By Katherine Solem
It's a dilemma no parent wants to face: Put your child on daily medication or abstain and risk missing out on essential treatment that can control your child's symptoms.
What helps any parent in this predicament is feeling confident your child has received the correct diagnosis for ADD/ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder). Yet a 2003 study by the United States Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reported wide variations in the rate of ADHD diagnosis and use of ADHD medication by state, suggesting a lack of uniform testing, diagnosis and treatment standards.
But you can help prevent unnecessary worry and medications by knowing how to avoid these five ADD/ADHD misdiagnosis mistakes.
Mistake #1: Your child only shows symptoms at home.
To receive an official ADHD diagnosis, ADHD symptoms must be present in at least two settings such as home and school. If your child is only acting out at home, take a closer look at your home situation. Do you need to be stricter in your discipline? Did your child recent experience a big life change such as a new school or new sibling that could be causing this behavior?
If the problems are only present at school, work with your child's teacher to figure out what's going on. Perhaps your child needs to be more challenged in the classroom, or maybe he has a learning problem like dyslexia. Your child's physician is also a good resource and can check for physical problems that might explain your child's behavior, such as hearing problems.
Mistake #2: Another parent gave you a few Ritalin to see if it improved your child's symptoms and it worked.
Gauging your child's response to an ADHD "drug trial" is not an accurate way to diagnose ADHD. Often children and adults without ADHD will experience a similar response to the ADHD medication as do those who actually do have the condition.
A proper ADHD diagnosis should be founded in evaluating a child's behavior in several settings (home, school, socially) over a period of time (at least six months).
Mistake #3: Your over-achieving teenager claims she suddenly developed ADHD.
This may be hard to hear, but your child may be lying to you. Sadly, abuse of ADHD drugs like Ritalin and Adderall is on the rise. While there are those who abuse these prescription drugs just to get high, many others use them to gain a competitive edge in response to increasing academic pressure, or simply to compensate for lack of studying. ADHD drugs like Ritalin and Adderall can help kids stay focused and alert while studying — replacing caffeine as the new aid for last-minute cramming.
Savvy of the common ADHD symptoms, many teens know exactly what to say to extract a prescription from a gullible or careless doctor. Worse, some parents pressure their children to take ADHD drugs in hopes of boosting their child's grades.
Remember, signs of childhood ADHD usually appear before age seven.
Mistake #4: Your child's behavior started right after a traumatic event such as you and your spouse getting separated.
If the first signs of trouble sprouted only after you and your spouse separated, a more likely explanation for his behavior is stress or anxiety caused by this event. Significant changes to your child's life, such as divorce or moving can cause emotional disturbances that lead your child to act out.
Talk to you child about what's going on and work with your pediatrician or a counselor if you need more help.
Mistake #5: Your child displays a few of the symptoms of ADHD but so do many of the kids in his class.
To be correctly diagnosed with ADHD, a child must show at least six symptoms of attention problems or six signs of impulsivity and they must be more severe than in other kids of the same age. And these behaviors must occur in and negatively affect at least two areas of your child's life, such as day-care and home.
(Reference: Mental Health in the United States: Prevalence of Diagnosis and Medication Treatment for Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder - United States, 2003. MMWR Weekly, September 2, 2005 / 54(34);842-847.)
Katherine Solem is a health writer and editor living in San Francisco.