ADHD in children: Are millions being unnecessarily medicated?

© 2010 - 2013 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved

The difficulty of identifying ADHD in children

Diagnosing ADHD, or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, is intrinsically problematic.

The symptoms—distractibility, impulsivity, and hyperactivity—are consistent with the normal behavior of young children.

So when a child is diagnosed, the implication is that he is more distractible, impulsive, or hyperactive than he should be for his age.

But where do we draw the line between developmentally normal behavior and medical disorder?

Here I review current ideas about ADHD in children--including reasons for doubt.

It’s not a comprehensive account of ADHD, and it’s not meant to deny that some kids suffer from important attention or hyperactivity problems. If you think your child might have ADHD, you should discuss your concerns with a physician.

But the following account provides an overview of the reasons why parents of young children should exercise a healthy skepticism before accepting a diagnosis of ADHD. I raise these points:

The official definition of ADHD in children is based on subjective criteria. To get diagnosed with ADHD, a child's symptoms should be bothersome--so much so that she has trouble functioning at school or in other social settings. But who sets the standards that kids must meet to be considered normal?

Expectations about kids have probably changed over the decades. In Britain, all kids begin formal schooling at the age of 4. In the United States, kindergarten is becoming more academic. But in many traditional cultures, people don't expect much self-discipline from children until they are 6 or 7.

Many kids may be misdiagnosed. As a recent study suggests, some kids are being diagnosed with ADHD because they are young, not because their behavior falls outside the range of normal development.

Biomarkers don't prove that a person needs drugs. Kids diagnosed with ADHD are more likely to carry certain genes and exhibit certain brain chemistry profiles. But we can probably say the same about kids who are shy, or aggressive, or perennially cheerful. Genes and neurotransmitters influence all sorts of behavior. That--by itself--doesn’t make behavior pathological or worthy of medication.

ADHD isn't the only cause of distractibility or hyperactivity. ADHD-like symptoms may be caused by a variety of conditions, including sleep disorders, anxiety, and poor working memory skills.

1. Defining ADHD in children

Attention deficit disorder, or ADHD, has been defined as “the co-existence of attentional problems and hyperactivity.”

According to the American Academy of Child Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP), this means a child who seems to be in constant motion—squirming and fidgeting and moving around the room. It also may be impulsive behavior, blurting out comments without thinking them through first. Unrestrained displays of emotion.

And it may mean that the child quickly becomes bored unless it’s an activity he particularly enjoys.

The ADHD child “may often be easily distracted, make careless mistakes, forget things, have trouble following instructions, or skip from one activity to another without finishing anything.”

2. Reality check: Are these the symptoms of ADHD? Or early childhood?

If you think ADHD symptoms sound like the description of a normally-developing preschooler, you’re right.

Virtually everybody shows these “symptoms of ADHD” when they are two, three, or four years old.

And different kids develop at different rates. Some take a little longer to focus their attention and restrain their impulses.

On average, though, most kids seem to settle down between the ages of 5 and 7. And this age range is recognized worldwide. It’s called the “5-to-7” transition. The period during which young children begin to show more “executive control,” when they become better at planning ahead, thinking abstractly, focusing attention, and inhibiting inappropriate behavior.

Along these lines, it's interesting to reflect on the results of a recent study conducted in Sweden. Researchers screened 422 first graders for signs of ADHD by asking parents and teachers to answer a standard, ten-point questionnaire (the "Conners 10-item scale"). Three years later, they checked on the kids' progress.

Did the early screening predict which children would receive a formal diagnosis of ADHD in the fourth grade? It did, but with a big margin of error. The very best predictor--which was a combination of high scores from both parents and teachers--had a positive predictive value of 50%, meaning that only half the first graders who screened positive ended up with a formal diagnosis in the fourth grade (Holmberg et al 2013).

3. Putting the definition of ADHD in children in cross-cultural context

Around the world, societies show remarkable agreement. Kids aren’t expected to show much self-discipline until they reach the 5-to-7 transition.

In a famous study, psychologist Barbara Rogoff and her colleagues reviewed 50 different cultures to discover when ordinary people think kids are capable of self-control and ready to meet responsibilities (Rogoff et al 1975).

The researchers considered a wide array of criteria, including these:

• The age at which people think kids are capable of making rational decisions and showing common sense

• The age at which people make a special effort to teach kids manners, etiquette, morals, and social taboos

• The age at which kids are included in games that require adherence to the rules.

• The age at which people expect kids to learn the practical and technical skills modeled by adults

The results suggest that regular people don’t demand much executive control from young children.

