Whether you’re a parent, a teacher or simply a bystander, most of us have encountered a child who is hyperactive, easily distracted, has trouble sitting still, or all of the above. You may have also met an adult with similar behaviors. Unfortunately, many people believe these types of behaviors are the result of poor parenting or just plain laziness. Thanks to medical advancements, however, science tells us that it’s more than just people behaving badly.
In 1980 we first heard the term ADD (attention deficit disorder), but today it’s referred to as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). ADHD is a neurobiological condition that is characterized by impulsivity, hyperactivity and inattention. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), approximately three to five percent of children have ADHD and about 4.4 percent of adults in the U.S., ages 18 to 44, experience symptoms.
“Typically, children with ADHD will grow out of their hyperactivity symptoms. However, their ability to focus can remain a problem.
Statistically, 60 percent of childhood cases will continue to have problems with focusing as an adult, which is why it is so important for early diagnosis and treatment,” says Dr. John A. “Jay” Faber, a clinical and forensic psychiatrist at the Amen Clinics.
Oftentimes, ADHD goes unrecognized as a child and the individual is not diagnosed until adulthood. The symptoms of ADHD are similar in children and adults, minus the hyperactivity. Children with ADHD often have difficulty paying attention and following instructions. They become bored or frustrated with simple tasks, and are easily distracted. These common symptoms can lead to academic and behavioral problems. “ADHD often brings with it poor grades and work performance, discipline problems and low self-esteem,” notes Beth Ardell, MPT, co-owner and director of LearningRx in Atlanta-Buckhead and Alpharetta-Johns Creek.
For adults, their symptoms tend to be more varied and may not be as clear cut. The NIMH also states that many times adults who have the disorder don’t know it. They may experience anxiety and depression, mood swings, chronic restlessness, low self-esteem and impulsivity. Daily tasks such getting ready for work and being productive can also pose a challenge.
Parents who suspect their child may be exhibiting these common symptoms should seek a professional ADHD review. “Typically, your pediatrician will make a referral for psychological testing to confirm a diagnosis of ADHD and to rule out other possible contributing factors to the symptoms of inattention or hyperactivity that might also explain these concerns,” says Dr. Thomas G. Burns, Director of Neuropsychology at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. “Family history is also important to understand factors that might predispose the child to certain behavioral or medical conditions.”
As for treatment, medication is not the only answer. “We know there are multiple factors influencing ADHD. There are two key neurotransmitters that are turned ‘off’ in children who have the disorder: serotonin and dopamine. These neurotransmitters are influenced by diet, stress, nutritional deficiency and sleep—all of which are my starting points when evaluating children that exhibit ADHD symptoms,” says Dr. Tasneem Bhatia, medical director and founder of Atlanta Center for Holistic and Integrative Medicine.
Many children with ADHD are exceptionally sensitive to certain foods. “Changes in diet, including avoidance of artificial colors and food additives, have been shown to improve focus and attention. Dietary guidelines supplied by a nutritionist can only help the effectiveness of other interventions for focus and attention,” Ardell says. Offer your child a diet that is low in sugar and high in protein, vegetables and omega-3 fatty acids.
ADHD is not only aggravated when stress levels are high, but it can cause stress in families as well. Develop a few relaxation techniques with your family and communicate with one another. Additionally, remove unnecessary “noise” like video games and television.
Despite how well your child eats, it is quite common for children—ADHD or not—to lack a sufficient amount of vitamins. “The most prevalent nutritional deficiencies are the B vitamins, magnesium and the healthy fats, including both omega-3 and omega-9,” Dr. Bhatia says. Check with your doctor first before giving your child nutritional supplements.
“Sleep is critical for children with ADHD,” Dr. Bhatia says. They need 10 hours of sleep per night.” Lack of sleep in any child has been shown to have negative affects in behavior. Add to it the disruptive symptoms of ADHD, and there is little room for success.
People dealing with ADHD face many decisions when it comes to medication. “Medications, particularly stimulants, can play a role in alleviating symptoms of decreased concentration,” Dr. Faber says. “However, not all individuals suffering from ADHD will respond to these medications.” If you choose to pursue medication for your child, it is important to work closely with a certified physician. Finding the right medication with the least amount of side effects does not happen overnight. Adds Dr. Bhatia, “I have had a lot of success in managing children with ADHD without medications, but I often warn parents that every child is unique and there is no one-size-fits-all type strategy.”
Many adults choose the medication route to help alleviate symptoms as well. When choosing medication management as a method for ADHD treatment, make sure your physician is monitoring your use and behavior closely, as stimulant medications like Ritalin and Adderall can be addictive.
While studies have shown that medication is the most effective way to treat ADHD in adults, it is not the only method. Similar to children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, other treatment techniques include a well-balanced diet, regular exercise, plenty of sleep, support groups and professional therapy.
There is comfort in knowing you’re not alone, and fortunately there are many support groups as well as informational events such as the 14th International Adult ADHD Conference on July 18 organized by the Attention Deficit Disorder Association (ADDA). Whether you are a parent caring for a child with ADHD or an adult living with it, staying actively informed and more aware of the symptoms, can help with managing them and keeping disruption to daily life at a minimum.
Attention Deficit Disorder Association – www.add.org
Beth Ardell, MPT – LearningRx, www.learningrx.com
Dr. Tasneem Bhatia – Atlanta Center for Holistic and Integrative Medicine, www.atlantaholisticmedicine.com
Dr. Thomas G. Burns – Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, www.choa.org
Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD) – www.chadd.org
Dr. John A. “Jay” Faber – The Amen Clinics, www.amenclinics.com