Fort Worth, Texas,
14:59 PM

ADHD on the rise – 4 theories why it's happening

The Doc Smitty looks at increase in diagnoses of ADHD

A little boy jumping up and down, constantly fidgeting and talking out of turn might be the picture you get in your mind when you think of a child with ADHD.

New research published this week in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry may challenge that stereotype or at least require us to broaden what we think ADHD “looks like.”

The research looked at the overall rate of ADHD comparing surveys of parents completed in 2003 and 2011. It might not surprise you to learn that the overall diagnosis of ADHD increased during that time. But you may not have heard that increases were found across all racial/ethnic groups, with the largest increase in Hispanics (83 percent). Perhaps another surprise was the fact that the increase in girls was greater than the increase in boys (55 vs. 40 percent).

Symptoms of ADHD can include difficulty paying attention, hyperactivity and impulsivity. Diagnosis is based upon a conversation you can have with your pediatrician or a psychologist and usually involves a screening questionnaire to be completed by a parent and teacher. Treatment starts with behavioral and parenting strategies to help children cope with symptoms but can require medication when these are not successful.

The study showing this increasing number of children diagnosed with ADHD certainly grabbed my attention. As someone who generally does not like medication for kids, I worry that this means the number of children on medications for ADHD is also increasing. As with all medications (and more than most), treatments for ADHD do not come without risk.

I do have some theories as to why the number of children diagnosed is increasing:

Theory No. 1 - Parents and teachers are more aware of the signs of ADHD.

Many hyperactive and impulsive children were previously labeled as trouble-makers and ended up spending lots of time in detention and in school suspension. Many inattentive children slowly started to have more trouble as classes got harder and parents and teachers eventually gave up on them as someone who just “wasn’t made for school.” Now we are realizing that those hyperactive/impulsive kids can’t simply “just sit still” and that those kids who were previously doing well shouldn’t be failing just because they can’t listen to lectures or get their paperwork turned in on time.

This particularly accounts for the increased rates of diagnosis in children of Hispanic and African-American descent. Previously, the stigma associated with all mental health conditions (including ADHD) prevented parents from seeking help. Also, because many girls are inattentive, rather than hyperactive and always in trouble, they could also go undiagnosed.

Theory No. 2 - Physicians are increasingly giving in to parent demand to “fix” their child.

This is by far my least favorite, but I just believe it is something we should at least consider. In a world where the expectation is that a pill can cure just about anything right now, parents increasingly want something today that will resolve their child’s behavior problems. Long term treatment plans that involve behavioral techniques and maybe even counseling aren’t as popular for all parents. However, we should fight against this as the diagnosis of ADHD and decision to start treatment should not be based on demand from a parent.

Theory No. 3 – The expectations and demands on children are changing.

Children are learning to read and do more intense math earlier and earlier. Homework was virtually non-existent when I was growing up until second or third grade. This is not necessarily the schools or teachers fault so don’t call up and gripe at your child’s teacher. Many of the requirements for what they teach and when they teach it come from above them. The simple fact is that, in trying to keep up with the success of other countries, we have decided to accelerate curriculum and to challenge students. It’s not always a bad thing, but it can be if you have a hard time sitting still for long periods or can’t keep yourself organized.

Theory No. 4 - New medications with less side effects have made parents more likely to seek treatment.

No one wants to see their child “turn into a zombie.” It’s still the number one concern I hear when starting treatment for ADHD. Fortunately, with newer medications, the side effects are much less severe and much less common. Loss of appetite and difficulty falling asleep are now the most common side effects I see, even those are not that frequent.

Keep in mind, each of these things are theories based on my experience. We will need to continue investigating why we are seeing this increase in the rate of ADHD. We all need to be observing our children for signs and symptoms, particularly if they are struggling with school but parents and teachers need to be careful not to attribute all school struggles to ADHD.

For more information, read: 

Treating ADHD - What every parent needs to know
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