We've all zoned out of a boring conversation, forgot our homework and squirmed in our seats—but if you're the parent of a child with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, or ADHD, occurrences like these affect every aspect of your kid's life. From emotions to school performance, children with ADHD often struggle to retain focus and control of their impulses.
So, what causes ADHD? Chances are, you've heard it all—from the environment to poor parenting to drinking soda and even watching TV. However, the causes of ADHD still aren't fully understood. Dr. Cecil Reynolds, PhD, author of The Energetic Brain: Understanding and Managing ADHD says, "ADHD is so often misdiagnosed and when you have a group of kids who are misdiagnosed, it throws off the research, making it more difficult to determine a cause." Despite the difficulty, many causes of ADHD have been suggested and examined by the medical community, including:
- Heredity. Most scientists agree that something genetic is going on. Reynolds says, "ADHD is almost certainly genetic and passed down through families, most often passed on from the father, but it can also occur as a spontaneous mutation." Scientists also agree that the psychiatric disorder is polygenic, meaning a group of genes is producing the trait. "Anytime you have a disorder that is genetic and is a result of a problem with more than one gene, the complexity of isolating those genes and locating what has happened becomes enormous," Reynolds adds.
- Difficulties during pregnancy. Issues during pregnancy that impact the baby's oxygen supply—such as high blood pressure, premature delivery, bleeding before birth, long delivery time, or a baby remaining in the womb past a due date—may allegedly cause ADHD, since they affect the development of the fetal brain. For example, a study done in the Netherlands found that children of women who took a medication called labetalol—used to treat high blood pressure—while they were pregnant had a higher risk of having babies with ADHD.
- Alcohol and Cigarettes. It's no secret that smoking and drinking while pregnant is dangerous, and has lasting effects on a baby's health and development, which is why researchers are reviewing the connection with ADHD. A study by the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey found that children exposed to tobacco smoke in utero were 2.4 times more likely to have ADHD, although this issue is still debated. Pregnant women who smoke or drink usually have other bad habits that can affect the fetus, which makes it difficult to pinpoint the sole cause.
- Food and Diet. As parents, we're always cautious about the food we feed our kids, and let's face it, the recent debates over food preservatives and artificial colors can have you second guessing that box of processed snacks. There's also a lot of confusion over artificial colors and food preservatives when it comes to ADHD. The FDA states that food additives and sugar do not cause ADHD, but if you're still worried, avoid packaged foods and serve your child lots of fruits, veggies, whole grains and lean proteins.
- Fluoride. A study conducted by Dr. Mullenix in 1995 concluded that fluoride may cause motor dysfunction. Fluoride is found in drinking water, toothpaste, mouth rinse, pesticides and medicine. Despite the fact that this claim been supported by other researchers, the study was conducted on rats, which means there may be no increased risk among humans.
Although precise causes have not yet been identified, there is little question that early intervention is important. Dr. Sam Goldstein, PhD, Clinical Director of the Neurology, Learning and Behavior Center, says, "Somehow there is an erroneous belief, one that I believe that stems from the medical field, that knowing the cause of ADHD somehow leads to a better solution. As far as I am concerned, for children's developmental, learning and behavioral problems, cause may be interesting, but does not necessarily lead you any closer to functional intervention and positive change over time." As the debate over the causes of ADHD rages, studying the risks may one day help researchers prevent the disorder before symptoms develop. In the meantime, if you're concerned about whether or not your little one may have ADHD, you don't have to go through it alone. Get the facts by talking with a specialist, joining an organized support group for parents of children with ADHD, and visiting the CHADD website. And if your child has ADHD you can help your child by doing the following:
- Medication. Dr. Reynolds says, "Parents should not fear medication if it's ADHD. Medication is part of the solution. I want to emphasize part of the solution for kids with ADHD. It should never be the only thing parents do."
- Treatment plan. It's important to have a treatment plan in place that includes medication, and some form of behavioral intervention. There are certain cognitive therapies that help train kids to think before they act.
- Consistency. "Consistency in parenting practices is enormously helpful for children with ADHD," Reynolds adds. "However, children with ADHD are the most difficult to practice consistency with." Set limits and practice discipline, but know that fear of punishment doesn't work.
Although as parents you can't cure ADHD, developing a plan of action to help your child and sticking to it will establish a supportive environment for her and you both.