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ADHD: What Parents Need to Know

Deb Levy
Jan. 13, 2011

ADHD, or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, is defined as a neurological condition characterized by distractibility, impulsivity and restlessness or hyperactivity.  Symptoms are often present with much greater intensity than in the "typical" person and interfere with everyday functioning.

But Dr. Ned Hallowell, a child and adult psychiatrist and the founder of The Hallowell Center for Cognitive and Emotional Health, takes issue with the name itself. "I call it a condition, not a disorder," he says. "The real disability is the shame and fear that those with ADHD develop from having these traits."

He prefers this explanation:  It's like having a Ferrari engine for a brain, with the brakes of a bicycle.

That's not to minimize the impact this condition can have on a child, or an adult for that matter.  Dr. Hallowell says the hallmark of ADHD is unexplained underachievement - underachievement that's not due to an obvious physical handicap or emotional trauma.  According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, ADHD affects 4 - 12% of school-aged children, with boys being diagnosed over girls at a rate of 3 to 1.

"Usually people think of it as hyperactivity," Dr. Hallowell explains.  "But that's a misconception.  And it's not a deficit of attention, but a wandering attention - like a toddler on a picnic with no regard for danger or authority."  ADHDers can be very impulsive, Dr. Hallowell acknowledges, yet at the same time, are often extremely creative, intuitive and wonderfully interesting.

ADHD cannot be diagnosed by a blood test or a brain scan, but rather through evaluations that heavily rely on observations of parents and teachers.  Certainly all children are distractible at times, or restless or loud or immature.  But it is when these traits are persistent for more than 6 months or impact a child's success in one of many ways - academically, socially or within the family dynamic - that a diagnosis can be made.

There are those who insist we all have ADHD now thanks to video technology and a fast-paced society.  Dr. Hallowell argues this is simply not true.  ADHD has always been around.  In fact, a German physician named Heinrich Hoffman, was the first to describe ADHD behaviors back in the 1840's.  But diagnoses are on the rise thanks to heightened awareness and education.

So what happens when you learn your child has ADHD?  Dr. Hallowell cautions parents not to be afraid of the diagnosis.  "Learn as much as you can," he says.  "Talk to other parents of kids with ADHD.  Read books."  He encourages parents to find a doctor who uses a strength-based model rather than a deficit-based one in order to eliminate the shame.  The best doctor, he believes, is one who can reframe the diagnosis to allow for strengths.

That's not to say it's easy to parent a child with ADHD.  "I never want to sugarcoat it," Hallowell says.  "It's very hard to mold your temper because these kids can wear you down with their persistency."  But there are some things a parent can and should do.

  • Limits, limits, limits.  Persistently set limits without blowing your stack.
  • Keep the conflict as dispassionate as possible.  If kids get your passionate attention (which is not the same thing as positive attention) through conflict, they will keep creating conflict.
  • Never deny sports.  The more kids with ADHD run around, the better. Exercise elevates dopamine and norepinephrine levels in the brain, which helps keep some of the impulsivity at bay and allows for better executive functioning.
  • Make sure they get enough sleep.
  • Give your child fish oil supplements.  Study after study shows that the Omega 3 fatty acids found in fish oil enhance brain functioning.
  • Talk about ADHD with your child in a way that is accurate and positive.  Point out when the "Ferrari engine" is racing and they need to activate the brakes. This not only helps your child become self-aware, but locates the problem in their brain and not in their will or soul.

Finally, Dr. Hallowell tells parents to have their sights set at the end point.  "In ten years," he says, "your ADHD child will set the world on fire."

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