When most of us were growing up it was believed that ADHD was a disorder that only occurred during childhood. Parents were often told that their children would probably outgrow their symptoms by the time they were teenagers, and most certainly by the time they were adults. Over the past two decades research has shown that this is actually not the case. In fact, studies have shown that about 70% of children diagnosed with ADHD will continue to meet criteria for an ADHD diagnosis in adulthood.
Despite current research evidence, the belief that children will outgrow their ADHD has persisted in our culture. As parents you may have relatives, friends, and even teachers tell you not to worry because your child’s symptoms will simply go away as he or she gets older. People usually mean well when they say this, but it can be frustrating if it makes you feel like your child’s current challenges are not being taken seriously.
So why has this belief persisted, even when we now know that many teenagers and adults do in fact have ADHD? One reason may lie in the child-centered way that ADHD has been defined and categorized. When ADHD was first included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the authoritative guide to the diagnosis of mental health disorders in the US, the symptoms and impairments were based solely on the presentation of ADHD in children. While there have been some minor adjustments to the symptoms and diagnostic criteria in the DSM over time to better account for the disorder’s presentation in adolescents and adults, the overall child-centered focus of the criteria has remained. As a result, some symptoms, like “often runs and climbs on things excessively,” or “often leaves seat in situations where staying seated is expected,” are in fact only seen in children. If we were to see an adult “climbing on things excessively,” for example, we would suspect that there is much more going on than ADHD!
So, in a sense, children do outgrow some symptoms of ADHD – at least on the outside. What many people without ADHD don’t realize is that the underlying ADHD feelings and impulses often stick around into adolescence and adulthood. A child who struggled to stay in his or her seat during class may have learned to stay seated as he or she got older, but he or she has continued to experience strong underlying feelings of restlessness. Another child who would “often blurt out answers” or “interrupt others” may develop greater awareness of these symptoms over time. He or she still experiences the urge to blurt out or interrupt during conversations, but now he or she works hard to hold his or her thoughts and not speak out of turn. Sometimes he or she may have a hard time focusing on conversations or staying in the moment because he or she is so distracted by the urge to jump in and speak. So, in other words, many of these childhood ADHD symptoms don’t go away over time. They just become less visible to other people.
As a parent there are many things you can do now that will help your child manage his or her symptoms well into adolescence and adulthood. The skills you teach them as children, especially social skills, organizational skills, strategies for doing things independently, will last a lifetime. Being open to having conversations with your child about his or her ADHD symptoms can create a safe space where your child can learn to accept his or her ADHD rather than judge and hide his or her symptoms. And if behavioral strategies alone are not enough, helping your child find a medication that will work for him or her can make a tremendous difference in his or her symptom management now and in the future. So, while your child may not ultimately outgrow his or her ADHD symptoms, he or she can improve over time with the right treatment and support from family and friends.
Mary Rooney, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California San Francisco. Dr Rooney is a researcher and clinician specializing in the evaluation and treatment of ADHD and co-occurring behavioral, anxiety, and mood disorders. A strong advocate for those with attention and behavior problems, Dr. Rooney is committed to developing and providing comprehensive, cutting edge treatments tailored to meet the unique needs of each child and adolescent. Dr. Rooney's clinical interventions and research avenues emphasize working closely with parents and teachers to create supportive, structured home and school environments that enable children and adolescents to reach their full potential. In addition, Dr. Rooney serves as a consultant and ADHD expert to Huntington Learning Centers.
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