The majority of societies surveyed didn’t expect to observe common sense and rationality before the age of 6.

In most places, kids weren’t even asked to play rule-based games until they were at least 6.

And the most common age at which people began making a special effort to teach kids social rules was 7 years.

So it seems awkward to try to diagnose a child with ADHD while he’s still in preschool. Or even first grade. Behavior that is entirely normal and age-appropriate might get labeled as ADHD.

But unfortunately, it’s not unusual for kids to get diagnosed at an early age.

Indeed, according to the AACAP, a child shouldn’t be diagnosed with ADHD unless his symptoms emerge before the age of 7.

To be fair, those aren’t the only criteria. In addition, the child must be symptomatic for at least 6 months, and the symptoms must interfere with the child’s ability to function in at least two areas of life:

• at home,

• in the classroom,

• on the playground, and

• in other social settings

This idea of testing the child’s ability to function seems reasonable enough. But who sets the standards?

If we ask a kindergartener to sit still for 20 minutes, or to pay attention to what he regards as a boring lecture, he might have trouble. But is this because he’s got a psychological disorder, or because we’re asking him to conform to standards of maturity that are unrealistically high?

4. Evidence that young kids are misdiagnosed for exhibiting age-appropriate behavior

Todd Elder of Michigan State University wanted to know if kids are being misdiagnosed with ADHD because they show normal levels of distraction and hyperactivity for their age.

So he trawled through some old data--

a longitudinal study of kindergarteners conducted by the U.S. National Center for Education Statistics (Elder 2010).

Elder took a look at two groups of kindergarteners:

• the youngest kids, who were born in the month prior to their state’s cutoff date for kindergarten, and

• the oldest kids, who were born in the month immediately after the cutoff

His reasoning went like this: If kindergarteners are getting diagnosed with ADHD because they have a real psychological disorder—and not because they show developmentally-normal signs of immaturity—then there should be no correlation between a child’s age and her diagnosis.

In other words, the youngest kindergarteners should be no more likely than the oldest kindergarteners to get diagnosed with ADHD.

But that’s not what he found.

The youngest kindergarteners were 60% more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD than were the oldest kindergarteners. And being labeled with ADHD seemed to have lasting consequences.

When Elder examined older kids, he found that the youngest students in the fifth and eighth grades were twice as likely to be medicated for ADHD.

Based on his analysis, Elder estimates that as many as 20% of the 4.5 million American kids identified with ADHD have been misdiagnosed (Elder 2010).

Elder's results have been replicated by researchers studying school children in British Columbia (Morrow et al 2012). In this Canadian study, boys born in December were 30% more likely to receive an ADHD diagnosis than were boys born in January. For girls, the risk of diagnosis was 70% greater.

5. But what about the genetics and brain chemistry of ADHD? Doesn’t biology prove that distractible, hyperactive kids have a medical problem?

It’s true that ADHD is highly heritable.

We know this from twin studies that compare identical twins (who share nearly 100% of their genetic polymorphisms) with fraternal twins (who share, on average, only 50% of their genetic polymorphisms).

Identical twins are much more likely than fraternal twins to share a diagnosis of ADHD (Faraone and Mick 2010).

Presumably, that’s because there are genes that play a role in the development of ADHD. These genes may code for traits that alter levels of neurotransmitters in the brain.

Researchers have developed medications that target specific neurotransmitters, and these medications have helped some ADHD patients.

But that doesn’t mean that everybody diagnosed with ADHD really has a disorder. And it doesn’t mean that everybody benefits from medication.

The observation that kids with ADHD share certain genes—or even certain neurotransmitter profiles—is interesting but not unusual. We can say the same thing about kids who are shy, or perennially cheerful, or more aggressive than average (DiLalla 2002).

People are different, in part, because they carry different genes and develop different brain chemistries. That doesn’t imply that all differences are pathological!

Nor does it particularly matter why individual differences evolved—not when we’re trying to decide if Marcus or Sylvia needs to be medicated.

Some researchers speculate that evolution has favored certain “ADHD genotypes.” For instance, one theory posits that ancient social groups would have benefited by having a few ADHD-types as members. The more hyperactive, distractible people would have been the trailblazers—the people who sometimes discovered new survival tactics (Williams and Taylor 2006).

Again, that’s an interesting theory. But it doesn’t—by itself—tell us if a child’s behavior is pathological and worthy of medication.

Whether or not we regard ADHD as a "real" medical condition depends on our cultural assumptions.

6. How else can we explain symptoms of ADHD in children?

Are some kids just overtired?

Young children aren’t the only people who have trouble holding still and controlling their impulses.

