Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a neurobiological disorder characterized by symptoms of inattention, hyperactivity/impulsivity, or both. Estimates of the prevalence vary, with most sources suggesting that somewhere between 5 – 12% of children have ADHD. That makes it one of the most common behavioural disorders in childhood. In a classroom of 25 kids, it is likely that at least one child has ADHD. Unfortunately, the term ADHD is thrown around loosely, and people’s conceptions about what ADHD is can be very inaccurate. It is a disorder that is misunderstood by many in the general public, and as a result, myths about ADHD sometimes become wide held beliefs. This can be frustrating and disheartening for parents and for children.
In my work with children, parents, and families dealing with ADHD, a few common points emerge again and again. Parents tell me that people do not understand their child. They worry that others are judging them and think they are bad parents. Children tell me that others don’t see how hard they are trying. People overlook the many positive attributes these children have. The following points aim to clear up some of those misconceptions.
1. ADHD is a real disorder
There is no doubt within medical and academic communities that ADHD represents a legitimate condition. Despite this, there is still the perception out there that ADHD does not exist and instead reflects a lack of tolerance of normal childhood behaviour, parents that can’t set limits, and a generation of video game addicted children who cannot function in the real world. ADHD is described as a neurobiological disorder because there are neurological differences in the brains of children with ADHD, including differences in structural components of the brain and differences in chemicals in the brain. These neurological differences lead to differences in how children regulate behaviour, attention, and emotions. Bottom line, there is plenty of research confirming that ADHD exists and is more than just normal, boisterous childhood behaviour.
2. ADHD is not the result of bad parenting
Even the most amazing parents have children with ADHD, and amazing parents are also challenged when it comes to parenting children with ADHD. While symptoms of ADHD can improve with structure, consistency, and behaviour systems, ADHD is not a result of bad parenting. Research has not pinpointed a single factor that causes ADHD, but there is definitely a strong genetic component and as already mentioned, ADHD has a biological basis.
3. Children with ADHD are trying hard to meet people’s expectations for them
ADHD can make life very challenging for children who have this condition. It is a chronic condition that can affect them socially, behaviourally, and academically. Children with ADHD are not choosing to misbehave and they are not choosing to be distracted in the classroom. There is nothing volitional about it. The impulsivity associated with ADHD causes children to act and speak before their mental and social filter kicks in. Often they can tell you what the rules are and what they should do in certain situations, but in the moment, they react before considering the consequences of their actions, saying things they shouldn’t have, or behaving in ways that are inappropriate. After the fact, they often feel bad and remorseful. Their sometimes disruptive or inappropriate behaviour is not a sign that they are not trying; rather it is evidence of how impairing this condition can be.
4. Children with ADHD have many positive attributes
Often when people talk about ADHD, they jump directly to the negative consequences. What’s missed is the fact that there are also many positive attributes that go along with ADHD. Children with ADHD are often creative, engaging, and ‘out of the box’ thinkers. Some of the great minds in history, like Albert Einstein and Walt Disney, are suspected to have had ADHD. Many athletes, such as Michael Phelps, have been able to channel the energy and intensity that accompanies ADHD to excel at sports. Many famous comedians, like Jim Carrey and Howie Mandel, and musicians, like Justin Timberlake, have achieved great success, not just despite the ADHD, but more likely, because of the ADHD. The confines of the classroom is not an ideal environment for children with ADHD, which is why they often struggle in that environment. But beyond the classroom, when they can choose their path and work with their strengths, ADHD no longer has to be something that holds them back.
5. Medication for a child with ADHD is sometimes necessary
There is a conception that the rise in the prevalence of ADHD is due to over diagnosis by doctors and pressure from parents who are looking for medication as a quick fix for their children’s behaviour. Parents are often judged for medicating their children. The fact is, medication works. Due to the biological basis of ADHD and the differences in the chemical compositions in the brains of children with ADHD, medication can help by increasing the availability of the chemicals in the brain, leading the pathways to work more efficiently. There’s a biological explanation for it. Medication can help with the hyperactivity, impulsivity, and distractibility that is characteristic of ADHD. If a child needs glasses, parents don’t hesitate to provide them, and others do not judge. Yet, if a child needs medication in order to learn in the classroom, others accuse them of drugging their children. It’s an unfortunate double standard and one that hopefully will start to change. (And as an aside, the notion that ADHD is over diagnosed is not necessarily true either – there is evidence that it is still under diagnosed, especially in girls).
ADHD and the corresponding behaviours can be difficult for people to understand; especially if they have never known someone who has it. For parents who have children with ADHD, the challenges their children face, the pervasiveness of the symptoms, and the degree that the symptoms impair their child’s functioning is all too clear. Parenting a child with ADHD can have its rewards, but is also extremely challenging. It is made that much more challenging by the misconceptions and unfair judgements that parents and children often encounter.
Dr. Spere is a psychologist in Kitchener who works with children, teens, and their families. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions, comments, or ideas for future articles.