More than 10 percent of American children are taking ADHD medication. According to some studies, that number is actually 15 percent. These statistics clearly warrant closer examination by mental health professionals, doctors, and parents.
While experts agree that ADHD is real, there are many children and teens who do not have the disorder, yet are prescribed medication for it. This can lead to a range of negative consequences. Even when a child does have ADHD, prescription medications can have negative side effects on their mental and physical health.
Therefore, a deeper understanding of ADHD is necessary for both healthcare professionals and the general public. This extends to ADHD symptoms, conventional ADHD treatment, and alternative approaches to behavioral issues in children and teens.
Since there are no medical tests that can definitively determine the existence of ADHD, health professionals can only make a subjective diagnosis. Thus, there are certain criteria that must be met in order for a teen ADHD diagnosis to be determined.
However, anxiety, depression, and certain learning disabilities may manifest through similar symptoms. Therefore, the process of diagnosis may be difficult.
ADHD symptoms exhibited by teens and children may include the following:
- Inability to finish schoolwork assignments
- Inability to pay attention during class, often daydreaming
- Losing things easily or forgetting about school assignments or home chores
- Inability to stay organized
- Difficulty waiting their turn in class or at home
- Restless behavior, such as fidgeting or being in constant motion
- Issues with listening, often talking when they should be following directions
- Talking too much and interrupting others
- Inability to play quietly
- Difficulty taking turns or waiting for their turn
- Acting and speaking without thinking.
ADHD is typically diagnosed if a child under age 16 has six or more symptoms for at least six months. For older teens, diagnosis requires five or more symptoms.
Some of these symptoms are also typical of Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). ADD is a type of ADHD that does not involve constant movement and fidgeting. However, the term is less frequently used. In 1994, medical professionals determined that all forms of attention-deficit disorder would be referred to as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, even if the person did not show signs of hyperactivity.
Unfortunately, because many children and teens exhibit some of the symptoms of ADHD, ADHD misdiagnosis and over-medication is an ongoing problem in the United States.
What Causes ADHD?
There is no clear cause of ADHD. The most common explanation is that the chemicals and synapses in the brain do not function normally. Moreover, some researchers believe that a person’s environment plays a role in whether or not the symptoms of ADHD improve or get worse.
There is also a genetic component of ADHD. A 2009 review study concluded that genetics account for 70 to 80 percent of the risk of ADHD.
Most experts agree that there is no cure for ADHD. A prescription for ADHD does not make the symptoms go away. Rather, children, teens, and adults with the diagnosis find ways of adapting to and living with ADHD.
An Epidemic of ADHD Misdiagnosis
Alan Schwarz, author of the book ADHD Nation: Children, Doctors, Big Pharma, and the Making of an American Epidemic, says that misdiagnosing ADHD is an all-too-common problem.
In researching the book, Schwarz spoke with kids and families, as well as medical professionals, pharmaceutical executives, and the doctor known as “the father of ADHD,” Keith Connors.
“When I looked deeper, it was obvious that our nationwide system of ADHD treatment was completely scattershot—basically, many doctors were merely prescribing with little thought into whether a kid really had ADHD or not, and then the pills would be bought and sold among students who had no idea what they were messing with.”
—Alan Schwarz, author of ADHD Nation: Children, Doctors, Big Pharma, and the Making of an American Epidemic
There are many reasons for misdiagnosis of ADHD. These include:
- Confusion with other mental health diagnoses, such as anxiety, depression, and learning disabilities
- Age differences in kindergarten classes that highlight behavioral issues among younger children, who are more frequently diagnosed with ADHD than their peers
- The influence of the pharmaceutical industry on physicians’ diagnosis of ADHD
- Variability in what parents and teachers consider appropriate behavior among children and teens.
Conventional ADHD Treatment
The most frequent treatment for ADHD is the prescription of a stimulant medication. Stimulant medications commonly prescribed for ADHD and ADD include methylphenidate (brand names include Ritalin, Concerta, Metadate, and Methylin) and medications with amphetamines (including Adderall, Dexedrine, and Dextrostat).
Furthermore, newer drugs have also been approved for the treatment of ADHD and ADD. These include two non-stimulant medications known as Strattera (atomoxetine, a selective norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor) and Vyvanse (lisdexamfetamine dimesylate). Because they are not stimulants, these drugs act in a different way on the brain.
In addition, children and teens diagnosed with ADHD are sometimes prescribed antidepressants instead of stimulants. Antidepressants prescribed for ADHD target the brain chemicals dopamine and norepinephrine.
