brain expert, which really means she’s a sleuth. Aside from her private practice in Champlin where she also lives, Reisetter partners with Twin Cities schools to assist teachers, social workers and parents with assessments to give children the best chance for academic and social success. A college music major, Reisetter returned to graduate school for her doctorate in neuropsychology after her two daughters were launched. Here, she shares thoughts from her new book, “Getting to Know Your Child’s Brain,” and tells us why kids aren’t trying to be bad (really!), why quiet time rules, and why Mom was right after all.
Q: Much of your work is conducting tests to assess students who might need special education services. Why is it so important to get to these kids as early as possible?
A: Getting support for them early can have the most impact, and can keep them from developing such things as depression or anxiety related to dealing with their symptoms. A lot of them have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and are exhibiting bad behavior — not just the commonly assumed inattention and wiggles, but also tantrums, bossiness and short-temperedness. Then a teacher or parent might say, “You’re not trying.” That’s a horrible phrase. Ninety-seven percent of kids will behave if they can. But most of them have never had a cognitive test that might help adults around them understand what is going on.
Q: What kinds of tests do you perform and what do you find?
A: I do a wide range of tests depending on the child’s symptoms. They include verbal attention, visual-spacial thinking, short-term and long-term memory, picture recognition and so forth. With many of the students I test, their processing speed is far slower than that of their peers. That means they cannot listen as fast as you can talk. They miss key bits of information, which means they’re neurologically set up for frustration. They’re always on edge.
Q: Might you give us an example?
A: Sure. Mom says, “Be home at 3. I have a doctor’s appointment at 4.” Kid hears “Mom has a doctor’s appointment at 3 so I don’t have to be home until 4.” There’s a clash. They argue. Then the kid gets labeled oppositional or, worse, a liar.
Q: That is sad. What’s a solution?
A: Teachers and parents have to give the kid the benefit of the doubt. More often than not, children are saying what they remember. And the kid has to realize that he or she cannot trust memory. One simple tool is to write everything down. For younger children, visual charts with pictures of tasks to be done can help tremendously.
Q: When you explain test results to parents, what’s the reaction?
A: Time after time when I give feedback on cognitive tests, I have parents in tears. They say, “I wish I had known this.” Or, “Oh, gosh, I’ve done so many things wrong.” I tell them they’re doing a good job with their kids, that they didn’t have the information. Now they do. So, let’s start here.
Q: You’re a big believer in quiet time for the kids you see. Why is that?
A: Brain scans show that people who participate in quieting activities actually have calmer brains. I always recommend kids’ yoga or tai chi. I happen to be faith-based so I spend time in prayer every day. But it can be even simpler. One little boy who loved quiet time returned to school after the winter break and started punching the kids around him in line. So the teacher put him at the back of line as the caboose. He was also allowed to go to the nurse’s room a few times a day just to have some quiet time to decompress. No more hitting.
Q: How might parents get help if they recognize their child here?
A: Go first to your school social worker. Your pediatrician is a good source, too, but a teacher sees your child daily and can make that recommendation.
Q: How do we help our teenagers stay mentally healthy when their instinct is to pull away from us?
A: First, recognize that teens can be moody. They’re like the Terrible Twos but awash in hormones. Do family activities so that you can maintain as close a relationship with them as possible. Encourage them to have friends over to the house. If you sense that their social media use is harming them, discuss it with them. Say, “This is not healthy for you.” Be the calm.
Q: Most kids do grow out of this difficult stage, yes?
A: An amazing thing occurs with girls around age 18 to 20. The frontal lobe that helps us make decisions fully develops. For males, it’s closer to 25. So, yep. There is life after adolescence.
Q: You’d like to banish the phrase “mental illness.” Please say more.
A: The brain is part of the body. We don’t have regular illness and a separate category for feet. Historically, “mental illness” was separated because of the stigma attached to symptoms believed to be associated with weakness. I would like to see the term stop being used. Depression is a health issue just as much as is indigestion.
Q: What’s your favorite advice to help parents foster healthy growth of their children’s brains?
A: Follow what mothers have been saying for generations: eat right (plenty of protein and vegetables), get plenty of sleep and be kind. A person can recover from a broken bone in six weeks. But hurtful words can haunt a person for the rest of their lives.