Common ADHD myths
As part of ADHD Awareness Month, established ADHD researcher and author Dr. Joel Nigg is picking apart some common myths around ADHD.
Myth 1: ADHD is the result of bad parenting
I think people that say this have never really dealt with ADHD in its full form. Also, if you look at parents and ADHD, they do behave differently than other parents. However, this is not necessarily the parents’ fault, it’s because the child elicits different behaviors. In experiments that have looked at this, by randomly assigning parents and kids together, the behavior is driven by the child which then disrupts the parenting behavior. In these experiments, parents that look like ‘bad parents’ who have children with ADHD look like perfectly normal parents with other children and vice versa.
There is good experimental evidence that, after preschool, parental behavior is driven by the child’s difficult temperament – in most cases. There can be challenges when the parent gets caught in negative dynamics with the child. This can cause the problems to get worse if they persist. What we tell parents is that you didn’t cause the problem but you do have to modify your behaviors to avoid getting caught in a negative pattern that may make it worse. Learning these extra behavior management skills for parents are helpful to begin to reverse any negative dynamic. It’s the difference between your natural responses and having some training from a counselor on modifying, as one would with any special needs child.
Myth 2: Children with ADHD will outgrow the condition
This myth comes from the observation that a subgroup of children do seem to outgrow ADHD – they do seem to get better. They appear to have minimal to no problems and to adjust well to their condition. Some children with ADHD who struggle throughout childhood somehow land on their feet as adults; they find the right niche in life and they find the right context and they get on well. This is where that I think myth comes from. The myth also comes from the fact that hyperactivity naturally declines with age. The ADHD adult is not going to climb up on a chair the way that a 7-year-old would. So, it appears from the outside that the adult has outgrown the hyperactivity but we now know from longitudinal studies that the majority of adults with ADHD continue to have problems that disrupt their functioning and have more difficulty holding a job.
They are more likely to have problems with depression, addiction and continued problems with planning and organization that interfere with their relationships. This can cause them to go on to have secondary problems with ADHD that can have significant impacts, leading to shorter lifespans, more injuries and lower income throughout life. It’s clearly the case that ADHD persists into adulthood with the majority of cases and sometimes gets worse. This myth therefore that you can outgrow ADHD is absolutely incorrect. The myth, however, stems from a variation in outcomes and selecting anecdote to say: ‘well that child seemed to get better’ and apply it to the general ADHD population. In reality they are a minority.
Myth 3: Having ADHD and hyperfocus is like having a superpower
There is some anxiety about whether ADHD can be viewed as a strength in some areas or whether it should be seen as a difference rather than a disability. I think there’s some validity in viewing ADHD as a difference. There’s a concern we’re over medicating differences in people. We certainly see this in the autism community, where there is a concern about labelling people with neurotypical development versus neuro atypical development. People ask whether this should be labeled as a disorder in autism.
Some people consider ADHD a difference, not a disorder. There’s a concern that some of the strengths are being overlooked, strengths including hyper focus. Hyper focus is the ability for people with ADHD to have sustained levels of focus in areas where they are really talented or have a vested interest in. For individuals with ADHD that have hyper focus, they often can’t control the focus – so they’re hyper focused on things that aren’t always to their advantage. For example, if they hyper focus on an activity that interferes with their larger goals then that failure to control attention shows up as inability to focus -this inability to break away from hyper focus.
This means you’re not able to do what you want with your attention or you can’t do what you mean to do with your attention to meet your larger goals. I think, in that sense, hyper focus is not a superpower at all. It’s a difference that often interferes when the individual needs to shift away from what they are doing. This is certainly true in children who can’t break away from their activity without an outburst. That’s not typical in most children but it is for kids with ADHD because shifting that attention is something that they have a great deal of difficulty doing.