Why does it seem like so many more people have ADHD these days?
Is there more ADHD out there? And if so, what’s causing this increase?
It’s definitely true that more people have been diagnosed with ADHD in the last 10 to 20 years than they were before that. But this doesn’t mean that there are now more people who have ADHD – it just means we’re doing a better job of identifying those people who always had ADHD.
As many of my older clients will tell you, they have had ADHD for 60 years, but it was only diagnosed more recently. We’re also doing a better job of identifying ADHD where it less obvious – for example, in groups like those with the inattentive subtype (sometimes called ADD) or in girls and women who don’t fit the stereotype of the hyper boy.
What Actually Causes ADHD?
ADHD mostly results from factors involving a number of genes related to dopamine transmission. It is so heritable that about a quarter to a half of immediate family members (parents, children, siblings) also have ADHD. Relatives in older generations are extremely unlikely to have received an official diagnosis, but there are probably family stories that seem to fit.
In addition, anything that affects early brain development during pregnancy or in the first months or years of life can have some impact on how ADHD symptoms appear – things like smoking during pregnancy, lack of oxygen during birth, etc.
Finally, other stresses can also impact the severity of ADHD symptoms, even though they don’t directly affect the ADHD itself. For example, other conditions like anxiety or depression, sleep problems, learning disabilities, family stress, inconsistent parenting, trauma, etc. can all impact someone’s functioning. Additional stresses will worsen performance, while protective factors may enable someone to perform better, at least within their limits – sleep deprivation may make someone more distracted, but a great night of sleep won’t cure ADHD.
What Doesn’t Cause ADHD
ADHD doesn’t result from bad parenting. Actually, the opposite is true – difficult kids (such as those with ADHD) tend to make parents act more negatively. The kids wear their parents down, so the parents bring less of their A game. Therefore, addressing the child’s ADHD helps the parents respond better to the usual daily struggles.
ADHD isn’t linked to diet, either. Again, the influence goes the other direction – kids with ADHD tend to seek out less healthy foods more than kids without it. And parents with poorly managed ADHD who are working harder to keep their heads above water are less likely to cook the healthier foods that take more time and planning. If diet has a major effect on how someone feels or functions, then an allergy or intolerance is more likely to blame, not ADHD. Parents should get that checked out as well.
Finally, too much screen time doesn’t lead to ADHD. Once again, the influence goes the other way – folks with ADHD have a harder time resisting the exciting temptations on their devices when they should really be doing more boring work. As a result, they spend more time on fun screen time.
The Cause Matters
All of this matters because you can’t treat ADHD with better parenting, a healthier diet, or less screen time – at least not beyond the general benefits that would apply to anyone. There’s nothing a mother can do during pregnancy that will make a difference beyond getting good prenatal care and regular check-ups. So, if you’re beating yourself up over your child’s ADHD, stop. Instead, focus on the things that you can do something about that will actually make your child’s life better. Besides, it was probably your in-laws’ fault.
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