ADHD: What you need to know

Learn more about ADHD treatment, causes, medications, how ADHD affects school and strategies to help people with ADHD.

If you or someone you care about has been diagnosed with ADHD, you probably have many questions. We hope to answer most of them: why and how it occurs, what the treatment options are and how to live your life to the fullest despite the challenges ADHD brings.

Information for people with ADHD, their parents and caregivers

What is ADHD?

Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a developmental brain condition that affects attention, although some people also have impulsivity and hyperactivity. Symptoms include challenges with concentration, memory, motivation, effort, social skills, organizational skills and the ability to learn from mistakes.

What causes ADHD?

We don’t know the exact causes of ADHD, but experts believe that genetics play a key role, because children born into families with a history of ADHD are more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD than those without a family history.

If your child has ADHD, other family members are likely affected and should be evaluated if they show similar symptoms.

What are the symptoms of ADHD?

The three main symptoms of ADHD are:

  • inattention (e.g., trouble staying focused)

  • hyperactivity (e.g., fidgeting, restlessness)

  • impulsiveness (e.g., acting without thinking)

Many other symptoms are associated with ADHD. Children with ADHD, for example, often have problems at school and in relationships with friends, while adults with ADHD have a higher risk of substance misuse, relationship difficulties and problems at work, to name a few.

Is there a cure for ADHD?

There is no cure for ADHD, but many treatments have been shown to decrease impulsivity and increase the ability to focus, work and learn.

No “one” treatment works for everyone with ADHD. The most effective approach usually involves first educating families, teachers and patients, followed by a combination of medication, behavioural therapy, psychological help and educational or occupational accommodations.

Education for families and teachers

Children (and adults) with ADHD need guidance and understanding from their families and teachers to reach their full potential. Education for families can include parenting skills training, stress management and, for families and teachers, strategies to deal with common ADHD-related behaviours.

Medication

More than 70% of people with ADHD respond positively to medication. Evidence shows that medications make all of the other strategies and approaches work, so think of medication as the “facilitator,” rather than the “cure.”

Stimulants are the most common ADHD medications. They can reduce ADHD symptoms and have been safely used by children and adults for many decades.

Before starting these medications, you will need to talk to your doctor to make sure the person can take them safely. Like all medications, stimulants can cause side effects. The most common are headache, stomachache, difficulty sleeping, dry mouth, nausea, loss of appetite and increased anxiety.

This is not a complete list, so always talk to your doctor or pharmacist about side effects—they can help you prepare strategies to combat them. The more you know what to expect, the less you will worry.

Non-stimulant medications are also used for ADHD when stimulants aren’t an option or don’t work. These take longer than stimulants to start working, so it’s important to take these as directed (e.g., every day). These medications are useful in improving attention and focus, but can be less effective at improving impulsivity.

Behavioural therapy

Behavioural therapy aims to help a person with ADHD improve their habits through practical assistance (such as help organizing tasks or completing schoolwork) or by working through emotionally difficult events. It can also help people with ADHD develop the skills to think before acting or resist the urge to take unnecessary risks. In addition, families of people with ADHD can take part in and benefit from this therapy.

Are generic ADHD drugs just as effective as the brand-name ones?

In Canada, generic drugs are tested to ensure they deliver the same active ingredient, in the same dose and for the same length of time as their brand-name equivalents.

Some ADHD drugs deliver the initial dose of medication in the morning, then the rest of the medication is slowly released during the day to keep improving the symptoms of ADHD. These products are known as modified-release drugs. Health Canada has recently proposed some changes to the standards for modified-release drugs to ensure that generic products match the time-release profile of the brand-name drug.

When choosing a generic drug, it’s important to ask your doctor to prescribe one that mimics the same time release profile as the brand-name drug.

Did we do something to cause this?

All parents want their children to be happy and healthy. It can be extremely painful when others notice the negative aspects of your child with ADHD but don’t see their positive traits. Parents of children with ADHD can feel frustrated and inadequate—even like failures.

There are many things you can do to help support your child (or any family member) with ADHD.

Improving behaviours

As a parent, you’ll need to learn as much as you can about ADHD and how it affects your child. The following are some strategies that can help improve behaviours:

  • Use a positive approach and calm tone of voice; use praise where appropriate.

  • Avoid using the words “stop,” “don’t” and “no.” Instead of saying, “Stop talking so much,” say, “If you want to talk, raise your hand and wait for your name.”

  • Set clear goals and limits, and connect them with rewards; keep choices to only two or three options.

  • Create a “work ethic” understanding by saying, “If you do this, you get that.” Be consistent, firm and fair, and follow through.

  • If parents live in separate homes, it’s ideal to share some common rules (e.g., the same bedtime). However, this is not always possible, so the next best thing is for each home to be consistent with its rules.

  • Start statements with the phrase, “I understand.” For example, you can say, “I understand this may be difficult for you, but I know you can do it.” This helps the child be less defensive and more likely to listen to your advice and instructions, and to understand that they will have responsibilities like other children.

Meeting goals

ADHD doesn’t just affect a child’s schoolwork. It can make it harder for them to make friends and be part of activities and sports in which they need focus. The following strategies can help your child focus and meet their goals; share this list with your child’s teacher(s) to see where they can help:

  • Understand that structure and routine are very important.

  • Prioritize tasks and avoid procrastination; split big tasks into several smaller steps.

