If you think your child (or any loved one for that matter) might have Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, better known as ADHD, it can be daunting. You may be thinking: What do I do now? How do I support my child? How can the school help?
Here are some important things to know about ADHD in terms of identifying the disorder and responding to an ADHD diagnosis.
1. A medical assessment is critical.
Before you consider next steps in terms of support, it’s important to hit the pause button and get a comprehensive professional medical assessment.
ADHD can be complex, and what looks like ADHD, such as trouble focusing, might not actually be ADHD. There are many reasons why your child might be struggling (a sleep disorder, specific learning difficulties, stress), so you need a knowledgeable medical professional to look at the big picture and rule out other possibilities.
Even if it is ADHD, a thorough initial assessment is necessary to provide a framework for potential treatment options, strategies, and sources of support. An assessment should be viewed as the first stop in a journey to get to where you want to be. The only way to truly move forward is to understand where you’re coming from.
Find more information about what to ask before booking an ADHD assessment.
So, let’s say that you go through the assessment process and your child is diagnosed with ADHD. What do you need to know?
2. ADHD can look different in different children.
It doesn’t just manifest as that stereotypical child bouncing around the house. There are three hallmark symptoms of ADHD: inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity.
A child with ADHD might meet the criteria for one or all of these domains, so if they present with primarily inattentive symptoms, they might be unintentionally daydreaming and checking out during class, but are flying under the radar because they’re not being flagged for any behavioural concerns. For more specific symptoms to look out for check out these ADHD red flags from the Centre for ADHD Awareness Canada (CADDAC).
3. ADHD is a real neurobiological disorder.
Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a very real, highly researched neurobiological disorder, with some sources estimating it impacting roughly 1 in every 20 children. The exact causes of ADHD are unknown, but we do know that there is a strong genetic component. So if you or your partner (or both!) have ADHD, the risk that your child might also have ADHD is increased.
There is a lot we still need to understand about ADHD, but we know that an ADHD-style brain has an imbalance in neurotransmitters (chemical messengers in the brain). One major part of the brain impacted by this is the prefrontal cortex, an area that has been linked to what we call executive functions. Executive functions are essentially higher-order thinking skills, which include our ability to concentrate and block distractions, regulate emotions, start/finish tasks, make decisions, plan ahead. With ADHD, because the neurotransmitters in the brain are dysregulated, it can cause dysregulated executive functions. So, it’s not that you can’t focus; it’s that you can’t consistently regulate your focus.
4. ADHD is a lifespan disorder, meaning children don’t necessarily outgrow it.
If this sounds scary, fear not: although symptoms of ADHD tend to remain fairly stable over time, the impact of these symptoms on a person’s life can shift, with the right systems, environment, and supports. In fact, if your child has signs and symptoms of ADHD, but isn’t being impaired in any area of their life—if they’re not being impacted at school, at home, in social environments, their self-esteem—they may not get a diagnosis in the first place.
If ADHD truly is in the picture, the more you understand the diagnosis and what that means for your child, the more empowered you will be to take the appropriate steps to seek support and help them move forward. Not only that, understanding the root of your child’s can go a long way toward reducing stress and frustration at home. Stress doesn’t disappear with a diagnosis, but it can make it easier for you to empathize when your child is having a meltdown or struggling to follow through on his or her chores.
Tara Boulden, M.Ed. Counseling Psychology, is an ADHD coach and assessment consultant at Springboard Clinic, a Toronto-based ADHD clinic. She specializes in working with students.
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