Researchers have found that medication alone does not address all ADHD issues.
Therefore, most healthcare practitioners recommend psychotherapy interventions for both the child or teen and their parents, in addition to ADHD medicine.
The Side Effects of ADHD Medications and Over-Diagnosis
If a person truly has ADHD, they have imbalances in their brain chemistry. A stimulant medication can help calm them down and regulate their body systems. However, for individuals who do not have ADHD, these drugs stimulate the system unnecessarily.
Thus, there are potential negative side effects for individuals taking these drugs without medical cause. Moreover, even someone who does have ADHD can suffer some of these negative side effects. Such symptoms include the following:
- Rapid or irregular heart rate
- Increased blood pressure
- Depression or anxiety
- Insomnia or other sleep difficulties
- Suicidal thoughts
Therefore, prescribing ADHD medication or ADD medication unnecessarily can have serious consequences. Moreover, scientists do not yet understand the long-term effects of ADHD drugs on the still-developing brains of children and teenagers.
In addition, the prevalence of ADHD prescriptions means that misuse of these drugs is also prevalent. Research shows that as many as 35 percent of high school and college-age kids use these drugs to help stay awake to study. However, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, students who abuse prescription stimulants actually have lower GPAs in high school and college than those who don’t.
Alternative Approaches to ADHD Treatment
Prescription medication is not the only approach to helping children and teens diagnosed with ADHD. Other options include alternative medicine for ADD and ADHD, natural ADHD supplements, and behavioral and experiential approaches.
“Non-pharmaceutical, holistic approaches, such as diet and exercise, have been proven to be just as, if not more, effective for the collection of symptoms we refer to as ADHD.”
—Jamison Monroe, Newport Academy Founder and CEO
Alternative ADHD medication
Alternative ADHD medications include herbal supplements and vitamin formulations. However, the effectiveness of these products is not backed with research, and they typically do not have oversight by the Food and Drug Administration.
Behavior therapy can strengthen positive behaviors for children with ADHD. Therapists work with children to help them learn ways to regulate their behavior and emotions. Behavior therapy can also include training for parents and teachers, so they have skills to help children manage their behavior.
Also known as biofeedback, neurofeedback trains a child to focus on certain tasks while using a machine that shows brainwave patterns. It helps them learn how to keep brainwave patterns active at the front of the brain, which can improve ADHD symptoms. Scientists are developing more research to determine the efficacy of this approach.
One category of nutrients that impacts ADHD, as well as other mental health conditions, is omega-3 fatty acids. These acids play a role in the functioning of serotonin and dopamine. Many nutritional experts believe that a diet rich in omega-3 acids and low in sugar is helpful for ADHD. Diets promoted for ADHD also involve eliminating common allergens such as gluten, casein, and eggs. However, science has not validated such diets.
Research shows that regular physical activity can decrease the severity of ADHD symptoms and improve cognitive functioning in children. Since exercise increases the release of dopamine in the brain, it has a similar effect as stimulant medications, with no dangerous side effects. A study in the Journal of Attention Disorders found that just 26 minutes of daily physical activity for eight weeks significantly allayed ADHD symptoms in grade-school kids.
Stress relief toys
Fidget spinners—small, top-like devices that are spun with your fingers—are being marketed as a way to help children with ADHD improve their ability to focus. What a fidget spinner is used for is to keep a child’s hands busy so they can focus their attention on something else. Fidget spinner benefits for children with ADHD have not been scientifically validated.
Yoga and meditation
Yoga develops the parts of the brain that regulate impulse control and how we react to stress and challenging emotions and situations. Furthermore, meditation helps develop mind-body awareness and self-soothing skills. All holistic tools are helpful for behavioral issues and ADHD. Scientific validation includes a study with 8- to 13-year-old boys in which a weekly yoga practice over five months reduced hyperactivity.
Time in nature
Studies show that nature activities reduce the symptoms of ADHD in children. A national study examined the impact of natural settings on ADHD symptoms across diverse populations of American children. Parents rated the effects of 49 after-school and weekend activities in “green spaces” on children’s symptoms, compared to activities conducted in other settings. Green outdoor activities reduced symptoms significantly more than the other activities. These findings were consistent across age, gender, and income groups; community types; geographic regions; and diagnoses.
In conclusion, ADHD is a complicated disorder that requires proper diagnosis and careful attention to how a child or teen reacts to treatment. Moreover, there are many different ways to help children and teens diagnosed with ADHD. No parent needs to accept a one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to the health and well-being of their child.
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