  • Use visual reminders (e.g., sticky notes, calendars) in common places; use timers or apps for reminders (e.g., homework, chores).

  • Keep special containers in easy-to-remember locations for items that are commonly lost, such as keys and cellphones.

  • Find an area of the house or classroom where the person with ADHD finds it easiest to work.

  • Allow the child to take breaks to get up and move around.

  • Allow the child to have white noise during tasks that require focus.

How to support a family member living with ADHD

If your child, partner or someone else you care about has been diagnosed with ADHD, here’s what you can do to help them:

  • Learn as much as you can about ADHD and how it impacts a person’s life. This can help you better understand and empathize with some of their behaviours, and better support them in finding treatments that can help.

  • Make adjustments in your family routine. Certain tasks are harder for a person with ADHD, such as getting out the door in the morning. Sometimes, small adjustments can make everything go much more smoothly, like waking up earlier or allowing more time to get ready.

  • Involve the person with ADHD in family decisions. Children with ADHD often get told what to do (or what not to do). Involving them in choices and decisions can go a long way toward giving them a sense of efficacy, empowerment and control over their lives.

Take care of yourself

As a parent, it’s important to take care of your own needs to avoid burnout:

  • Take time to get enough sleep, eat right and exercise. Caring for yourself will help you provide the best care for your child.

  • Find a support network. Many parents find it helpful to communicate—either in person or online—with other parents who are experiencing the same things.

  • Know that it’s okay for your family to be unique. Find what works for you and your family, and let go of other people’s expectations of what your family should be.

Myth: ADHD is not a “real” condition.

Fact: ADHD is a neurodevelopmental condition that affects the functioning of the brain, which can cause serious difficulties. It is the most common mental health condition in children.

Myth: ADHD only occurs in boys.

Fact: While boys are four to nine times more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD, girls are affected by ADHD as well. However, because girls are more prone to inattentive symptoms than to hyperactivity or impulsiveness, their symptoms often go unnoticed, so they are often diagnosed later. By adulthood, the rate is almost equal.

Myth: ADHD results from poor parenting or teaching.

Fact: ADHD is mainly caused by genetics. It is not caused by parenting and teaching styles, though these can aggravate the symptoms.

Myth: Food allergies, refined sugar, food additives and poor diet cause ADHD.

Fact: These things don’t cause ADHD (but a poor diet can affect attention and function in anyone, including people with ADHD).

Myth: ADHD can be diagnosed with a simple test.

Fact: There is no lab test or X-ray that can diagnose ADHD. An ADHD diagnosis requires a detailed evaluation from a doctor or other healthcare professional. In addition, many children with ADHD have other factors that mimic ADHD, which can complicate the diagnosis.

Myth: All children with ADHD are hyperactive.

Fact: Not everyone with ADHD is hyperactive. Some people with ADHD seem to lack energy, or can appear quiet and reserved. Hyperactivity is also not the target symptom. Trying to stop a child from moving too much will lead to over-medicating the child. The target symptoms are inattention and impulse control.

Myth: Children with ADHD can never pay attention or complete their work.

Fact: Like anyone else, children with ADHD tend to find it easier to focus on activities that catch their attention, such as sports, music, video games and art. However, they may struggle more with tasks that require mental effort or tasks they don’t enjoy, like schoolwork or highly structured games.

Myth: Everyone has ADHD because we all have low attention spans.

Fact: While all of us have trouble paying attention from time to time, people with ADHD have this trouble more often and to a greater extent, and often have additional symptoms that further impair many aspects of their lives.

Myth: Medication alone can manage ADHD.

Fact: While medication can have positive effects on ADHD symptoms, the best treatment approach combines education, medication and behavioural therapy.

Where to go to learn more about ADHD

Your doctor, nurse, pharmacist or social worker can help connect you to resources and support that are available in your community. You can also explore these websites:

Canadian ADHD Resource Alliance (CADDRA)

This national not-for-profit organization offers healthcare professionals expert recommendations for the treatment of ADHD.

Centre for ADHD Awareness, Canada (CADDAC)

For people with ADHD and their families, this national not-for-profit organization’s website provides resources such as videos, information about support groups, education and printable fact sheets.

Totally ADD

This independent website, dedicated to adults with ADHD and their families, includes videos, a blog, forums—and a healthy dose of humour.

ADHD Families

This website offers ADHD resources for families, including webinars, toolkits, podcasts and more.

AboutKidsHealth

From the Hospital for Sick Children, this resource offers multiple articles on ADHD; simply search for ADHD under the “Health A-Z” section.

ADHD Information, Tips and Tricks

Psychiatrist Dr. Annick Vincent shares her expertise to help people manage ADHD. Here, people can find tips, videos, information on helpful books and DVDs for children and adults, and more.

Teaching Students with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder: A Learning Resource for Teachers

This PDF download from the British Columbia Ministry of Education offers practical tools and strategies for educators.

Learning Disabilities Association of Ontario (LDAO)

With information on a range of issues, including ADHD, this organization includes many online workshops, summaries of research studies, and personal stories and reflections.

CHADD: The National Resource on ADHD

This website offers information and articles on diagnosis, treatment, research and resources, with areas for adults, adolescents and children with ADHD.

Attention Deficit Disorder Association (ADDA)

For adults with ADHD and the people who work with them, this website includes information, resources and networking opportunities.

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