ADHD: Myths vs. Facts
by Lindsay Cote
In my work as a Child and Adolescent Psychologist, I often undertake attention assessments with children, and this sometimes results in a diagnosis of ADHD.
When I provide feedback to children and parents, I often find that people hold mistaken beliefs about ADHD that make it even more difficult to adjust to the diagnosis and have it treated appropriately. These are the biggest myths:
Myth 1: ADHD is the result of ineffective parenting. ADHD is a medical condition with a biological basis that a person has from birth, resulting from deficits in the brain’s frontal lobe. This is where our higher-order thinking skills, such as planning, organisation, time management, impulse control, reasoning and judgment take place. People with ADHD have difficulties in these areas. While parenting does not cause ADHD, inconsistent behaviour management, anxiety, chronic stress and trauma can result in similar behaviours in children, which is why a thorough assessment is so important.
Myth 2: ADHD is a childhood disorder. Children with ADHD continue to experience improvements with their executive functioning skills as they develop, just as all children do. However, a child with ADHD will almost always become an adult with ADHD.
Myth 3: ADHD is just a lack of willpower or not wanting to listen. While this can appear to be the case, people with ADHD have genuine impairments due to chemical problems in the brain. In the same way that Alzheimer’s Disease causes memory difficulties, ADHD causes difficulties with organisation, memory, and emotion regulation. Children with ADHD are often punished and reprimanded repeatedly by well-meaning adults, resulting in an overall sense of being the naughty kid or “there’s something wrong with me”. When left untreated, children with ADHD can develop learning difficulties, low self-esteem, behaviour issues, and issues like anxiety and depression.
Myth 4: ADHD occurs only in children who have low intellectual ability. Having ADHD has nothing to do with intelligence. In fact, many highly successful and intelligent people have ADHD, such as Bill Gates and Elvis Presley. However, if left untreated, children with ADHD can struggle with their learning due to difficulties with paying attention.
Myth 5: Children who take ADHD medications are more likely to have substance abuse problems as adolescents and adults. Actually, research suggests that the opposite is true. Because some types of ADHD result in impairment in impulse control, when left untreated, adolescents with ADHD can have a more difficult time resisting the lure of drugs and alcohol and can often display much more thrill-seeking behaviour.
Myth 6: All children with ADHD are hyperactive. There are actually three subtypes of ADHD the Inattentive type, the Hyperactive/Impulsive type, and the Combined type. Children with the inattentive type are the children who are the dreamers, staring out the window in class instead of at the teacher. These children often “fly under the radar” because they are not having behaviour issues but experience difficulties with learning and memory, nonetheless.
Myth 7: ADHD can be treated with diet or supplements. There have not been any methodologically sound scientific studies to date to support a dietary approach to the treatment of ADHD. Some children with impulse control issues do experience improvements with changes to diet; however, these children likely have food allergies or intolerances that are causing the behaviour, rather than ADHD. There is also no reliable research evidence to indicate that food additives, such as artificial colours, sweeteners or preservatives, cause ADHD. Some studies have indicated that certain food colourings and preservatives may increase hyperactive behaviour in a minority of children; however, more research is needed to determine whether eliminating certain foods or additives can reduce symptoms. Ultimately, the best approach is to discuss all of this with your child’s paediatrician and/or dietitian to determine the best approach for you and your child.