They may not seem to listen and may not sit still. It may appear as though they would
rather do anything than talk to you. They can make promise after promise without
following through. As a parent, it’s difficult getting the phone calls from teachers,
devastating when you find out that your child was the only one not invited to a birthday
party and frustrating when you’re trying your best but it still doesn’t seem to be enough.
Whether it’s a child, a sibling or a spouse, it can be challenging to live with someone
with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, or ADHD.
After finding out that your child has ADHD, you may feel lost and even move through
the five stages of grief. But it’s important to accept the diagnosis, for the benefit of yourself
and your child. And that starts with learning everything you can about it.
Nobody really knows what causes
ADHD, although current research
tells us that there is a strong genetic
component to this disorder. Theoretical
causes include environmental
exposures to certain pesticides, and
exposure to high levels of lead and
food additives, such as
But there’s no doubt
that it is a real disorder: the latest
studies have shown that there
is a neurobiological difference in
the structure of a brain affected by
ADHD. The cerebral cortex, or outer
area of the brain, is broken up into
four regions, or lobes. Repeated magnetic
resonance imaging (MRI) studies
have shown that the right frontal
lobe appears smaller in children
with ADHD. This area of the brain
is involved mainly with executive
functions such as problem solving, attention,
reasoning and planning. Not
surprisingly, sufferers of ADHD usually
have deficits in these functions.
ADHD is often present with other
learning disabilities and can appear in
many different forms, making it more
difficult to diagnose. According to the
National Institute of Mental Health,
ADHD is divided into three subtypes:
- predominantly hyperactive-impulsive,
in which most symptoms will
display as high levels of energy, such
as fidgeting, impatience and non-stop
- predominantly inattentive (often
referred to as ADD, without the ‘H’),
in which symptoms are quieter, often
appearing as an inability to focus and
follow instructions, daydreaming and
becoming bored easily.
- combined, where an individual
shows signs of both types.
Lazy, scattered and slow?
There are many misconceptions when
it comes to ADHD. The person with
ADHD has heard them all, and often
times has taken the labels personally,
affecting their self-esteem and sense
In most cases, these labels could not
be further from the truth.
“Sometimes with ADHD, it’s not
that they’re not paying attention,
it’s that they’re paying attention to
absolutely everything,” says Rhondda
Lymburner, a disability services
counsellor at Conestoga College in
Kitchener, Ont.; the spinning of the
fans, the buzz of fluorescent lights
and the squeak of chairs can easily
overwhelm a person with ADHD
and muffle a lecture at the front of
the room. Similarly, when they’re
bouncing their leg, drumming their
fingers on the desk or scanning the
room, it’s not that they’re not paying
attention. They may be doing these
actions to use up their excess energy,
stimulating their brain enough to pay
attention to just one thing.
So what's it like having ADHD?
Sandra Roberts is an executive member
of the Kitchener-Waterloo ADHD
Parents Support Group, a certified
ADHD Life Coach and the mother of a
child with ADHD. Her son, Christopher
Cusimano, is now 21.
“I remember a psychiatrist, years
ago when Christopher was getting
diagnosed, saying it’s like he has six
TVs going on in his head at all times,
and they’re all on six different channels
and he’s trying to watch all six
different shows,” says Sandra. It was
an eye-opening concept.
Christopher’s biggest challenge
with having ADHD is that he doesn’t
notice it. He’s only reminded of it
when other people express frustration
with him. He’s not currently taking
medication, but didn’t notice a change
in his behaviour when he was, yet
everyone else did.
Another aspect of ADHD is hyperfocusing
– the ability to completely focus
on, and lose yourself in, an activity
that you thoroughly enjoy. While
the ADHD person may have difficulty
focusing on day-to-day tasks, they
will zero in on something they thoroughly
enjoy, ignoring everything else
around them, even the need to eat or
use the washroom. While ignoring
food and washroom breaks can be
detrimental to their health, the benefit
is that they’re able to zero in on one
subject, often becoming masters of
their chosen activity.
“What’s really important to
understand about ADHD is that it’s
context driven,” says Dr. Tim Bilkey,
a psychiatrist specializing in ADHD
and co-author of Fast Minds: How to Thrive If You Have ADHD (Or Think You Might)
They may be criminal lawyers, EMS personnel,
or emergency room doctors, and if you saw
these people doing something that they were
passionate about, such as caring for a patient
or representing a client in court, you wouldn’t
catch the distractibility trait. “It’s more the
tedious, repetitive, boring activities that people
really struggle (with),” things like chores, paying
bills and sometimes, parenting. The fact
that they can hyperfocus on things of interest –
and will often do so at work – makes it difficult
for people to recognize that they have ADHD, as
they are very successful in certain parts of their
lives, but can’t keep up in others.
Another complication of hyperfocusing is
when the individual needs to transition out of
the activity and move on to something else; a
necessity when it comes to the modern educational
Sandra fought for years to get
accommodations in place for her son. She
worked with teachers to create Individual
Education Plans (IEPs), listing what his
needs were and how the teachers could best
accommodate them. She patiently explained
ADHD and how it manifested in her son. But
the plans weren’t always followed, and Sandra’s
experience wasn’t unique.
“That is a big part of our support group
meetings every month … first and foremost are
the issues that somebody has had at school with
their child. And teachers not understanding,
not wanting to understand, not wanting to
follow the IEP,” says Sandra.
