Attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, better known as ADHD, is the most commonly diagnosed childhood mental health condition. Children across the globe with ADHD need additional help at home and in school because of difficulties with attention and hyperactivity. And over the past 20 years, the rate of prescription ADHD drug use among children has sky-rocketed. This has prompted many parents to wonder if ADHD is a real medical condition at all—after all, it didn’t exist at all 50 years ago.
ADHD is absolutely real, and can have devastating consequences for parents and children alike. The good news is that prompt and comprehensive treatment works. By intervening to address your child’s ADHD early, you help him or her master effective coping skills and set your child up for a lifetime of success. ADHD is not an excuse, and labelling it as such only undermines your child’s ability to succeed!
What is ADHD/ADD?
Attention deficit disorder is a fundamental, biological difficulty paying attention. A subtype, attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder, also leads to hyperactivity and restlessness. Though sometimes labelled as learning disabilities, ADD/ADHD does not directly impede learning. Instead, they make it difficult for children to sit still, listen attentively, and become engrossed in classroom settings. Over time, this can undermine academic performance, cause children to fall behind, and even cause very bright children to be labelled as learning disabled.
No one is sure what causes ADHD/ADD. It’s likely a combination of biology and environment. Children are more likely to develop ADHD if their parents had it, and kids born into a family with a history of mental illness are also more vulnerable. Exposure to certain toxins, especially high levels of alcohol or drugs during pregnancy, can also increase the risk. Some researchers also believe that a distracting environment worsens inattentive tendencies. Children who are already vulnerable to ADHD seem to do worse when they watch lots of television or who have parents who do not consistently model attentive, calm behaviour.
Are There Types of ADHD?
Officially speaking, there are only two types of ADHD: attention deficit disorder, which primarily features attention difficulties, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, which includes ADD plus hyperactive behaviour.
Nevertheless, not all people with ADHD act the same. Often, ADHD manifests in the form of only one or two symptoms. For this reason, some experts focus on ADHD sub-types, which can yield behaviours such as:
- Aggression and conduct disorder.
- Extremely fidgety and hyperactive behaviour.
- Obsessive-compulsive behaviour, such as frequent hand-washing.
- Depression, irritability, and low self-esteem.
- Learning difficulties, especially when forced to sit behind a desk or participate in quiet work.
- Difficulties with memory.
- Trouble with social relationships.
Ultimately, these symptoms are all part of one larger umbrella diagnosis, but every person with ADHD is different. While one person might become depressed in response to the challenges of ADHD, another might cope with the stress by becoming aggressive. It’s important not to stereotype ADD, and to bear in mind that a range of symptoms can be related to ADHD.
What Are the Symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder?
The hallmark symptoms of ADHD are difficulties with paying attention (ADD) coupled with hyperactive behaviour (ADHD). However, these symptoms can manifest in many ways, including:
- Falling behind at school in spite of high intelligence.
- Difficulty with planning and organisation.
- Difficulty remembering responsibilities, important dates, and deadlines.
- Trouble listening or making eye contact.
- Forgetting the topic of conversation.
- Rapidly jumping from one conversational topic to the next.
- Depression and low self-esteem.
- Sleeping too much or too little.
- Unexplained aggression or bullying of other children.
- Easily frustrated.
- Fidgety, nervous habits such as skin-picking, biting nails, or endlessly tapping the desk.
- Difficulty getting along with others.
- Trouble sitting still.
- Learns better through experiences rather than lectures or reading.
- Difficulties with impulse control.
- Regressive behaviour; children with ADHD often behave like much younger children. For instance, a seven-year-old might throw tantrums similar to those thrown by a two or three-year-old when he is frustrated or overwhelmed.
- Difficulty with change.
- Chronic boredom.
- A need for constant stimulation.