Experimental studies show that elementary school kids become more moody when they get less sleep (El Sheikh and Buckhalt 2005).

Even adults become more distracted and emotional when they are sleep-deprived (Yu et al 2007).

Are some kids diagnosed with ADHD really just suffering from sleeplessness?

Studies show that ADHD kids are more likely to suffer from sleep disorders (Shur-Fen Gau S 2006; Chiang et al 2010; Hansen et al 2013; Moreau et al 2013). And when ADHD kids have been treated for specific sleep problems, like obstructive sleep apnea, their ADHD symptoms have improved (Huang et al 2007).

This doesn’t mean that the sleep problems caused ADHD symptoms. It’s possible that the ADHD symptoms caused the sleep problems. But it’s worth further investigation. Would a child’s ADHD symptoms improve if he got more sleep?

Other explanations your doctor should rule out

Other conditions that can cause symptoms of ADHD in children include

• Thyroid problems

• Clinical anxiety or depression

• Emotional traumas and sudden life changes

• Lead poisoning

• Undetected seizures

It’s also possible that some cases of ADHD in children are really caused by poor working memory.

A child with low-capacity working memory has trouble keeping complex directions and goals “in mind” while she works. As a result, she may appear distracted or disobedient.

7. Denying that ADHD exists at all

You may have heard the claim that ADHD doesn't exist. That it's a "lie" being perpetrated by drug companies.

Is this a valid point of view? The trouble is that the claims are vague. It's not a lie that some kids are more distracted, impulsive, or hyperactive than others. It's not a lie that some of these kids suffer substantial impairments in their daily lives. And it's clear that attention problems and hyperactivity -- like other traits -- are related to differences in brain chemistry.

But, as I note above, that doesn't tell us if the traits are intrinsically pathological. Links with genes and neurotransmitters don't prove that a trait a "real" medical problem.

Think of male pattern baldness. Some men have a genetic tendency to become bald as they age. But that doesn't mean that baldness is a medical problem.

Different people have different traits--like a tendency to become bald, or a tendency to be more impulsive. Whether or not we perceive these traits as medical problems depends on our cultural context.

And, as I've argued in this article, the cultural context of ADHD seems particularly important.

More reading

For more reading on related topics related to ADHD in children, check out these research-based tips for helping children develop self-control and my articles about the psychological benefits of play and working memory in children.



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References: ADHD in children

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Chiang HL, Gau SS, Ni HC, Chiu YN, Shang CY, Wu YY, Lin LY, Tai YM, and Soong WT. 2010. Association between symptoms and subtypes of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and sleep problems/disorders. J Sleep Res. 2010 Apr 7. [Epub ahead of print]

DiLalla LF 2002. Behavior genetics of aggression in children: Review and future directions. Developmental Review 22(4): 593-622.

Elder T. 2010. The importance of relative standards in ADHD diagnoses: Evidence from exact birth dates J Health Econ. 2010 Jun 17. [Epub ahead of print]

El-Sheikh M and Buckhalt J. 2005. Vagal regulation and emotional intensity predict children's sleep problems. Developmental Psychobiology 46: 307-317.

Faraone SV and Mick E. 2010. Molecular genetics of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Psychiatr Clin North Am. 33(1):159-80.

Holmberg K, Sundelin C, and Hjern A. 2013. Screening for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD): can high-risk children be identified in first grade? Child Care Health Dev. 39(2):268-76.

Huang YS, Guilleminault C, Li HY, Yang CM, Wu YY, and Chen NH. 2007. Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder with obstructive sleep apnea: a treatment outcome study. Sleep Med. 8(1):18-30.

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Morrow RL, Garland J, Wright JM, MacClure M, Taylor S, and Dormuth CR. 2012. Influence of relative age on diagnosis and treatment of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder in children. Canadian Medical Association Journal. First published online March 5, 2012, doi: 10.1503/cmaj.111619.

Rogoff B, Sellers MJ, Pirrott S, Fox N, and White SH. 1975. Age of assignment of roles and responsibilities to children: A cross cultural survey. Human Development 18: 353-369.

Shur-Fen Gau S. 2006. Prevalence of sleep problems and their association with inattention / hyperactivity among children aged 6-15 in Taiwan. Journal of Sleep Research 5(4): 403-414.

Williams J and Taylor 2006. The evolution of hyperactivity, impulsivity and cognitive diversity

Yoo SS, Gujar N, Hu, Jolesz FA, and Walker MP. 2007. The human emotional brain without sleep—a prefrontal amygdale disconnect. Current Biology 17(20): 877-878.

Content of "ADHD in children" last modified 3/13