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When Your Child Is Diagnosed With ADHD

Here's the single most important question to ask your doctor

Back-to-school season is usually a relief for parents as well as kids. Yet, with one in eight American school children (6.7 million kids in all) ending up with a diagnosis of "attention deficit hyperactivity disorder," commonly known as ADHD, parents of younger children are feeling a little angst mixed in with the relief of not having to entertain their children all day long.

Parents of active boys are especially concerned, since boys are diagnosed with ADHD more often than girls.

Typically, jumpiness, inattentiveness, and impulsiveness, behaviors thought to be signs of ADHD, first turn up in a classroom situation. In summertime, children are expected to be a little wild. But at school, when a teacher has to teach twenty or more children, kids are expected to settle down and pay attention.

So what if your child's teacher tells you that he would benefit from an evaluation for ADHD? You take him to the pediatrician or a child psychiatrist. After talking with you and the child and looking over the teacher's comments, the doctor says he meets the criteria for a diagnosis of ADHD. He makes careless mistakes in his classwork, is easily distracted, fidgets or squirms in his seat, blurts out answers without waiting his turn and so forth. With your child's best interests at heart, the doctor says that a stimulant medication will help your child settle down and learn.

Some parents are comfortable with taking the doctor's prescription and filling it at the pharmacy. Some parents, however, are not. These parents might want to ask the doctor some questions before taking the piece of paper he tears from his prescription pad. For these parents, I suggest that this is the question they should ask.

"Doctor, if this was your child, would you give him medication right away or is there anything else you might try at home before giving medication?"

The doctor might think about this question for a minute or two and then may come up with some surprising answers based on the latest research he has been reading as well as on good old common sense. Here are some suggestions he might have:

1. You could try limiting the amount of time your child spends playing video or computer games because research has shown that excessive " screen time" may be overly stimulating to a child's brain. When children's brains are overstimulated, they may have trouble paying attention to their school work (which is a lot less interesting than fast-paced gaming) and make them irritable and jumpy. According to recent research, excessive screen time even can damage the grey matter in the brain. Here is an informative short article on how screen addiction is hurting children.

2. You could give your child more structure at home. Simple things like having a set time when the family sits down to dinner, having a consistent bedtime, and having a consistent time at which homework should be started are comforting to a child.

3. You could make sure your child (especially if it's a boy) has a wholesome outlet for his energy by enrolling him in a sport like swimming, soccer, softball, or basketball. If he'd prefer to play video games, you could insist that time on gaming be matched by time playing outdoors or sports.

4. Make sure your child gets enough sleep at night. Children typically need more than eight hours of sleep. If kids don't get enough sleep, this affects their ability to concentrate and think. They get antsy and have a hard time paying attention.

5. Make some changes to your child's diet and see if that helps. Try substituting scrambled eggs, whole wheat toast, or yogurt and fresh fruit for sugary breakfast cereal and see if that makes a difference. Send healthy non-sugary snacks for your child to have at school.

6. Be open to hearing your child talk about anything that might be bothering him and distracting him from learning. Is he feeling too much pressure at school? Is someone picking on him? Is she having problems with her best friend? Is he worried because he hears parents fighting too often?

Most doctors who work with children are becoming aware that there are many reasons that a child might meet the criteria for an ADHD diagnosis without actually having a mental disorder. They are also aware that there are many things that parents can do to help before resorting to medication. I encourage parents to ask the question. The doctor won't mind at all.

Copyright © Marilyn Wedge, Ph.D.

For more suggestions about helping a child who has been diagnosed with ADHD, check out my recent book A Disease called Childhood: Why ADHD became an American Epidemic.

You might also want to take a look at my popular Psychology Today article "Why French Kids don't have ADHD" which has 16 million views and more than 2 million "likes."