According to the American Psychiatric Association, ADHD (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder) is a mental disorder that affects more than 8% of children. The primary symptoms are inattention (not being able to keep focus), hyperactivity (excess movement that is not fitting to the setting) and impulsivity (hasty acts that occur in the moment without thought.
Even though ADHD is a condition that most everyone has heard of, there are a lot of misconceptions about it. The problem with these beliefs is that they add to the existing stigma around mental illness and make it harder for kids to get the treatment they need. Understanding how to parent or teach a child with ADHD requires knowing how the condition works.
Here are eight common and dangerous myths about ADHD:
Myth #1: ADHD isn’t real.
You’ll sometimes hear people say that ADHD isn’t a real condition, that the increase in diagnoses in recent years is part of the larger phenomenon of overmedicalization in our society. However, a consensus has existed within the medical community that ADHD is real and can be serious. Brain imaging scans show differences in brain development among children with ADHD, and research suggests that the condition can be inherited.
Skeptics question the authenticity of ADHD in much the same way they question the authenticity of other mental disorders. For instance, most people will experience symptoms of depression at some point in their lives. Does that mean most people are clinically depressed? Of course not. Similarly, even though many people find it difficult to focus on a task on occasion, only those with ADHD experience the spectrum of symptoms as a feature of their daily lives.
When people express doubts about the existence of ADHD, they reinforce the feeling kids have that there is something wrong with them they cannot fix or change. Acknowledging the condition helps kids externalize it as a set of symptoms that they can work to address and that explain why certain tasks are more difficult for them.
Myth #2: Kids with ADHD are poorly behaved.
Adults may see a child with ADHD talk out of turn or grab a toy from a playmate and conclude that the child is poorly behaved. This type of judgment overlooks the reality that kids with ADHD struggle with impulse control. In other words, they probably know that blurting out the answer in class is “wrong,” but they may be unable to stop themselves from doing so. It shouldn’t be assumed that kids who act out have ADHD, though. While ADHD can contribute to disruptive behaviors, it is never the sole determinant.
Myth #3: Kids with ADHD aren’t as smart as their neurotypical peers.
The fact that kids with ADHD can have a harder time keeping up in school doesn’t mean they’re less intelligent than their classmates. They just process information differently. For example, kids with ADHD tend to be visual learners, which means they learn best when they can see the idea being explained, either in their heads or on a screen or piece of paper. Visual learners should be encouraged to take lots of notes or draw the things they’re learning.
Myth #4: Kids with ADHD can’t pay attention.
The mostly true stereotype about ADHD is that it makes it hard for kids to focus. When kids with ADHD find an activity that captures their interest, however, they can become engrossed in it. This can be a problem when a parent or teacher wants a child to move on to a new task because children with ADHD struggle with shifting their attention.
Myth #5: Kids with ADHD aren’t trying hard enough.
Along with people who don’t believe that ADHD is real, there are some who think that kids with ADHD need to try harder to pay attention in class or sit still at the dinner table. They see kids who are disorganized and unmotivated as lazy or undisciplined. Misunderstanding children with ADHD in this way can prevent them from getting the treatment and resources they need to thrive. It can also lead to the kind of harsh parenting or teaching that causes poor self-esteem and makes kids feel like something is wrong with them.
Myth #6: ADHD is only a problem for boys.
When people think of a kid with ADHD, they might picture a boy who is loud and a constant blur of activity. While the condition is indeed more prevalent among boys, many girls suffer from it, too. Compared to boys, girls with ADHD may appear spacey and off in their own world. They can be especially sensitive and emotionally reactive. They may also be more talkative than their peers and prone to interrupting others. In some cases, parents and teachers are not as well attuned to the symptoms of ADHD in girls and it often goes undiagnosed.
Myth #7: Medications for ADHD are gateway drugs.
Central nervous system (CNS) stimulants are the most commonly prescribed class of ADHD drugs. These drugs include amphetamine-based stimulants (Adderall, Dexedrine, Dextrostat), dextromethamphetamine (Desoxyn) and methylphenidate (Concerta, Daytrana, Metadate, Ritalin). There’s an idea that kids who take medication for ADHD are more likely to abuse illicit drugs in their teens and beyond. But in reality, the opposite is true: Kids who take medication for ADHD are less likely to engage in substance abuse than kids whose condition goes untreated.
Myth #8: Medication is the only remedy for ADHD.
While the medications for treating ADHD in children have been proven to be effective and safe, there is no miracle drug. Children with ADHD will likely have to try varying combinations of medications and therapies before settling on the right one. In the area of emotional regulation, practitioners have found success with video games that incorporate biofeedback, as well as relaxation strategies such as deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation. It’s important that parents and teachers be flexible in their understanding of what works and appreciate that every kid is unique.
The bottom line: ADHD is treatable. When kids with ADHD receive the proper treatment (like psychotherapy, behavior therapy and stimulant and nonstimulant medications), they experience improved self-esteem, feel more at ease among their peers and family members, and are better equipped to lead happy and successful lives. If you think your child has ADHD, meet with a doctor or psychologist to determine the best way to proceed.