Attention Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

Children sometimes seem to have boundless energy. They run, play, talk, laugh — and squirm, shout, have temper tantrums, interrupt others when they talk or don't want to share toys. It's just part of being a kid.

But for some children, these actions signal a behavioral problem called Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). ADHD affects 8 to 10 percent of all school-aged children, giving them troubles in school and at home. ADHD can be managed, however. Here's what you need to know about ADHD.

Scientists still aren't sure exactly what causes ADHD, but research points to differences in how the brain processes information. Our bodies use chemicals, called neurotransmitters, to carry messages along the nervous system. In children with ADHD, it may be that one or more of these chemicals is not working properly.

ADHD also appears to have a genetic link. Most children diagnosed with ADHD have relatives who also suffer from the disorder; however, this isn't always the case.

Recent research also links smoking during pregnancy to later ADHD in a child. Other risk factors may include low birth weight, premature birth and injuries to the brain at birth. Some studies have even suggested a link between excessive early TV watching and future attention problems.

What doctors do know is what doesn't cause ADHD. It isn't caused by eating too much or too little sugar, lack of vitamins or chemical additives in food. Similarly, stress can aggravate ADHD but doesn't cause it.

Many children are described as "hyper" simply because they're exuberant, impulsive, loud and easily distracted — all terms that describe normal kids at one stage or another! And a child who isn't classically "hyperactive" may still have the inattentive form of ADHD.

The child with ADHD, in contrast, displays a number of behaviors in combination over a long period of time (at least 6 months). Symptoms may be more severe in young children and lessen as the child grows older. ADHD is more common in boys than in girls, and children with the problem may behave better around their fathers than their mothers.

If your child exhibits a number of these symptoms for more than 6 months from age 3 and up, talk to your pediatrician:

In addition, an older child (age 6–12) may:

A diagnosis of ADHD is made by eliminating other causes for a child's behavioral problems. Symptoms usually show up before age 7, although the diagnosis often isn't made until the child starts school, when behavior problems become obvious.

Diagnosis of ADHD takes time, so be patient. ADHD is not a learning disability, but it shares symptoms with some learning disabilities. Your child's doctor will give him a thorough physical exam to rule out a medical problem. This may include lab tests to look for anemia, lead poisoning or seizures.

Once the doctor determines that there is no underlying medical problem, he will begin evaluating your child's behavior. The doctor will gather information about your family and from your son's teachers about his behavior at school. Your child's doctor also may refer you to a psychiatrist, neurologist, developmental pediatrician or psychologist.

Your child's condition can be managed. Behavior management therapy, classroom strategies and psychotherapy all may help. Many times children with ADHD benefit from these approaches along with medication to help make them calmer and better able to control their behaviors. These medications stimulate the attention center of the brain to bring it up to a normal level of functioning.

The medication isn't without side effects. Usually, these are limited to loss of appetite and difficulty sleeping, with headaches and stomachaches in some cases. If your son seems dazed, sleepy or irritable, call your pediatrician — the dose may be too high or the medication may not be right for him.

But while the drugs are generally safe and very effective, they shouldn't be the only way you manage your child's condition. By making some changes at home and working closely with teachers at school, you can help your child manage ADHD.

Most important, your child needs your love and support. Don't just punish bad behavior; reward good behavior with hugs, praise and (sometimes) gifts. Show your child love, not just with words, but with actions as well. After all, she isn't behaving this way on purpose — she may either not realize that a behavior is rude or annoying, or simply be unable to help herself.

Although your child's symptoms may lessen as he grows older, he will never "outgrow" ADHD. When diagnosed early and treated properly, children with ADHD can learn to compensate for their difficulties. 

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