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My Child has ADHD - So Now That's My Fault?

By Benison O'Reilly - 8th February 2012

A few years ago I developed a condition called cold urticaria. I’m literally allergic to the cold. In low temperatures my body releases histamine and exposed parts, particularly my hands and feet, become red and itchy.  As medical conditions go, cold urticaria is more irritating than life-threatening, although regrettably my days as a ski bunny appear over (before they even began, in fact).

Recently my fifteen-year old middle son, N, said to me, "Whenever I tell my friends my mum is allergic to the cold they think I’m making it up."  I’m most definitely not making it up and have a written diagnosis from a rheumatologist to prove it.  However, I thought it was ironic that N brought this up, as he also has a condition which many people seem keen to claim is ‘made up’ - attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD.

N has inattentive-type ADHD. Inattentive-type kids (this variant occurs equally in boys and girls) tend to be quiet dreamers who underperform academically due to poor organisational skills and a tendency to zone out in class.  Unfortunately these kids often fly under the radar because they’re not considered ‘troublemakers’ by teachers and parents, unlike boys with hyperactive-impulsive type ADHD. However, both conditions are most definitely real and both can cause major difficulties for sufferers, not the least of them low self-esteem.

N was not diagnosed with ADHD until age eleven, although he’d been struggling with academics and distractibility for some time.  We probably would have sought help sooner, except that N’s younger brother had earlier been diagnosed with autism, which dominated everything for a while.

In the end it was the times tables that did us in. N consistently got Band 6 in all his Basic Skills Numeracy assessments but the boy couldn’t remember his times tables to save his life.  I’ve since discovered this is a classic symptom of ADHD, related to poor working (a type of short-term) memory. When N started saying, "I’m dumb," we knew we had to act.

We took him to developmental paediatrician who performed a battery of tests and diagnosed him with ADHD. We trialled fish oils but saw no improvement, so switched to Ritalin. The response was astounding - N went from bottom of the class to top in a single term.

He’s now in Year 10 and still on long-acting Ritalin. The academic gains have been maintained.  He may yet grow out of his ADHD (some do) but right now we’re happy to leave things as they are.  

As I mentioned, N’s brother has autism.  He also has a female cousin with ADHD.  Researchers have discovered ADHD is strongly hereditary and shares some genes in common with autism. I personally know several families besides our own who have a child with autism and another with ADHD.

N also has other symptoms that commonly go hand in hand with ADHD: verbal dyspraxia (hesitancy of speech) and hand writing problems.   These are physical manifestations of a real (but fortunately mild) disorder of brain function.

That’s why I get extremely annoyed when so called ‘experts’ suggest that ADHD may simply be a result of bad parenting, as in the case in this recent New York Times opinion piece. The author is L. Alan Sroufe, a retired professor of psychology at the University of Minnesota, whom I note was practising way back in the Freudian-influenced 1960s.  He writes:
       "Since 1975, we have followed 200 children who were born into poverty and were therefore more vulnerable to behavior problems... 14 percent met criteria for A.D.D. in either first or sixth grade."

The infant brain is very ‘plastic’ and there is research to suggest that parental neglect can result in long term behavioural problems; hence it’s possible - in some instances - that social disadvantage could result in behaviours that, at the very least, mimic ADHD. Unfortunately the author has to explain away the inconvenient fact ADHD occurs in middle-class families, too. This is what he offers:
     "Plenty of affluent children are also diagnosed with A.D.D. Behavior problems in children have many possible sources. Among them are family stresses like domestic violence, lack of social support from friends or relatives, chaotic living situations, including frequent moves, and, especially, patterns of parental intrusiveness that involve stimulation for which the baby is not prepared. For example, a 6-month-old baby is playing, and the parent picks it up quickly from behind and plunges it in the bath. Or a 3-year-old is becoming frustrated in solving a problem, and a parent taunts or ridicules. Such practices excessively stimulate and also compromise the child’s developing capacity for self-regulation."

Oh, so it’s all the parent’s fault.  In the 1960s and 70s autism was blamed on cold uncaring, ‘refrigerator’ mothers (in France it still is).  If we take this to the logical conclusion I must have overstimulated my second child but neglected my youngest.   Better call the authorities now, so they can take my boys away before I do any more damage!

I thought we’d moved on from ‘old school’ parent bashing, but apparently not.  I will finish with a counter quote from Christopher Green and Kit Chee’s Understanding ADHD:
     "Researchers still disagree on the exact cause of ADHD, but two things are certain. First, it is a hereditary condition. Second, the problems of ADHD result in subtle differences in the fine tuning of the brain...two old theories have certainly outlived their day: this condition is definitely not caused by diet or poor parenting."

I might write more about the myths of ADHD and Ritalin in the future, but enough for now.
Do you think parents are too often cast as whipping boys for their children’s problems?

P.S.  For those who are interested my eldest, M, managed get into to the university course of his choice and will be treading the boards as a Theatre major this year. If only I’d had a crystal ball to tell me this back in 2010 - I might have saved myself a lot of angst!

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