“Do you think she might have ADD?”
- Direct quote from my own home, about my daughter, spoken out loud at least 523 times over the last 3 years
As a parent and a child psychologist, I have a lot of empathy for other parents struggling with the question of whether their child may have ADHD. Despite all of the popular media representation and legitimate resources out there, it’s still a challenging question to answer! For all of you trying to figure it out, I hope that this article will offer a little bit of a roadmap to move forward.
Spoiler: In many cases, a comprehensive evaluation conducted by a psychologist will be the most helpful option in determining whether your child has ADHD. Before we get to that point, however, there are a few steps along the way that may save you the time and money required for such a thorough evaluation.
First, zoom out and take a look at the big picture of your child’s development by asking a few simple questions. One, how old is your child? We rarely diagnose ADHD in kids under 5 or 6 simply because child development up to that point can be extremely variable. Most kids look like they have ADHD at some point in early childhood because they’re all a little impulsive, kind of wild, and have short attention spans. If your kiddo is younger than 5, you might just look for a therapist to help with some behavior management. If they’re at least in kindergarten, you can keep moving forward toward an evaluation.
The next question you might ask is something like, “Are these behaviors consistent across time and at least two different settings?” If your child’s ADHD-like behaviors only started recently or only happen in one specific situation, it likely isn’t ADHD. The last question you could ask is, “Is it just me?” Kids with ADHD often catch the attention of other parents, teachers, babysitters, and so forth. If someone outside your immediate family has mentioned your child’s behavior being different than most other kids’, it could be a sign that your child truly does have ADHD.
Once you’ve determined that your child DOES seem to fall outside the norm, it’s time to take some action. The first step is to make a visit to your pediatrician. Your pediatrician will likely ask more detailed diagnostic questions and help you rule out any medical causes for your child’s behavior. Many pediatricians will also ask you to fill out a standardized questionnaire to formally document your child’s potential ADHD symptoms. If the results seem clear, your physician may prescribe medication or make other treatment recommendations right on the spot.
At this point, you have a choice: Take the pediatrician’s recommendation and move forward, or pursue a more comprehensive assessment. In some very straightforward cases, it may be fine to go with the physician’s determination and stop there. In most cases, a more thorough evaluation will be helpful for a variety of reasons.
First, it’s relatively easy to rule IN ADHD. The tougher problem is ruling OUT all of the concerns that can masquerade as ADHD, like anxiety, a learning disorder, depression, or autism spectrum disorder (to name a few). A thorough evaluation will not only figure out if your child shows ADHD symptoms but will go the extra mile to determine if those symptoms are actually ADHD or if they’re better explained by other factors.
Second, a comprehensive assessment will include data not only from you, but from teachers and other important people in your child’s life (e.g., coaches, babysitters). Remember the earlier question about the symptoms occurring in more than one setting? It’s important to have these other individuals fill out standardized questionnaires or participate in a clinical interview in order to shine a light on behavior outside the home.
Lastly, a comprehensive evaluation will typically include lots of tests that give you more information about your child’s cognitive, behavioral, and emotional functioning than a pediatrician can. I think of it like the difference between a physical exam and an X-ray. The evaluation will take a look under the surface and “see” things that may not be immediately obvious. You can then use that information to create a plan at school, strategies for the home, or find other treatment recommendations specific to your child’s unique profile.
Whatever path you choose, know that you’re not alone! There are plenty of resources available, both online and in-person, to help figure out if your child has ADHD.
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