Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is characterized by symptoms of impulsivity, emotional outbursts, hyperactivity, inattention, loss of focus, forgetfulness, and disorganization. These symptoms may be present all at once or may only appear occasionally, depending on the situation.
The diagnosis of ADHD has become increasingly controversial because it is commonly diagnosed in children, with greater frequency than in years past, and stimulant medications are often prescribed to control symptoms. However, the condition is real, and it affects both children and adults. It can become serious if left untreated, and while medication can be helpful, especially on a short-term basis, therapy is often effective at treating ADHD, particularly when used in conjunction with short-term medication. Those who believe they or someone in their family is experiencing symptoms of ADHD might find it helpful to speak to a therapist.
Diagnoses of ADHD, in adults as well as children, have increased dramatically in the past years and received a great deal of public attention. In particular, the medications commonly used to treat ADHD-like behaviors are prescribed so frequently that at least one or two students will be taking such a medication in nearly every classroom in America. Add to this the ambiguous nature of the behaviors listed as symptoms for an ADHD diagnosis, and it is understandable that ADHD and the associated treatments may be quite controversial.
Common questions people facing an ADHD diagnosis for themselves or their children might ask include:
ADHD runs in families and is therefore likely to be at least partially genetic. However, the condition also has an environmental component. Research evaluating the theories that sugar and food additives cause ADHD has shown that neither is a likely cause of the condition, but studies have shown that cigarette smoking and alcohol use in pregnancy may contribute to the risk of a child developing ADHD. Lead exposure in young children can also influence the development of the condition. Some theorists have argued that ADHD is a product of an increasingly stressful society and that the academic demands children must meet can result in hyper, distracted behavior.
There are three subtypes of ADHD:
Those with ADHD may have/exhibit:
Though these issues may be experienced by anyone, ADHD can make these difficulties more severe. Most people can concentrate on tasks that challenge them by resolving to do so, but people with ADHD often truly cannot concentrate.
Attention-deficit disorder (ADD) and ADHD describe the same condition, although for a brief time they were classified separately. The term ADD is no longer in general use by medical professionals, and the diagnostic criteria for ADHD in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual were revised in 2013 to include three subtypes of the condition where previously only two were included. Predominantly inattentive presentation of the condition generally describes what was once thought of as ADD.
One way to distinguish between a person who displays overly energetic or distractible behaviors in school or the workplace and a person with diagnosable ADHD is to discover whether the attention problems and impulsivity occur only in isolation or in every context of life. If a child cannot sit through math class but can carry on an intelligent conversation with an adult, has no trouble watching a two-hour movie in one sitting, and enjoys playing chess, ADHD is probably not an appropriate diagnosis. On the other hand, if impulsive, frantic behavior is present at school, at play, out shopping, talking on the phone, and at the dinner table, ADHD may be indicated.
Psychotherapy is effective for the treatment of the symptoms related to ADHD because it addresses behavior modification. Children and adults with ADHD can have a difficult time regulating their emotional and behavioral response to situations. Learning effective coping strategies is one way to gain control over symptoms. Therapists can also help with the development of a plan for organization and prioritization, key areas of difficulty for those with ADHD. Goal setting, reward and consequence, and emotional regulation are other areas that are addressed during psychotherapy for ADHD.
Even if ADHD is not diagnosed, difficulties concentrating at school or at work can be troublesome. Therapy, with or without the addition of medication, can help children and adults learn to stay more focused, manage impulses, and discover which learning and working environments and aids can help increase attention. A therapist, especially one with a specialization in attention issues or school concerns, can work with parents, teachers, and the child in question to help modify the learning environment to better suit the child’s learning style and needs. A therapist can also help discover whether attention issues are really the root of the problem: In many cases, learning disabilities, anxiety, anger, problems at home, or other emotional or cognitive issues can be masked by a child’s misbehavior. Therapy can help uncover the true nature of the child’s inappropriate or troubling behavior.
Although medication is often also prescribed as part of a treatment plan for ADHD, it is considered to be most effective when combined with therapy, which can teach coping skills. Common therapeutic treatments for ADHD include:
In many cases a person diagnosed with ADHD will be prescribed medications by a doctor or psychiatrist to control and manage their symptoms. These medications generally include stimulants such as methylphenidate or amphetamines. These medicines work to activate the circuits in the brain that support focused behavior, which often has the effect of reducing hyperactivity. The medications tend to demonstrate greater effectiveness when combined with therapy.
ADHD continues into adulthood in about two thirds of American children with ADHD. Nearly half of these adults have never been diagnosed or received treatment for their symptoms, and only about 25% of them end up seeking help. Generally, hyperactivity symptoms are less prevalent in adulthood, but symptoms of inattention and impulsivity often persist. About half of adults who have ADHD also have some form of anxiety, and these adults often experience difficulty in their daily lives, as the combination of ADHD and anxiety symptoms can often lead to impaired function. Overlapping symptoms might also make it less likely for an adult who seeks treatment to receive a correct diagnosis.
ADHD symptoms in adulthood may manifest in different ways than they did in childhood. ADHD can have a negative effect on relationships and success in the workplace, as mood swings and a short temper are often characteristic of the condition, as is difficulty coping with stress. It may also be difficult for those with ADHD to focus on tasks or prioritize activities, and this may lead to missed deadlines and forgotten social engagements.
Treatment of ADHD in adults is generally the same as it is in children. Medication might be prescribed along with therapy, but often the condition can be treated without medication. Family or marital counseling may also be helpful when one's ADHD has an effect on loved ones and family members.
Last updated: 05-12-2015
ADHD: Inattention, Impulsivity, and Hyperactivity Articles