Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is one of the most common childhood disorders and can continue through adolescence and adulthood. Symptoms include difficulty staying focused and paying attention, difficulty controlling behavior, and hyperactivity (over-activity).

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ADHD has three subtypes:

  • Predominantly hyperactive-impulsive
    • Most symptoms (six or more) are in the hyperactivity-impulsivity categories.
    • Fewer than six symptoms of inattention are present, although inattention may still be present to some degree.
  • Predominantly inattentive
    • The majority of symptoms (six or more) are in the inattention category and fewer than six symptoms of hyperactivity-impulsivity are present, although hyperactivity-impulsivity may still be present to some degree.
    • Children and adolescents with this subtype are less likely to act out or have difficulties getting along with other children. They may sit quietly, but they are not paying attention to what they are doing. Therefore, the child may be overlooked, and parents and teachers may not notice that he or she has ADHD.
  • Combined hyperactive-impulsive and inattentive
    • Six or more symptoms of inattention and six or more symptoms of hyperactivity-impulsivity are present.
    • Most children and adolescents have the combined type of ADHD.

Treatments can relieve many of the disorder's symptoms, but there is no cure. With treatment, most people with ADHD can be successful in school and lead productive lives.

What Causes ADHD?

Scientists are not sure what causes ADHD, although many studies suggest that genes play a large role. Like many other illnesses, ADHD probably results from a combination of factors. In addition to genetics, researchers are looking at possible environmental factors, and are studying how brain injuries, nutrition, and the social environment might contribute to ADHD.

Genes. Inherited from our parents, genes are the "blueprints" for who we are. Results from several international studies of twins show that ADHD often runs in families. Researchers are looking at several genes that may make people more likely to develop the disorder. Knowing the genes involved may one day help researchers prevent the disorder before symptoms develop. Learning about specific genes could also lead to better treatments.

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

Children and adolescents with ADHD who carry a particular version of a certain gene have thinner brain tissue in the areas of the brain associated with attention. This National Institute of Mental Health research showed that the difference was not permanent, however, and as children with this gene grew up, the brain developed to a normal level of thickness. Their ADHD symptoms also improved.

Environmental factors. Studies suggest a potential link between cigarette smoking and alcohol use during pregnancy and ADHD in children. In addition, preschoolers who are exposed to high levels of lead, which can sometimes be found in plumbing fixtures or paint in old buildings, may have a higher risk of developing ADHD.

Brain injuries. Children and adolescents who have suffered a brain injury may show some behaviors similar to those of ADHD. However, only a small percentage of children with ADHD have suffered a traumatic brain injury.

Sugar. The idea that refined sugar causes ADHD or makes symptoms worse is popular, but more research discounts this theory than supports it. In one study, researchers gave children foods containing either sugar or a sugar substitute every other day. The children who received sugar showed no different behavior or learning capabilities than those who received the sugar substitute. Another study in which children were given higher than average amounts of sugar or sugar substitutes showed similar results.

Food additives. Recent British research indicates a possible link between consumption of certain food additives like artificial colors or preservatives, and an increase in activity. Research is under way to confirm the findings and to learn more about how food additives may affect hyperactivity.

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Do teens with ADHD have special needs?

Most children with ADHD continue to have symptoms as they enter adolescence. Some children, however, are not diagnosed with ADHD until they reach adolescence. This is more common among children with predominantly inattentive symptoms because they are not necessarily disruptive at home or in school. In these children, the disorder becomes more apparent as academic demands increase and responsibilities mount. For all teens, these years are challenging. But for teens with ADHD, these years may be especially difficult.

Although hyperactivity tends to decrease as a child ages, teens who continue to be hyperactive may feel restless and try to do too many things at once. They may choose tasks or activities that have a quick payoff, rather than those that take more effort, but provide bigger, delayed rewards. Teens with primarily attention deficits struggle with school and other activities in which they are expected to be more self-reliant.

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

Teens also become more responsible for their own health decisions. When a child with ADHD is young, parents are more likely to be responsible for ensuring that their child maintains treatment. But when the child reaches adolescence, parents have less control, and those with ADHD may have difficulty sticking with treatment.

To help them stay healthy and provide needed structure, teens with ADHD should be given rules that are clear and easy to understand. Helping them stay focused and organized - such as posting a chart listing household chores and responsibilities with spaces to check off completed items - also may help.

Teens with or without ADHD want to be independent and try new things, and sometimes they will break rules. If your teen breaks rules, your response should be as calm and matter-of-fact as possible. Punishment should be used only rarely. Teens with ADHD often have trouble controlling their impulsivity and tempers can flare. Sometimes, a short time-out can be calming.

If your teen asks for later curfews and use of the car, listen to the request, give reasons for your opinions, and listen to your child's opinion. Rules should be clear once they are set, but communication, negotiation, and compromise are helpful along the way. Maintaining treatments, such as medication and behavioral or family therapy, also can help with managing your teenager's ADHD.

What about teens and driving?

Although many teens engage in risky behaviors, those with ADHD, especially untreated ADHD, are more likely to take more risks. In fact, in their first few years of driving, teens with ADHD are involved in nearly four times as many car accidents as those who do not have ADHD. They are also more likely to cause injury in accidents, and they get three times as many speeding tickets as their peers.

Most states now use a graduated licensing system, in which young drivers, both with and without ADHD, learn about progressively more challenging driving situations. The licensing system consists of three stages - learner's permit, during which a licensed adult must always be in the car with the driving teen; intermediate (provisional) license; and full licensure. Parents should make sure that their teens, especially those with ADHD, understand and follow the rules of the road. Repeated driving practice under adult supervision is especially important for teens with ADHD.

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Can adults have ADHD?

Some children and adolescents with ADHD continue to have it as adults. And many adults who have the disorder don't know it. They may feel that it is impossible to get organized, stick to a job, or remember and keep appointments. Daily tasks such as getting up in the morning, preparing to leave the house for work, arriving at work on time, and being productive on the job can be especially challenging for adults with ADHD.

These adults may have a history of failure at school, problems at work, or difficult or failed relationships. Many have had multiple traffic accidents. Like teens, adults with ADHD may seem restless and may try to do several things at once, most of them unsuccessfully. They also tend to prefer "quick fixes," rather than taking the steps needed to achieve greater rewards.

(National Institute of Mental Health; http://www.nimh.nih.gov)