For parents with children or teens who are having problems at home or at school for more than six months due to trouble with attention, learning or behavior, understanding if it’s attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or a related disorder is important.
ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder and is the most common mental health disorder during childhood. It can be effectively treated in most cases, and improvement happens most quickly with a combination of medicines and behavior therapy.
This excerpted post was originally published on the Seattle Children’s On the Pulse blog.
With ADHD affecting up to 10 percent of the population, parents and caregivers of adolescents diagnosed with ADHD often have many questions. To help answer some of those most commonly asked, On the Pulse spoke with Erin Gonzalez, Ph.D., co-director of the Behavior and Attention Management Program in Seattle Children’s Psychiatry and Behavioral Medicine department.
1. What is the best way to support my child who has ADHD?
Gonzalez: The best place to start helping your child is to learn about how ADHD affects children’s thinking and behavior. Having a lens to understand why certain behaviors are happening is the first step to finding ways to help.
For verified general information and an overview of ADHD, visit the Children and Adults With Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder’s (CHADD) website or view Seattle Children’s ADHD 101 videos, available in both English and Spanish. Seattle Children’s also offers classes for parents who want to learn more called ADHD First Steps, which you can be referred to by your child’s primary care doctor.
It is important to create a treatment plan with your child’s doctor or a mental health professional, even if your current plan is to just keep an eye on ADHD symptoms.
Guidelines support Parent Behavior Management Training (BMT), in which caregivers learn strategies to set their children up for success and to respond to challenging behaviors, as the best first step of treatment in most cases for young children. It is also recommended to speak to your child’s doctor about if or when medication will be part of your child’s treatment plan.
2. What are the common side effects of ADHD medications? Are there any methods to reduce ADHD symptoms without medication?
Gonzalez: Medications for ADHD are well-studied and generally do not have severe or long-term side effects for children. The most common side effects are lower appetite or difficulties sleeping, especially depending on when the medications are taken, and feeling more sensitive or emotional when the medications wear off.
There are no therapies or behavioral treatments that reduce the core symptoms of ADHD, which include distractibility, procrastination, hyperactivity and impulsivity, to the degree that medications do. Rather, therapies are focused more on improving the child’s functioning in various settings, general behavior and relationships.
3. Is my child eligible for special support or accommodations in school for ADHD?
Gonzalez: A diagnosis of ADHD does not automatically qualify a child for school accommodations or formal plans like an Individualized Education Program (IEP) or 504 Plan, but it can be a qualifying diagnosis if there is an observable impact of attention problems on your child’s learning, participation and behavior at school.
If your child is experiencing ADHD-related difficulties in the classroom, speak to their teacher, school resource coordinator or principal about an evaluation to determine their eligibility for school-based supports or accommodations. [Read more about education rights.]
4. Will my child have ADHD their whole life?
Gonzalez: ADHD is brain-based and is generally something that you are born with. About half of the children diagnosed with ADHD will still meet the full criteria for the diagnosis as adults.
However, about 90 percent of children with ADHD will still have notable symptoms of ADHD in adulthood, even if they don’t still have the full diagnosis. Therefore, ADHD is something that usually presents lifelong at least to some degree.
But there are many ways to manage symptoms and to learn skills so that ADHD does not have as big of an impact on a person’s daily life.
5. Will ADHD change or improve over time?
Gonzalez: For many individuals, ADHD symptoms improve with time and maturity. Hyperactivity almost always decreases with age. Inattentive symptoms of ADHD, such as distractibility and disorganization, are the most lasting symptoms.
Impulsivity often changes form with time. While an impulsive child might grab toys from peers or blurt out in class without raising their hand, an impulsive adult might instead have difficulty with managing money, making decisions while driving or saying things before thinking them through.
It is best to make a treatment plan for ADHD when your child is young so you can start them on a path to overcome their challenges, rather than waiting to see how the symptoms change over time.