ADHD’s Link to Other Mental Health and Medical Conditions
ADHD is linked to a number of other conditions. The stress and frustration of life with ADHD can lead to conditions such as:
- Social anxiety
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder
- Suicidal thoughts
- Learning difficulties
Some evidence also suggests that certain health issues make a person more vulnerable to ADHD. Researchers haven’t yet established a clear correlation, but conditions linked to ADHD include:
- Chronic headaches
- Movement disorders
- Developmental delays
- Premature birth
- Traumatic brain injuries
Is ADHD a Real Medical Condition?
There’s no denying the fact that some children take medication for ADHD when they don’t need it. Clinicians want to help exhausted and frustrated parents, and so are often quick to diagnose with ADHD and prescribe a medication.
The same is true of many other conditions, but ADHD’s increasing prevalence does not undermine its realness. Researchers have repeatedly documented brain chemistry differences in ADHD, and some evidence suggests that certain genes are linked to ADHD. Interestingly, these genes may only be “turned on” in certain environments, suggesting that a supportive environment can help reverse even a genetic predisposition toward ADHD. This suggests that early diagnosis and treatment is critically important.
Occasionally, other conditions are mistaken for ADHD. If ADHD treatment isn’t working, it’s time to seek further advice from a clinician. Some of the conditions that can look like ADHD include:
- Brain injuries
- Recent trauma, such as a parent’s divorce
- An unstable home environment
- Being bullied at school
- An inconsistent set of rules at home
- Absent or neglectful parenting
- Neurological issues such as epilepsy
- Health conditions that impede a child’s ability to pay attention or control his or her own behaviour
Lifestyle Remedies for ADHD
It might seem like a pill is the quickest way to manage ADHD, but lifestyle remedies can be every bit as effective. When paired with medication, a healthy lifestyle can help you or your child overcome ADHD such that medication is not necessary over the long-term. Some of the most effective strategies include:
- Eating a healthy, balanced diet.
- Reducing caffeine and sugar intake.
- Providing a stimulating environment; children with ADHD need lots to do.
- Making learning fun; don’t use flashcards or work books. Instead, embrace active experiences and child-directed learning. If your child loves something, encourage him to pursue it. For instance, a child who loves writing might want to start a blog.
- Working with your child’s teacher to develop an educational plan that works for his or her needs.
- Not punishing your child for behaviour he or she cannot control.
- Helping your child stay on task by offering gentle reminders, a structured environment, and opportunities to succeed. Don’t expect your child to do his homework without a reminder if you know he can barely remember that it exists.
How Therapy Can Help
Therapy can help both you and your child by helping you develop a family system that supports your child’s ADD/ADHD. For adults with ADHD, therapy helps you cultivate exceptional coping skills. Therapy also explains ADHD to children in an age-appropriate way, without stigmatising the child. Some of the other ways therapy can benefit you include:
- Processing through the feelings associated with ADHD.
- Helping to prevent ADHD-related depression.
- Helping your family understand how ADHD affects you or your child.
- Implementing specific coping skills that work for your life, so you can better manage your ADHD.
The Role of Medication
Like other medical conditions, ADHD will not go away on its own. Left untreated, it will only get worse, becoming progressively more difficult to treat over time. Many people are reluctant to use medication, but medication is an invaluable tool. It can free you of the stress of ADHD, allowing you time to work on cultivating new coping skills. Many children who go on ADHD medications are eventually able to function without medication.
The most common option for treating ADHD is a stimulant drug. In people with ADHD, these drugs actually help the brain slow down, more effectively process emotions and input, and make better and less impulsive decisions.
Some other drugs may also aid in the treatment of ADHD. Sleeping medication, for example, can help with short-term insomnia, particularly if it interferes with concentration at school. Some people with ADHD also benefit from antidepressant therapy to raise self-esteem and stop a cycle of shame-related under performance. Finally, many people with ADHD struggle with anxiety, so anti-anxiety treatment may be helpful. Only your doctor can determine the right medication, and at Three Seas, our team of psychologists work with you to develop a treatment protocol that works with your needs and your lifestyle.