By Dr. Megan Spencer, Licensed Clinical Psychologist
ADHD: Mental Illness or Developmental Disability?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is one of the most common neurodevelopmental disorders of childhood. While many websites refer to ADHD as a mental illness, it is technically a neurodevelopmental disorder—a disability in the way the brain grows and develops that affects a child’s behavior, memory, or ability to learn. ADHD is usually diagnosed in childhood and in some cases, lasts into adulthood.
That said, the terms we use to define ADHD are less important than knowing how to get our children the help they need. With support, children (and adults) with ADHD can be successful.
I Think My Child has ADHD, What Should I Do?
Talk to other people (grandparent, teacher, coach, or family friend) who spend time with your child to see if they notice similar behaviors or problems. You can also talk with your child’s pediatrician or contact a mental health clinic like Dakota Family Services to consult with a psychologist or other mental health professional.
Signs of ADHD in Kids
Common signs of possible ADHD in children include:
- Hyperactive behavior
- Consistently making careless mistakes or overlooking details
- Starting tasks and quickly losing focus
- Great difficulty staying organized
- Daily and consistent forgetfulness
- Frequent fidgeting
- Excessive talking
- Consistent difficulty in quietly engaging in activities
At What Age Does ADHD Start to Show?
Parents or caregivers may first observe more excessive motor activity when their child is a toddler, but these symptoms can be difficult to distinguish from the normal development of children prior to age 4. During elementary school years, inattention may become more prominent and impair your child’s ability to learn.
How is ADHD Diagnosed in a Child?
Consider having your child assessed by a professional if several or all of the above symptoms are present on a consistent basis across several different environments (home and at school/daycare), and are causing impairment in the child’s ability to function in important life and daily roles.
What Should I Tell My Child’s Healthcare Provider?
If you notice consistent symptoms that appear to impair your child’s ability to learn or maintain relationships, mention these concerns to the healthcare provider. They will discuss evaluation and treatment options with you and give you the information you need to take the next step.
Who Can Diagnose ADHD in My Child?
Psychologists, psychiatrists, and psychiatric nurse practitioners are trained to diagnose ADHD.
What Happens During an ADHD Assessment and Evaluation?
During an ADHD assessment, the family meets with the mental health professional for an initial consultation, also known as a diagnostic assessment. At that time, the professional will determine the next best steps. If this includes an evaluation, the child and caregiver/parent(s) will complete different types of assessments as it relates to the child. Once the assessments and evaluation have been completed, the family meets with the professional to review all results, diagnosis(es), and recommendations.
Parenting a Child with an ADHD Diagnosis
What you do when your child is diagnosed with ADHD depends on the level of severity and the main struggles or problems.
First, engage the individuals/groups involved in the child’s life and help them to understand the child’s difficulties.
ADHD in School or Daycare
More formally, allow your child’s school/daycare/educational providers to obtain and review a copy of the child’s psychological evaluation with recommendations. This will give them a better understanding of your child so they can create a formal education plan that accommodates and supports your child and their needs.
Sometimes parents hesitate to tell their child’s teacher about an ADHD diagnosis because they don’t want their child to be labeled. But, as long as you trust your child’s school and teachers, telling them child’s school about their struggles and needs, and advocating for a specialized education plan, is the best way to get everyone focused on meeting your child’s needs.
Medication for ADHD in Kids
Weigh the pros and cons of medication if it is recommended by your healthcare provider. Whether or not to use medication to treat ADHD can depend on family comfort level with medication, severity and impact of the problems for the child, and/or the child’s tolerance to medication.
As a licensed clinical psychologist, I personally believe medication has its place and can be very important and crucial in helping a child with ADHD. I do not believe medication is always the answer. Other behavioral management methods, such as individual and family therapy, can be just as beneficial. Often, behavioral management methods and medication combined have the best results. Talk about medication with the mental health professional who diagnosed your child with ADHD. If your child was diagnosed by a psychologist, it’s important to know they cannot prescribe medication. If medication is something you would like to discuss further, they will likely refer you to a psychiatrist or physician.
Can a Child with ADHD Control His or Her Behaviors?
Children with ADHD are less able to control their behaviors. Behavioral management therapy, family therapy, medication management, and/or a combination of these can help children manage and control their behaviors so they can interact in a healthier way with adults and other children.
Behavioral Management is a type of therapy that helps children better understand their behaviors; and learn new skills and tools they can use to improve and manage the targeted behaviors in a variety of contexts and environments. Behavioral management is a valuable intervention for children with ADHD.
Family therapy is also valuable as it provides the family with the knowledge and tools they need to support their child as they acquire and use new behavior management skills. It is also a great way to improve communication and functioning of the family—which can suffer from the stress of raising a child with ADHD.
ADHD is Treatable
While there is no way to prevent ADHD, early intervention can decrease symptoms and help children manage the behaviors that impact their relationships and their ability to learn. If you suspect your child might have ADHD, make an appointment to see a doctor or psychiatrist.
If your child is diagnosed with ADHD, look for parenting education specific to parenting a child with ADHD. Equipped with the right parenting tools, you can boost your child’s self-confidence, help them manage their behaviors, and help them make friends and play cooperatively with others.