Who gets ADHD?
Boys are about three times more likely than girls to be diagnosed with ADHD. Experts now believe this is because girls tend to display less of the “disruptive” signs of ADHD, not because they are less likely to have ADHD, meaning they are in danger of being overlooked and missing out on important support.
ADHD often occurs with other childhood mental health conditions. These may exist alongside or develop as a result of ADHD. For example, some children with ADHD have conduct disorder or experience anxiety or depression.
Learning difficulties that are not recognised or taken notice of present a risk for mental health problems, as they affect progress at school and self-esteem. Likewise, without support in emotional regulation and problem-solving skills, children with ADHD can find interacting with peers difficult, which is another risk factor for mental health challenges.
For teenagers, ADHD and its associated challenges are serious if untreated because they can put young people at risk for accidents, drug or alcohol abuse problems, or suicidal thoughts and behaviours. Providing ongoing support and treatment options can increase the safety of young people with ADHD and provide strategies for managing any mental health challenges.
What causes ADHD?
Even though a lot of research into ADHD has gone on around the world, the exact cause is still unknown. What is known is that ADHD is not caused by poor parenting, too much sugar or vaccines.
There is thought to be a genetic element to most ADHD; that is, it runs in families. Studies have shown that brothers or sisters of children with ADHD are two to three times are likely to have it as well.
Studies of brain scans show that children with ADHD seem to have brain circuits that are wired a little differently from other people. This means they have trouble using executive functioning skills: attention, working memory, time management, organisation, planning, initiating tasks and self-monitoring.
Research into children with ADHD has also found irregularities in their levels of dopamine and norepinephrine, chemicals in the brain that influence mood. This can make it very difficult for a child with ADHD to complete a task that they find less stimulating, such as a project that takes a long time and isn’t of great personal interest to them.
Likewise, these differences in brain chemistry might mean highly stimulating activities like social media, gaming, risky behaviour and arguments can be more appealing to children with ADHD.
Understanding these physical differences can help adults to support children with ADHD through learning tasks and personal challenges, at home and school.
It’s important that children with ADHD get support early in life, and throughout each life stage, so they can learn to manage their ADHD and develop the skills and confidence they will need to lead a successful adult life.
There is no single medication, intervention or strategy that can make ADHD “disappear”, but ADHD behaviours/symptoms can be reduced and managed well by providing ongoing support that works well for the individual child.
If you believe your child has ADHD, the first step is for them to be assessed by a specialist. You can ask your GP for a referral to a specialist under the public health system, which will be free of charge but may mean waiting some time for an appointment, or you can contact a private specialist directly, which will incur a cost but may mean you can get an assessment sooner.
If your child is diagnosed with ADHD, the specialist will then work with you to create a treatment plan. ADHD is a complicated condition, generally best managed by a mixed treatment programme, which may include the following components:
Stimulants are the main kind of medication used in the treatment of ADHD. These are used to help your child concentrate better, be less impulsive, feel calmer and be able to learn and practise new skills. In fact, the same medications are used for both children and adults.
It’s important that the progress of a child on medication for ADHD is checked and the treatment reviewed regularly with your doctor.
If your child is prescribed medication you are entitled to know:
- the names of the medicines
- what symptoms they are supposed to treat
- how long it will be before they take effect
- how long the child will have to take them for and what their side effects are (short and long term).
Talking therapies and counselling
These are talk-based therapies which look at the child or young person's thinking, behaviour, relationships and environment.
For ADHD, these treatments include behaviour management and social skills training to help support your child at home and at school. It’s important that children are encouraged to develop and learn coping behaviours and skills, and parents and teachers play a key role to help them learn and practise these new skills.
Family counselling can also play an important part in helping everyone in the family understand the condition and support the child, providing the counsellor has good knowledge of ADHD. Check this with the counsellor before starting.
Any therapy/counselling should be provided to children, adolescents and their families/whānau in a manner that is respectful of them, and with which they feel comfortable and free to ask questions. It should be consistent with and incorporate their cultural beliefs and practices.
Thanks to Kiera Mintoft-Jones, educational psychologist, for reviewing this content. Date last reviewed: September, 2022.
Thanks also to Sutherland Self-Help Trust for making the 2022 updates possible.