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Your child has always been a handful — tearing through the house, acting rowdy, only half-way completing one project before he's on to the next. You chalk it up to him being a spirited child, if maybe a little high energy. Then his teacher calls: He can't follow through on simple tasks, is disruptive in class and has trouble obeying instructions. She wants to talk.
You wonder, is he eating too much sugar? Is this just "boys being boys"? Or, gulp, could it be your fault for not being able to control him?
When facing the possible diagnosis of ADD/ADHD (attention defict hyperactivity disorder) in your child, you can't risk getting swept up in myths, half-truths or misconceptions. A wrong ADD/ADHD diagnosis means your child could miss out on essential treatment — or could start taking medication unnecessarily.
We help you sort fact from fiction by busting 10 common lies about ADHD.
Myth #1: ADHD is caused by bad parenting.
Fact: ADHD is not caused by bad parenting or lack of ability to control your child. Experts aren't sure exactly what causes ADD/ADHD, but they do know there is a strong genetic component. Studies show that many children with ADD have a close family member who also has the disorder.
The condition usually appears early in a child's life, typically by age seven, when the brain is still developing. Brain imaging scans shows distinct differences in the brains of children with ADHD compared to children who do not have it, including the size of certain parts of the brain, how a few key brain chemicals are processed, and abnormalities in specific nerve pathways.
Some research suggests that other factors may contribute to the development of ADHD including high lead exposure during childhood, low birth weight and smoking, drinking or drug use by the mother during pregnancy. No connection between vaccines and ADHD has been found.
Myth #2: All kids with ADHD are hyperactive.
Fact: Although, many children with ADHD are indeed hyperactive, some others are not. One of the three types of ADHD, called the predominantly inattentive subtype, is marked by inattentiveness, but not by hyperactivity or impulsivity. People with this type of ADHD often appear spacey and unmotivated.
(The other two subtypes of ADHD, called predominately hyperactive-impulsive type and the combined type, are both characterized by hyperactive behavior such as constant fidgeting and excessive talking or interrupting.)
Also, the term hyperactive conjures images of a child with ADHD running around wild, never able to sit still. But in reality, a child with ADHD may only become hyperactive when his brain is over stimulated in certain ways, such as in a busy classroom. Most children outgrow the hyperactive aspect of ADHD as they get older.
Myth #3: My child's teacher can diagnose whether he has ADHD and will need medication.
Fact: Teachers and school administrators cannot diagnose a child with ADHD on their own and they certainly cannot prescribe medication to your child. Only a trained professional such as a pediatrician, psychologist, social worker, nurse practitioner, psychiatrist or other medical doctor can diagnose ADHD. And only medical doctors (which includes psychiatrists) can prescribe ADHD medication if needed.
But because teachers are usually more aware of the symptoms of childhood ADHD, they are often the first to raise concerns.
If a teacher suspects that your child may have ADHD, he or she will usually fill out an evaluation form that documents your child's behavior at school, or may ask the school psychologist to perform an educational evaluation. Then your teacher or other school official may ask you to fill out a similar form detailing your child's behavior at home. To be officially diagnosed as ADHD, ADHD symptoms must be present in two or more settings; these forms will help determine if the behavior is persistent or happens only in certain environments. This information will also provide your doctor with other details he or she will need to make an official ADHD diagnosis.
Myth #4: Eating too much sugar caused my child's ADHD.
Fact: Sugar consumption has not been linked to ADHD or even to hyperactivity. However, some studies suggest a link between food additives such as food coloring and hyperactive behavior, but only in about 5% of people with ADHD. If you are concerned about the effects of food additives, talk to your child's doctor.
Myth #5: To know for sure if my child has ADHD, the doctor can give him a test.
Fact: There is no official test to diagnose ADHD. Rather, an ADHD diagnosis depends on a complete evaluation of the child's behavior, development and physical health.
To be diagnosed with ADHD, children must display specific ADHD symptoms. Your doctor will want to know about your child's behavior at home and at school and any big life changes your child may have experienced, such as a divorce, moving or changing schools. Significant life events such as these can cause stress or anxiety that lead your child to act out.
In addition, your doctor will perform a physical exam on your child to check for other possible causes such as hearing problems, dyslexia or another learning disability, Tourette syndrome, depression or anxiety.
Myth #6: Kids with ADHD can never focus on anything.
Fact: Tell that to Michael Phelps, the 16-time Olympic medalist who shows razor-sharp focus in the pool. Phelps, arguably the most famous celebrity with ADHD, was diagnosed with ADHD at age nine.
The truth is children with ADHD are often able to concentrate on activities they enjoy. But no matter how hard they try, they have trouble maintaining focus when the task at hand is boring or repetitive or when the environment becomes overstimulating to their brains.
Myth #7: ADHD doesn't really exist — all children, especially boys, are rambunctious and have trouble following directions.
Fact: ADHD is a real problem, and boys are about three times more likely than girls to be diagnosed with it, though it's not yet clear why. Having ADHD goes beyond the typical energetic or excitable behaviors of normal childhood. To be receive and official ADHD diagnosis, ADD/ADHD symptoms have to be present for at least six months, occur in different settings, such as home and school, and impair a child's ability to function socially, academically and at home.
Myth #8: Kids eventually grow out of ADHD.
Fact: Because hyperactive behavior often disappears during adolescence, experts used to think that children outgrew ADHD. But by some estimations, roughly two-thirds of all children with ADHD will carry it into adulthood. It's estimated that 4.1% of adults 18 - 44 years old are affected by ADHD. Adult ADD can present different symptoms and challenges, impacting a person's job, family and social relationships. So don't wait for your child to outgrow the problem. Treatment can help people at any age learn strategies to minimize ADHD symptoms.
Myth #9: Once I start my child on medication, he'll need to take it for the rest of his life.
Fact: Medications can be highly effective in managing ADHD symptoms, but they should be used in conjunction with other treatments including behavior therapy.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can teach your child strategies such as organization skills that help him manage or overcome his symptoms. With effective therapy, people with mild to moderate AD/ADHD may be able to get off their medications completely.
Myth #10: My daughter is quiet and shy, she can't have ADHD.
Fact: Not all children with ADHD are hyperactive. Girls with ADHD are often inattentive but not hyperactive or impulsive. In fact, older girls with ADHD tend to show symptoms of anxiety and depression and often have social problems due to withdrawal and internalized emotions.
If you have concerns about your child's behavior or learning abilities, speak with her teacher and pediatrician who can help to formerly evaluate your daughter and provide assistance.
Do you have questions about other ADHD myths you've heard? Talk to an ADHD expert in our ADD/ADHD forum, get advice from other MedHelp members in our ADD/ADHD community or learn more in our ADHD Health Center.