What is ADHD?
John was one of my 7th-grade middle school English students. He was a very intelligent 12-year old. He had a great sense of humor. And he always seemed so happy. Except when I had to tell him to stay at his desk or to not talk to his neighbors, or to wait his turn when playing with others. At those times, he would slowly lower his chin to his chest, clearly upset that he had disappointed me. But only for a moment, as he would suddenly see something crawling across the ceiling and begin to point and to tell everyone about it.
John’s doctor diagnosed him as having ADHD…Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. John and his parents told me all about it. The doctor’s note read that his disorder would cause him to have above-normal levels of energy, impulsiveness, and distractibility. The doctor explained in writing that John would have difficulty staying in his seat, that he would suddenly start talking to and distract others, and that he would often be too impatient to wait his turn playing with others.
Duh! Could have seen that one coming a mile away. But the diagnosis was a new one to me. All teachers I had known up to that time had had students like John, but none of us knew then it was a medical condition, a mental health disorder. It was helpful knowing he was not just being willfully defiant or disruptive. It was perplexing, though, thinking about what could be done about it. His parents felt the same. We wondered together what we could do differently to help John. He struggled mightily in school and made it extra hard for others to succeed. And his mom and dad were at their wit's end at home.
That was over 30 years ago. So much more is known now, but the feelings of perplexity and frustration remain.
ADHD's Official Definition
Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is evidenced as "a persistent pattern of inattention and/or hyperactivity-impulsivity that interferes with functioning or development."1 In layman's terms, someone with ADHD has great difficulty focusing and maintaining their attention on something for very long. Someone with ADHD has great difficulty sitting still, is easily distracted, is overly impatient, leaves behind a trail of unfinished tasks, is often extremely forgetful, is hyper-talkative, and is frequently over emotional.
What causes it?
Even though 1 in 10 children are diagnosed with it, experts still aren’t sure what causes ADHD. Doctors say it has neurological origins, and that it may also be hereditary. Even the environment, in various cases, has been seen to play a part. Ineffective Dopamine transfer at the most basic neuro-receptor level is emerging as a key culprit. And instead of being passed on by bad parenting, parents apparently do pass on this malfunction to their kids...genetically. And then there are those pesky toxins like PFCs used routinely by industrial businesses, and Phthalates found in toys, food packaging and cosmetics.2
It’s not a lack of parental discipline. It’s not television or video games. It’s not dysfunctional families. The jury is still out of pesticides, particularly Organophosphate, a pesticide used on produce. Fetal exposure to alcohol and tobacco is still considered an unconfirmed culprit. Lead exposure was once thought to play a role, but its presence has diminished over the years in our environment. Food additives, like Sodium Benzoate, used in artificial food coloring, are still considered to be a guilty party. Sugar in foods like cereal, and diet in general, were once the first to be blamed, but no longer. Brain injuries in some cases may cause similar symptoms, but they are not seen as a strong candidate across the board to cause the disorder.2
Can it be cured?
Professional consensus is that there exists no cure for ADHD…yet. Therefore, interventive treatment must continue to focus on symptom and severity of impact management.
Interventive Treatments That Work3
Talk Therapy, or Psychotherapy, is a mental health treatment that involves discussing a mental or emotional disorder in order to understand and cope with it, or them. With Talk Therapy, your child will discuss with a therapist how ADHD affects his or her life and the ways those negative effects can be managed. (Cognitive Behavior Therapy and/or Psychoanalysis)
Behavior Therapy is a mental health treatment that seeks to identify and help change potentially self-destructive or unhealthy behaviors. Behavior Therapy can help children with ADHD learn how to recognize, monitor and manage their behavior so as to keep it from becoming misbehavior.
Medication can also be very helpful, in conjunction with one or more different kinds of therapy. These medications are designed to interact with brain chemicals in a way that enables the person with ADHD to better control their impulses and actions. The two different kinds of medication are stimulants (Ritalin) and non-stimulants (Adderall).
There are also natural remedies to consider as well. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend the following:
- Eating a healthy, balanced diet
- Getting at least 60 minutes of exercise per day
- Getting plenty of sleep or rest
- Limiting daily screen time from electronics.
Studies have also shown that yoga, tai chi, and spending time out-of-doors can help calm overactive minds and may ease ADHD symptoms. Mindfulness meditation is another option. Avoiding certain allergens and food additives are also potential ways to help reduce ADHD symptoms.
Keeping your ADHD child or student on a consistent schedule with structure and regular expectations at home and at school is helpful. Writing down chores and homework assignments works to keep everyone organized. And keeping everyday items, such as toys and backpacks, stored and available in pre-determined locations can save the best-laid plans for any given day.
Left untreated, ADHD can have a serious and negative impact on a teen’s life It can submarine success in school, at home, and in relationships with friends. Treatment can teach diagnosed teens ways to cope with and manage ADHD’s effects and lessen their severity.
If you think you or your child may have ADHD, talk to your doctor. Your doctor can help determine if ADHD is a factor for your child, and get the referral process off to a productive start. Your doctor can even create a treatment plan to help your child to immediately begin to manage their most debilitating symptoms.
1 "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders," 5th Edition, 2013.
2 "What Causes ADHD? 12 Myths and Facts,” Kristin Koch, Health, 2015.
3 "ADHD: Everything You Need to Know," Healthline, 2018.