At Thrive Behavioral Health in Eugene, child psychiatrist Dr. Jennifer Olson often diagnoses and treats children who have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD—a condition that makes it difficult for young brains to focus.
“One way I describe it to families is that the filter is just not there,” she says. “Whereas, someone without ADHD can sit and talk to somebody and focus on what that person is saying, someone with ADHD is going to focus on what they’re saying, the light coming in from outside, the feeling of the sock on their foot, sounds from outside. They all have equal priority in their brain.”
It’s estimated that about 7-14 percent of children ages 4-to-17 have one of three types of ADHD and these behaviors often display themselves in the following ways:
- Inattentive type: getting distracted, having poor concentration and organizational skills.
- Hyperactive-impulsive type: interrupting, taking risks.
- Combination type: never seeming to slow down, talking and fidgeting, difficulties staying on task. This is the most common type of ADHD.
This inability to focus or sit still often creates disruptions in the classroom and at home and can be frustrating for parents, teachers and children.
“It’s not that these kids are choosing to be bad; it’s that they really have a hard time keeping it together,” says Dr. Olson.
If you notice behavioral changes or inattentiveness in your child, talk with your pediatrician.
“We have a nationally recognized tool to help us decide if this is a child who has ADHD, or we can go through a more detailed process, where we can refer you to the correct place for your child to have testing,” says Dr. Pilar Bradshaw.
If a child is diagnosed with ADHD, there are treatment options.
- Behavioral therapy: A mental health specialist works with the child and parents to learn new behaviors to replace behaviors that don’t work or cause problems. The therapist may also help the child learn to express their feelings in more positive ways.
- School and home strategies: Educating parents about ADHD and how it affects a family. This might involve help with organizing tasks or completing schoolwork. This might include the creation of a 504 Plan, established by parents and the school to outline strategies to help your child succeed.
- Medication: ADHD medications reduce hyperactivity and impulsivity and improve the ability to focus, learn and work. Sometimes, a variety of medications and dosages must be tried before finding one that works for a particular person. Anyone taking medication must be monitored closely and carefully by their prescribing doctor.
Often, the best plan includes a combination of all three treatment options.
Other issues of concern
It’s important for parents to understand that ADHD is often accompanied by other issues. About one fourth of children with ADHD also have an anxiety disorder. Anxiety disorders are often more difficult to recognize than disruptive behavior conditions, because symptoms of anxiety often exist within a child’s mind rather than in behavioral outbursts.
“We also see development of depression in kids who are untreated, because they start becoming hopeless that this is never going to get better,” says Dr. Olson. “And then we see kids who go the other direction and think, ‘Well, if I’m never going to get better, and I’m going to be labeled as the naughty kid, I might as well be the naughty kid.'”
“Dismissing or ignoring the possibility that a child has ADHD often sends kids a very strong message of shame and guilt, that something’s wrong with them, that it’s their fault. It’s not,” says Dr. Bradshaw. “ADHD is as much a medical condition as is asthma or diabetes. There’s a lot that can be done for your child, but you have to get started.”
Research shows that untreated ADHD can lead to issues with substance abuse, difficulties in relationships and holding a job, even an increase in motor vehicle crashes and other accidents due to a lack of focus. About 50 percent of kids who have ADHD grow out of it, once their frontal lobe fully develops, which is around age 25.
Tips for parents
While there are many challenges that come with raising kids with ADHD, there are also effective strategies and rewards. Consistency is key and praising good behavior is important for building your child’s self-esteem. Check out these tips. For more information, Dr. Bradshaw recommends these books.
Parenting a child with ADHD is a marathon not a sprint, so self-care is important for moms and dads. Make sure you’re eating right and getting enough sleep. Create a support system that you can lean on when things get tough. Without you being physically and emotionally healthy, it’s going to be difficult for you to provide that support to your child.