You’ve likely heard of ADHD or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. If you’re the parent of a school-aged child, it’s worth learning more about. ADHD is so common that if your child doesn’t have it, they will have a friend or classmate who does.
ADHD can make it difficult for a child to control their impulses. They also may be fidgety, restless, and prone to accidents. It’s often difficult for a child with ADHD to pay attention in the classroom.
ADHD also affects adults. Today we’ll be talking about ADHD in children and what happens if the disorder is left untreated.
What Causes ADHD?
Scientists don’t know exactly what causes ADHD, but signs point to a combination of factors. First, genetics plays a part. It is likely a child with ADHD has at least one parent or another family member who also has ADHD. Second, factors in a child’s environment can put them at higher risk for developing ADHD. These factors include prenatal exposure to drugs or a pregnant mother with eclampsia, among others. Socioeconomic factors might also contribute. These include parental marital problems, a large family or placement in foster care.
What Happens if ADHD Goes Untreated?
Understandably, many parents are hesitant to treat a child with medication after he or she is diagnosed with ADHD. Research actually suggests, that if medication is used it should be done in conjunction with behavioral strategies and therapies. Medication should not be used as a stand alone treatment for ADHD. In some cases, behavioral therapies and strategies at home and in the classroom, are enough to support a child with ADHD without the use of medication. As with all healthcare decisions, evaluating the risks and benefits of available treatments, with a treatment team, helps many parents make a decision.
If a child with ADHD does not receive treatment, it may interfere with their ability to reach their full academic potential in school. ADHD can carry into adulthood and cause problems with performance at work or difficulty maintaining relationships. Unfortunately, if ADHD symptoms are ignored, it can also put a child at risk for injury because a lack of impulse control causes accidents.
Untreated ADHD and Substance Abuse
Most significantly, untreated ADHD puts a child at risk for substance abuse as an adolescent and as an adult. People with untreated ADHD are three to four times more likely to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol.
People with ADHD have difficulty handling stress and high-pressure environments. It’s common for adolescents and adults with untreated ADHD to abuse drugs and alcohol in order to cope. Substances like alcohol and drugs can temporarily relieve anxiety. A person with untreated ADHD may rely on these substances to treat anxiety and eventually become addicted.
Likewise, people with untreated ADHD may live with depression. Substances like drugs and alcohol can temporarily boost mood and briefly treat the depression. Over time, a person can become reliant on substances to feel good, and develop an addiction.
Available Treatments for ADHD
1. Behavioral Therapy for ADHD: Some behavioral therapies may curb ADHD symptoms. Behavioral therapy includes individual therapy, family therapy, group therapy and interventions provided within the school and classroom.
2. Mind Body Therapy Treatments for ADHD: Activities like yoga, Tai Chi, physical activity and meditation are correlated with symptom reduction in children with ADHD. When practiced consistently over time, they can also boost self-esteem, reduce anxiety and lead to better sleep. These practices are often free or low cost and can save thousands of dollars in medication over the course of a few years. Parents, counselors, and educators can also engage in these activities with their child, student, etc. to promote bonding and security, and allow for a break from more work-based tasks.
3. Pharmacologic Treatment of ADHD: ADHD medications fall into two categories: stimulants and non-stimulants. Giving a child with ADHD a stimulant seems counterintuitive, but these medications actually stimulate the part of the brain driving impulse control. Non-stimulant medications include antidepressants and alpha agonists. These non-stimulant medications improve ADHD symptoms by controlling the production and processing of neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine.
For more indepth research-based interventions for the treatment of ADHD, including the pros and cons of medication please see: 6 Research Based Interventions for the Treatment of ADHD in Children
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Moving Forward with ADHD
As a parent, you want to do everything right for your child. It’s hard to know what’s right when you’re looking at a treatment plan that leaves you with questions. If you are unsure of the best way to treat your child’s ADHD, don’t feel you have to decide on your own. If you feel uncomfortable or unsure of your child’s diagnosis and what it means for you and your family, don’t hesitate to get a second opinion.
Many parents of children with ADHD find working with a full team of invested adults helps them feel confident about their ADHD treatment plan. This team might include a therapist, a psychiatrist, your child’s teacher, an educational advocate, a mindfulness coach, a nutritionist, etc. ADHD impacts the whole family, and it important for both parents (if present) and any other family care takers, to be actively involved and supportive of their family member and their treatment plan.
Overall, helping your child address their ADHD symptoms can improve almost every part of their life. With better impulse control, they’ll likely be able to make and keep friends more easily and be more confident and capable in the classroom. Their physical health might improve from fewer accidents, more exercise, and better nutrition. You’ll also reduce their risk for addiction in the future. Most of all, when working with your child to find a solution to their needs, you’ll be showing them love, compassion and willingness to help others’ overcome obstacles.
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Dr. Sarah Toler is a Doctor of Nursing Practice and Certified Midwife who practices in Dallas, Texas. Dr. Toler is particularly interested in mental health disorders (depression, ADHD, OCD, anxiety), and perinatal mental health, including a focus on postpartum mood disorders. She works on her spare time with Addictions.com as a medical reviewer, and medical content writer. Dr. Toler hopes her work will help improve access to behavioral care for underserved populations, especially women and children.