Is Preschool Too Early to Diagnose ADHD?

ADHD is traditionally diagnosed after age 6. But if your preschool student is abnormally hyperactive or impulsive, new evidence suggests you might consider an evaluation at 5 years old.

Preschoolers & ADHD, Part 2

The earlier, the better?

Robin S., of Englewood, Colorado, wishes she had done things differently when she suspected her son, Jacob, now eight, had ADHD. “I wish I had trusted my gut ,” she says. “I was always making excuses for Jacob’s behavior. I was ineffective as a parent. If I’d had a ‘real’ diagnosis, I could have advocated more effectively for my son.”

Although it remains unusual for children to be formally diagnosed with ADHD before elementary school, a growing number of health professionals realize the benefits of early diagnosis and treatment. Peter Jensen, M.D., Ruane Professor of child psychiatry at the Center for Advancement of Children’s Mental Health in New York City, maintains that parents should intervene before major damage is done to a child’s self-esteem. “You should avoid letting it get to the point that your child dislikes school or feels like a failure or is always in trouble. That can set the stage for a child to expect failure and act in self-protective ways (e.g., becoming the class clown or resorting to aggression), that, in turn, promote more negative feedback.

“Youngsters who are carefully diagnosed by competent professionals show great benefits from early intervention,” says Brady. “They are more relaxed, more successful, and able to enjoy their childhoods.”

For Mary and her husband, a chance meeting at the neighborhood pool when Brandon was four years old made all the difference. “I was trying to talk Brandon through yet another tantrum when a mom walked over to say that Brandon reminded her of her son, now nine. She gestured toward a boy sitting on a towel, quietly playing cards with a couple of other boys. Her son, as it turned out, suffered from severe ADHD. She gave me her psychiatrist’s name and phone number and I called right there, from the pool, and made an appointment.”

After a thorough evaluation, the psychiatrist diagnosed Brandon with ADHD and started him on a low dose of medication just before he turned five. Mary and her husband enrolled in a structured behavior modification program and joined a local parent group for extra support. “I can’t say that life is perfect, but it is certainly light years ahead of where we were,” she says. "Had I seen a different pediatrician earlier on, or known that ADHD could be diagnosed and treated at a younger age, I could have spared our family a lot of heartache."


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