Raising a Child with ADHD: What You Need to Know

If your child has received a diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), one mom who's been there shares what you need to know right now

By Ann Douglas
From the print edition, October 2012

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Photography from iStockphoto.com

My first thought as I read through an email from my son’s employer at his first full-time job? This never happens in real life. The message couldn’t have been more glowing: “He has a high energy level as he applies himself to his work and an incredible curiosity that is a joy to feed and witness.” You can find that email in a folder on my hard-drive labelled Awesome.

Life wasn’t always like this for Scott, now 22. He was first diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) when he was in Grade 1. Scott was always a very busy child—constantly on the move. And you could tell, just by looking at him, that his brain saw the world as a series of puzzles to solve. His next younger brother, Erik, now 21, who was quieter by nature (unless he became frustrated), received the same ADHD diagnosis in Grade 3. Looking back now, I remember more of the hilarious antics than the I-want-to-pull-my-hair-out moments, but there was also the frustration that came from doing battle with a world that had yet to recognize ADHD for what it is—a neurological impairment—and that still insisted on treating children with ADHD as problem kids.

The Diagnosis

If you’re the parent of a child who recently received a diagnosis of ADHD, you may be trying to figure out what this means for him or her and wondering (as I did) if you have the patience required to raise a child with ADHD. You may be thinking, “But I didn’t sign up for this when I agreed to become a parent!” You know what? That’s why the parenting contract is unwritten. The good news is that there is so much more information and support available to parents and kids today than there was even a few years ago.

The first thing you need to know, of course, is what ADHD means. ADHD, which affects approximately five to eight percent of school-aged Canadian children, doesn’t stand for a single thing—it stands for three possible subtypes of the same disorder.

  • Predominantly Inattentive Subtype. This describes someone who has difficulty regulating his or her attention. (This used to be called attention deficit disorder, or ADD, without hyperactivity.) Girls are more likely to exhibit this subtype than boys.
  • Hyperactive-Impulsive Subtype. This describes someone who is extremely high energy and impulsive, but who has less difficulty regulating their attention. The pure form of this subtype is very rare.
  • Combined Subtype. The most common type of ADHD, it describes someone who has difficulty regulating their attention, has a high activity level and struggles with impulsivity.

What ADHD is not is a description of a child who is behaving badly on purpose in an effort to drive his parents or his teachers around the bend. “It’s a neurodevelopmental disorder with a genetic contribution,” explains Jean Clinton, MD, a child and adolescent clinical psychiatrist and an associate professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioural neuro­sciences at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont. “The areas of the brain that are responsible for attention, organizing and planning are wired differently in people with ADHD.”

The word deficit is a bit of a misnomer. Scientists are now talking about ADHD as more of an issue of attention inconsistency—how the brains of people with ADHD use the energy to focus that precious resource known as attention. This explains why children with ADHD require less energy to focus their attention on things they love, like video games, while they struggle to maintain their focus on activities that aren’t as fun or exciting, like listening to a teacher speak in class.

“It felt more like I wasn’t interested than I couldn’t pay attention,” confirms Erik, who went from being a B or C student in high school to getting straight As in the final semesters of his accounting program in college, when every course on his timetable was something he loved.

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