Does your highly active, distractible child have ADHD?
Over the past 20 years, more and more attention has been given to the mental condition known as ADHD, or attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder. The number of children diagnosed with ADHD has grown substantially too and recently even young, pre-school children are being medicated to improve their attention span and behaviour. But should we be labelling all high-energy children, or children who have some difficulty focusing, with ADHD? There isn’t any test for ADHD – nor is there any medical procedure that can definitively identify the presence of this disorder in a child. Instead there are behavioural symptoms that are used for diagnosis.
True ADHD is a chronic condition that involves problems with inattention or distraction, hyperactivity and impulsive behaviour. Some people use the term ADHD casually for any child who has trouble focusing on a task for long or one who can sustain high levels of activity for a long time. But it’s helpful to recognize that most healthy people are occasionally inattentive, hyperactive or impulsive.
For example, it’s normal for pre-schoolers to have short attention spans and be unable to stick with one activity. Even older children and teens show varying lengths of attention span during the day. Young children also are naturally energetic and some simply enjoy a higher level of activity than others. Children should never be classified as having ADHD just because they’re different from their friends or siblings.
A critical distinction between typical childhood behaviours and those of ADHD is that ADHD symptoms consistently and significantly disrupt daily life and relationships. Children with true ADHD don’t have it only in one environment. If a child has significant problems at school but is fine at home—or the other way around—something other than ADHD is going on. Two other key characteristics of ADHD behaviours are that they begin when a child is young (before age 12), and they last more than six months.
Following are questions to ask when considering the possibility of ADHD. Is the child often easily distracted? Is he constantly on the move? Does she always fail to think before acting, to the point that it raises safety concerns? And most crucial: Do issues with inattention, distractibility, impulsivity and hyperactivity significantly impair all aspects of daily life?
If the answers to these questions are yes, then a consultation with an experienced health care provider may be needed. Assessing a child for ADHD involves several steps. The first is to rule out other possible concerns, such as health (including allergies or possible diet-related issues leading to sub-optimal health) hearing or vision problems, or learning, language or other developmental disorders.
The health care provider also should talk with the child and the parents about the child’s symptoms. Other family members, teachers, sports coaches or child care providers may be asked to fill out questionnaires about behaviours they regularly see in the child. This can give a more complete picture of the child’s condition overall.
There are many factors that can lead to behaviours looking like ADHD but which may not benefit from medication. It is vitally important to try to get to the root of the problems, rather than resorting to a quick fix solution that usually involves a prescription for drugs.