Attention Deficit – Children & Youth

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There are times when children just can’t seem to concentrate. This isn’t a huge problem for most kids—they can regain their focus and get back on task fairly easily. But it’s a serious problem for others. Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder is a real illness that makes it difficult for children to sit still, concentrate and complete their work correctly and on time. Of course, it’s normal for children to want to run around or play loudly on occasion, and no one would expect a young child to sit quietly for a long time. But with ADHD, these behaviours happen often for a long time and in different environments (for example, at home and at school), and interfere a lot with the child’s life.

Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) are terms used to describe patterns of behaviour that appear most often in school-aged children. They are disorders that interfere with the learning process because they reduce the child’s ability to pay attention. It is important to understand that ADD and ADHD are not disabilities in the learning process, although they may be present in addition to a learning disability. A learning disability is a neurological condition that affects the child’s ability to learn. Children with these disorders are inattentive, overly impulsive and, in the case of ADHD, hyperactive. They have difficulty sitting still or attending to one thing for a long period of time, and may seem overactive. ADD and ADHD are difficult to diagnose because they affect all areas of a child’s life: family, school, friendships, athletics, and hobbies.

ADHD affects about 5 per cent of school-age children. It’s usually diagnosed during elementary school years because it’s normal for younger children to have a lot of energy and less ability to pay attention.

  • Boys – ADHD, particularly the hyperactivity type, affects boys more often than girls;
  • Family members – ADHD seems to run in families, so a child is more likely to have ADHD if a close biological relative has it;
  • Other mental illnesses – About half of children diagnosed with ADHD also have another behavior disorder. They may also experience a mood disorder or anxiety disorder
  • Other disorders or conditions – ADHD may be associated with learning problems or communication problems. In a few cases, ADHD may occur with Tourette’s Disorder Different illnesses and medical conditions can look like ADHD. Some of these include learning disabilities, vision or hearing problems, fetal alcohol syndrome and mental illnesses like bipolar disorder. That’s why it’s so important for a doctor to rule out other problems before they diagnose a child with ADHD.

Researchers aren’t sure what causes ADHD. Like other mental illnesses, it’s likely caused or influenced by many different things. A few examples include your genes, the environment you live in, and your life experiences. We do know that researchers haven’t found a concrete link between ADHD and factors like parenting style or watching TV. ADHD also seems to happen more often in children of women who smoked cigarettes while they were pregnant.

Your child can have a wide range of emotional responses to ADD and ADHD, which can be confusing to both them and to you. Your child may have already experienced years of frustration and failure which can lead to emotional stresses and further problems. Some of the emotional responses are:

  • Aggressive or violent behaviour – Feelings of failure can result in aggressive or violent behaviour at home or outside it
  • Withdrawal, anxiety and depression – Your child may turn inward and try to isolate themselves from the rest of the work, or he/she may become anxious and depressed.
  • Low self-esteem – If your child has been unable to have positive experiences because of ADD or ADHD, he/she will likely have trouble developing a healthy self-esteem.
  • Physical symptoms – Possibly, your child will bury their feelings so deeply that they will come out in the form of headaches, stomach or back aches, or pains in the hands or legs.

Because ADD and ADHD are so hard to diagnose, you may be confused by your child’s social behaviour. A teacher may not investigate difficult or disruptive behaviour because he / she cannot see the underlying attention problems. Two ways your child may try to mask their difficulty in the classroom or in a peer group are by:

  • Becoming the “class clown” or the “class bully,” or;
  • Avoiding or refusing to become involved in activities where he/she is unsure of success.

When a child is diagnosed with ADHD, the child and their family members should first learn about ADHD. This reinforces that the illness is a difficulty that the child can overcome and helps the entire family understand the illness. A combination of counselling, changes at home, changes at school and medication help children living with ADHD.

  • Counselling – The most common type of counselling for children living with ADHD is training to help them learn and understand positive behaviours. This is called behaviour skills training. It also helps children make positive choices that help them reach their goals, and it helps them work well with the people around them. Other kinds of counselling might also be helpful. Counselling may include the child, their parents and the entire family. Common types of counselling include:
    • Cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) – It has been adapted to help children understand the thoughts behind their urges.
    • Parenting skills training – It teaches parents how to cope with their child’s ADHD symptoms and how to guide a child living with ADHD. This may include learning how to predict problem situations, solve problems, enforce rules and give constructive feedback.
    • Family counselling and support – This helps all family members, including siblings, learn how to cope with disruptive behaviour and encourage positive behaviour
  • Changes at home – Changes at home can help a child cope with ADHD symptoms. Helpful changes may include:
    • Maintaining a consistent daily schedule, including a regular bedtime.
    • Using lists, charts, schedules or notes to help your child remember important tasks or information
    • Making sure your child is getting exercise.
    • Helping your child try structured social activities. Sports, dance or community volunteer work may help improve social skills, demonstrate the child’s strengths and boost self-esteem Your mental health clinician can suggest changes at home to help your child’s specific problems.
  • Changes at school – A child’s school may provide changes to classroom activities and learning material. For example, the school may allow a child to move their desk to a quieter, less distracting area. These small changes help many children living with ADHD. But if your child still struggles, the school may make bigger changes, like providing different kinds of learning materials. It’s best if parents and schools work together to help a child living with ADHD.
  • Medication – There are two different types of ADHD medication: stimulant and non-stimulant medication. It may seem odd to treat a hyperactive child with a stimulant, but they are very effective for children who have been properly screened and diagnosed with ADHD. Children may be prescribed other types of medication, such as antidepressants, if they can’t take ADHD However, the kind of medication your child is prescribed will depend on many factors, such as the type of ADHD and any other medical or mental health problems. Medication can help manage ADHD symptoms and improve your child’s quality of life, but it won’t solve all behaviour problems or social skills problems. That’s why it’s important to include counselling and changes at home or school in the treatment plan.

All members of your family will be affected by these disorders. As a parent, you may feel anger and guilt, and wonder if you could have prevented the problem or if you should have noticed it earlier. Your child’s siblings may be confused about what exactly ADD and ADHD are. They may experience anger and anxiety about the situation because of their lack of understanding.

If you think your child may have ADD or ADHD, your first goal should be to reduce the stress caused by the confusion and frustration your child is experiencing. It will be best if you work together with a team of professionals to find out what is wrong:

  • Your family doctor should examine your child for physical causes, including seeing, hearing or speech problems.
  • A psychiatrist should work with your child to see if there are any emotional or social problems in addition to or caused by ADD or ADHD.
  • A psychologist or sociologist should examine the family environment.
  • An education specialist should examine your child’s academic abilities and test for any seeing, hearing or speech difficulties.

Once this professional team has evaluated your child completely and the problem is correctly diagnosed, the team can recommend the most appropriate treatment program for your child. With the right kind of help, most children with ADD or ADHD overcome their disabilities, and their emotional problems usually disappear. They do better at school, improve their relationships with family and friends, and are more likely to achieve their full potential. With help from family, school and other professionals, children with ADD or ADHD have more than a good chance to grow up to be healthy, happy and productive adults.

Reach out for help

If you are concerned that your child may have ADD or ADHD, talk to your family doctor or your child’s school; they can refer you to professionals who can assess your child’s behaviour. If you need more detailed information contact a community organization that is dedicated to children with ADD or ADHD. You can also contact the Canadian Mental Health Association – Calgary Region for more information at
(403) 297-1700 or email: info@cmha.calgary.ab.ca.