The paradox of ADHD is that the child will
sit still in their seat on Tuesday, but stand on
the desk on Wednesday. The behaviour is not
always consistent or visible.
By post-secondary school, it may not be
so obvious to teachers that the student is
struggling. “In the classroom, just staying
focused on the topic is hard,” says Rhondda.
The student often drifts into other thoughts,
such as what to do after school or what was on
television the night before.
Although each person is different, there are
some main signs and symptoms in children,
which usually start to appear by Grade 2 (or
persist long after). These traits are present in
most children, but it’s the frequency and intensity
of them that sets the ADHD child apart.
Social and emotional immaturity.
“ADHD kids are a good two to three years behind
socially and emotionally; so, you have a kid
who’s seven or eight years old and really, they’re
only four or five,” Sandra says. This is a concept
that is sometimes difficult for teachers to grasp.
While their schoolmates are now able to sit still
and are developing the social skills required to
make friends, children with ADHD lag in these
Often, the girls are
missed because they don’t tend to display the hyperactivity
that the boys do. “And those are the
nice little girls that sit in the back of the class and
never ask a question or do anything, so those
are the ones that the teacher really likes because
they don’t cause problems in the classroom. But
they’re just as unfocussed as little Johnny up at
the front, who’s running in circles,” says Sandra.
And little Johnny’s symptoms will change over
time, too. “As boys get older, that hyperactivity
just goes into their mind, where it’s racing.”
They become tactile, pickers, or they play with
Difficulty with transitions.
may be watching television, unaware that their
parent is calling them for supper. When the
parent starts to yell, he will look up with a blank,
puzzled stare. And he won’t be able to pull himself
off the couch and bring himself to the table.
On the bright side
The disorder comes with many hidden benefits.
“These are the Bill Gates of the world. These are
the Albert Einsteins of the world. These are the
people who are willing to take the chances and
go out and do things and not be restrained by
society,” Sandra says.
People with ADHD are often artistic, intuitive
and driven individuals who live in the moment,
which can make them enchanting to others. But
it can also be a detriment because the bills aren’t
getting paid. The key is to find the balance.
“A lot of these people are above average intelligence,
and you don’t know it because it’s hard to
come out in the way that we think,” says Sandra.
“I think the biggest thing is to educate yourself
about ADHD, educate yourself about what parts
of ADHD affect your child.”
Although you might find medication works
well for your child, it’s no longer looked at as
the sole solution for treating ADHD. There’s
a strong emphasis on teaching children (and
parents) coping strategies and life skills. Some
parents flat out refuse to use any medication at
all, as there are side effects they aren’t willing to
tolerate, such as sleep disturbances, headaches
and lack of appetite.
At the parenting support groups, Sandra tells
parents to look at the quality of their children’s
life and ask themselves if medication is going to
improve or hinder it. But she reminds parents
to keep in mind whose life they’re talking about.
“As a parent, it’s not improving the quality of my
life, it’s their life, because he’s the one living with
this, not me.”
9 facts about ADHD
– From Fast Minds: How to Thrive if you have ADHD (Or
Think You Might) by Dr. Craig Surman and Dr. Tim Bilkey
Roughly four percent of adults have ADHD.
- There is not much difference between the frequency
of ADHD in developed and lesser-developed
regions of the world.
- People with untreated ADHD are four times
more likely to have a car accident.
- It’s believed that ADHD is more common in
males than females.
- Young girls with ADHD are less hyperactive; as
such, they are not often diagnosed. They are often
daydreamers and more outwardly chatty than
- Female teenagers with undiagnosed ADHD
are more likely to suffer from bulimia-nervosa
and mood disorders, such as anxiety, and
- Women don’t often have the hyperactivity trait, so
they may be diagnosed with depression
before discovering they have ADHD.
- ADHD is 80 percent genetic, which means it’s as
heritable as height. Many parents find out that they
have ADHD after their child has been diagnosed.
- Brain scans in children have shown that those
with ADHD have a stronger emotional reaction
to stimuli than those without. This means that it
may be more difficult for adults with ADHD to get
out of a bad mood.
Tips and tricks for parents of a young child with ADHD
When it comes to transitions, use a countdown: let them
know what’s going to come next. Use something visual, such
as a timer, or use what’s already available, such as the timing
of television shows. “When this show is done, we’re going
to have supper,” Sandra used to tell her son, Christopher
Cusimano. She would then explain what’s going to be
served. The key is to keep two steps ahead of the child.
Don’t let ADHD rule your child. ADHD is a part of your child, not the
whole of your child.
- Get support by attending parent support groups. Others may think
ADHD is just a phase, or they don’t understand. It’s important to be
around people who understand the frustrations, without judgment.
- Don’t try to fit your child into a mold. “You cannot jeopardize your
relationship with your child over spelling homework,” Sandra says.
- Set up routines and consistency.
- Get the proper diagnosis, so you know what it is you’re dealing
with. There are disorders that look a lot like ADHD, and the wrong
diagnosis leads to the wrong treatment. And once an ADHD
diagnosis is made, “try to take a step back, and relax. Enjoy your
child for who they are. School, yes, is important, but we make it
the be all and end all. Does it really matter what your marks were in
Grade 4?” Sandra says.
Lisa Olsen is a freelance writer with a background in human
services, where she has worked closely with individuals
diagnosed with ADHD. Her work has appeared in numerous