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ADHD Myths and Facts

Debunking eight predominant myths about ADHD

Eleven percent of children between the ages of four and 17 have been diagnosed with ADHD at least once, and the rate of diagnosis increases by three percent every year, according to the CDC. With so many families dealing with ADHD—and so many children growing into adults with the disorder—it's unsurprising that there's been a significant backlash against the disorder in the last decade or so. Whether you're a parent trying to convince your child's grandparents that your child's ADHD is real, or an adult who's tired of hearing that you're faking a real medical condition, you've probably heard at least a few of these myths.

ADHD is a Failure of Discipline and Parenting

It's true that some parenting styles work better for children with ADHD. Punishing a child for forgetting her homework due to ADHD, for example, is highly ineffective. But parents cannot discipline ADHD away, and parenting style alone can neither cause nor cure ADHD. In many families, one child has ADHD and one doesn't. These parents frequently find that standard parenting techniques work great with the non-ADHD child, while the child with ADHD is totally unresponsive. Parents who try to discipline or coerce away symptoms of ADHD can make symptoms worse and even psychologically damage their child in the process.

ADHD Medications Are Dangerous

There's no escaping the fact that every medication has side effects, whether it's taken for a mental or physical health condition. Children who get good medical care from qualified doctors, though, receive prescriptions designed to meet the child's physical and emotional needs. This is why it's so important for parents to choose psychiatrists who socialize in children with ADHD. Among children whose conditions are properly treated by competent doctors, the risks of untreated ADHD—which include substance abuse, serious behavioral problems, academic difficulties, and dropping out of school—are much more severe than the risks of taking ADHD medications.

ADHD Makes Kids Hyperactive

ADHD is associated with an increase in hyperactivity, but some types of ADD make kids quiet and spacey. Predominantly inattentive add (sometimes called ADD/PI) can actually make children so calm and quiet that parents and teachers don't notice their difficulties concentrating. ADD and ADHD are defined by difficulties concentrating and challenges with executive functioning, not hyper or aggressive behavior.

ADHD is Overdiagnosed

There's no doubt that some irresponsible doctors occasionally diagnose children with ADHD who don't have the condition. The same, though, is true of every other medical condition. Studies actually suggest that ADHD may be underdiagnosed in minority children and girls. Early diagnosis and intervention are correlated with better long-term outcomes for all children with ADHD.

Children Always Outgrow ADHD

Some kids do eventually spontaneously shed symptoms of ADHD, but this does not undermine the legitimacy of the condition. Virtually every medical condition yields at least a few patients who spontaneously get better. In most cases, though, children's ADHD gets better because their symptoms are well-managed. In some children with ADHD, medication makes it easier to learn how to cope with symptoms. Over time, these children may be able to reduce their medication dosage or stop taking medication entirely. This doesn't mean adulthood causes ADHD to melt away for everyone, though. Some people aren't diagnosed with ADHD until midlife or beyond. Four percent of American adults have ADHD, and almost half of these cases are classified as severe.

ADHD Can Be Treated With Just One Treatment

Parents of children with ADHD are frequently forced to listen to “miracle cure” stories. Some people argue that medication alone can fix ADHD and that there's no need to go to therapy or change parenting strategies. Others vehemently oppose medication, emphasizing that school accommodations and the right approach to parenting will “cure” the condition. The truth is that many people with ADHD have to try several different treatments before something works. The most effective way to treat ADHD is with a combination of medication, therapy, academic interventions, and lifestyle changes. If you skip one of these approaches, you're reducing the efficacy of treatment.

ADHD Medications Lead to Addiction

Some ADHD medications, particularly stimulants, are addictive, but this doesn't mean that people who use them properly become addicts. Instead, ADHD medications are commonly used recreational drugs, and kids who take these medications may experience peer pressure from friends to sell or give away their prescriptions. For people who take ADHD medications as prescribed under the direction of a competent and responsible doctor, though, ADHD medications can actually prevent addiction. People with untreated ADHD are at an increased risk of experiencing substance abuse problems, but controlling ADHD with medication can reduce the risk.

ADHD is a Personal Failing

ADHD makes everything about life more challenging. From getting up each day and going to school to finding and keeping a job, people with ADHD struggle more than the rest of us. Because everyone is familiar with procrastination and disorganization, though, the symptoms of ADHD can look a lot like the symptoms many of experience every day when we tackle the challenges of life. For people with ADHD, though, these symptoms are much more pronounced, and they can't simply be thought away. Research now conclusively shows that people with ADHD are not choosing their condition. Instead, they have clear brain differences that can be treated with medication. Research also suggests a clear genetic component for ADHD.

We don't have a medical test for ADHD yet, so it will likely continue to be a controversial diagnosis, particularly among those who wish to deny the legitimacy of mental illness. For those who live with the disorder or love those who do, though, ADHD is painfully real. We all have an obligation to advocate for those with mental health conditions, particularly children suffering from these conditions, and combating ADHD myths when you encounter them is a vital first step.


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