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Causes of ADHD in Children: Facts and Myths

written by: Kira Jaines • edited by: Paul Arnold • updated: 8/25/2011

Myths about the causes of ADD/ADHD in children have been around since the condition was recognized at the beginning of the 20th century. The blame goes to everything from sugar to lack of discipline to the children themselves. But what is the real cause? Read on to learn the facts.

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    What Some People Think

    Some people believe attention deficit disorder (ADD) or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is not a real disorder. They believe poor parenting, lack of discipline or too much television, computer time, or gaming are causes of ADD/ADHD in children. Some chalk it up to lower socioeconomic status, unqualified teachers, inferior schools, or chaotic family life. Still others assert there is no cause at all, that children with ADD/ADHD willfully misbehave and have complete control over their behavior. These are the myths about the causes of ADHD in children.

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    ADHD Myths Debunked

    • Parenting skill, or lack of it, is not one of the causes of ADD/ADHD in children. You are not a bad parent because your child has ADD/ADHD. Your child doesn't have ADD/ADHD because you are a single parent, don’t make much money or let her watch too much TV and play too many games. Parenting style and social circumstances may or may not aggravate your child’s ADHD behaviors, but according to the National Resource Center on ADD/ADHD, no strong evidence exists to consider any of these factors the primary cause of ADD/ADHD.

    • Schools and teachers are not to blame for ADD/ADHD. On the contrary, ADHD is usually present before children attend school although it may not be identified until then, according to the American Psychiatric Association’s diagnostic standard.

    • Sugar intake, likewise, is not the culprit. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), most research discounts the sugar theory rather than supports it. Studies published in Pediatrics and the New England Journal of Medicine, found no difference in the behavior of children who received sugar versus a sugar substitute or in children who received higher-than-normal amounts of sugar and a sugar substitute. In another study, published in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, researchers gave a sugar substitute to children considered sugar-sensitive by their mothers. However, half the mothers were told their children were given sugar. These mothers rated their children’s behavior as more hyperactive than mothers who were told their children received aspartame.

    • Your child is not at fault for his ADD/ADHD. His behavior is no more willful than any other child’s. ADD/ADHD is a real disorder, with very real effects on the life of your child and the rest of the family. Without identification and treatment of the disorder, your child may indeed be unable to govern his behavior. Children with ADD/ADHD are more likely to have difficulties in school and to drop out of school, more likely to abuse alcohol and drugs, and more likely to have car accidents, employment difficulties and suffer from depression as adults, cautions the National Resource Center on ADHD. Disregarding the myths and understanding the facts about what causes of ADHD in children is essential to your child living a happy, productive life.
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    The Facts

    No known single cause can be applied to all children with ADD/ADHD, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. The situations listed above are not the causes of ADHD in children, though they can aggravate behaviors associated with it. ADD/ADHD seems to be directly related to brain function. Genetics may also play a role in that ADD/ADHD often appears to run in families. Low birth weight, prenatal exposure to alcohol or tobacco (or other prenatal issues), high levels of lead and head trauma damaging the brain’s prefrontal regions have all been found to contribute to a child’s risk for ADD/ADHD, according to the National Resource Center on ADHD. The Center also believes further research is needed into the possible link between food additives and ADD/ADHD, citing “accumulating evidence" that for a minority of ADD/ADHD children, the link may be an important one.

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    The Brain Connection

    According to the NIMH, brain circuit abnormalities may be at the root of ADD/ADHD. Researchers found that in children with ADD/ADHD, the part of the brain that processes emotion was smaller and had poor connections to the brain’s prefrontal cortex, possibly accounting for the impulse control and goal-directed behavior issues experienced by children with ADD/ADHD (the cortex is the outer portion of an organ; the word “cortex" is Latin for the bark of a tree). The prefrontal cortex governs executive functions such as problem-solving, organizing, planning, prioritizing, managing emotions, self-regulation and attention tasks.

    Another NIMH study showed children with ADD/ADHD, when compared to children without ADD/ADHD, had a thinner cerebral cortex in the frontal areas. When researchers followed up nearly six years later, they found the children with the most improved ADD/ADHD symptoms had “apparent normalization" of their cerebral cortices, while the difference in cortical thickness was much greater for the ADD/ADHD children who had shown less improvement in the intervening years.