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What Parents Should Know About ADHD

With increasing frequency, children who show argumentative and disruptive behaviour are being labeled with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). According to Intercontinental Medical Statistics Inc., an estimated 1.57 million visits were made to Canadian physicians for ADHD in 2001, an increase of 20% from the year 1997. Drug treatment was prescribed in 64% of the cases, most commonly stimulant medication. In 2001, 856,200 prescriptions for Ritalin alone were dispensed by Canadian pharmacists, a 31% increase from 1997.

It is alarming to consider that many children who are being labeled with ADHD and put on medications with known negative side effects are misdiagnosed. Instead of carefully considering and addressing lifestyle factors that may be causing these children’s undesirable behaviour, could it be that parents, teachers, and doctors are jumping a little too quickly onto the ADHD wagon?

Given that the most common negative side effects of drug therapy for ADHD are difficulties sleeping, loss of appetite, stomachaches, headaches, and nervousness, it seems prudent to fully explore other possible causes of behaviour commonly categorized as ADHD. Let’s have a look at some of these other possibilities:

Insufficient sleep
Sleep is not a luxury; it is a necessity. Inadequate rest results in reduced ability to remember, concentrate, plan, make decisions, and carry out math calculations. When adults are sleep deprived, they feel drowsy. Conversely, when children are sleep deprived, they are hyperactive. This might explain why stimulants like Ritalin are used to treat hyperactive children. If they are functioning poorly due to fatigue, a stimulant will provide a temporary solution. Chronic sleep deprivation creates irritable, easily frustrated, and impulsive children who cannot focus their attention. Symptoms of sleep deprivation sound very similar to symptoms of ADHD.

Nutrient deficiency
One of the most important influences on our children’s development is the nutrition they receive. Inadequate nutrition can contribute to a myriad of physical health problems, but can also affect mental and emotional functioning, as well as behaviour. Some children may react to specific foods, similar to an allergic response, but manifested in behaviour. Common foods that trigger hyperactive behaviour in children include sugar, chocolate, preservatives, and artificial dyes and flavourings. Undesirable behaviours may also appear as a result of deficiencies in certain vitamins, minerals, and fatty acids. Taking the approach of eating foods that have a reputation of “curing” ADHD or eliminating foods that are suspect can result in a juggling act. Your goal should be to adopt a diet consisting of whole, unprocessed foods. Use organic products whenever possible. Your child should also eat regularly, as hunger can elicit ADHD symptoms.

Environmental toxins
Children exposed to environmental contaminants such as lead and PCBs display symptoms similar to ADHD. Your child can be tested for toxins in his or her body. If there is strong suspicion that your environment is toxic you can contact the appropriate government agency for an environmental assessment.

Emotional disruptions
When children grieve or are experiencing disruption in their lives their behaviour can mimic ADHD symptoms. Common problems behind unfocused, distracted, and hyperactive behaviour in children include: marital problems or divorce in the family, parenting difficulties, grief, displacement (e.g. a move in home or school), death of a loved one, bullying, physical or emotional abuse, arrival of a new sibling, and emotional problems in the parent (e.g. depression or substance abuse). Consider the amount of emotional stress your child is under when assessing the possibility of ADHD. It is also important to be an attentive listener when communicating with your child, so as not to miss signs of emotional distress. If a source of emotional disruption exists within the child’s family, it’s important to have that treated. You may wish to consult with a professional.

Physical activity
Children are naturally more excitable, noisy, and emotional than adults. It is unrealistic to impose adult standards onto children and expect them to conform all of the time. They need outlets for energy expenditure and play. Play is not a waste of time. Rather, it is learning in its most natural form, but it requires appropriate time, space, and place. Allow your child some time during the day to engage in physical activity. Follow their lead; if they enjoy running around, yelling, and waving their arms in the air, they may enjoy visiting a park or playground. It may take some trial and error to find out what works best for your child, but it is well worth the effort.

According to Adlerian psychology, there are four possible motives underlying disruptive behaviour: attention-seeking, power struggle, revenge, and assumed disability. For example, a child who receives extra attention when she disrupts a class, even if it’s in the form of a reprimand, is being rewarded for her behaviour. Thus, if her goal is attention-seeking, she will continue her behaviour as long as she gets attention. The assumption is that if you can identify your child’s goal and provide him with the sought-after reward only when he is exhibiting desirable behaviour, then the undesirable behaviour will cease. What’s important to realize is that children are not conscious of these goals. They are not trying to be “bad”. Essential here is the development of good parenting skills, which do not come naturally, but help us greatly in raising our children and can easily be learned.

Other factors
Many children diagnosed with ADHD are only inattentive and hyperactive at school, and often only in some classes, not all. This suggests an underlying factor for ADHD unrelated to the child’s ability to concentrate and sit still. Children with undiagnosed vision or hearing problems are often restless in class simply because they are unable to follow the lesson. The same can be said of an undiagnosed learning disability. Conversely, if a child is bored with the lesson because they have been quick to grasp the concepts and are no longer stimulated, they may seek to create their own stimulation. Other factors that can result in ADHD-like behaviour include poor teaching skills on the part of the teacher, anxiety completing assignments, and not fitting in with peers.

Paying attention to lifestyle factors and seeking a second opinion can help your child avoid a misdiagnosis, which will save him or her from the negative effects of stimulant medications.


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