Positive Parenting

“We Have to Stop Trivializing ADHD”

A pediatrician explains why many kids with ADHD grow up to be anxious adults.

A woman with ADHD showing signs of anxiety
Dark shot of a woman looking out a window

Take a moment and think back to second grade. The teacher explains how to solve a word problem. You know, those awful problems that start out with, “If Johnny has 10 apples, and Suzy has three apples…” You listen, but your lovable dog Max pops into your head and you spend a few seconds or minutes (you are never sure how long) smiling to yourself about how you love Max.

The next thing you know, the teacher calls on you to give the answer to the word problem. You are panicked. For one thing, you do not recall what she said and you hate word problems because you reread them three times before you understand the problem. You also don’t like being called on by the teacher because all the other kids laugh, since you hardly ever get the right answer.

If this scenario is repeated multiple times a day, over weeks and months and years, you begin to think you are dumb. You doubt your ability to read, to do math problems, to answer questions, to do anything that the other kids think is OK. You decide you are a loser at age seven.

This is fairly typical of a child struggling with ADHD. Day after day of feeling dumb finally convinces the child that he is incapable of good performance in the classroom. This sequence leads to significant anxiety. Multiply this event, and the associated anxiety, by a decade or so and an untreated child with ADHD becomes the class clown or the withdrawn child in the back row who is labeled lazy or who doesn’t try.

[Self-Test: Does My Child Have Generalized Anxiety Disorder?]

How can we prevent this chain reaction? Research repeatedly demonstrates that children diagnosed and treated at a young age have improved academic performance and less risk of adult substance abuse. Previous estimates of the rate at which ADHD persists into adulthood ranged widely, from 6 to 66 percent, but those studies relied on small groups of children. A recent study, headed up by William Barbaresi, M.D., identified 379 cases of ADHD in the 5,718 children born during a six-year period from 1976 to 1982 in Rochester, Minnesota. Decades later, he and fellow researchers were able to track down and enlist 62 percent of those adults — 232 people — to participate in the research.

Of the third who still had ADHD at age 27, 81 percent had at least one additional psychiatric disorder, compared with 47 percent of those who no longer had ADHD, according to the study published in the journal Pediatrics. The findings suggest that ADHD may frequently occur with other mental health disorders, and may serve as a marker for these conditions.

“The group with ADHD is at highest risk for having additional mental health problems,” says Barbaresi, who directs the Developmental Medicine Center at Boston Children’s Hospital and is an associate professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. “We have to stop trivializing ADHD as just another childhood behavior problem. The nature and duration of this study show we have to recognize it as a chronic serious health problem that deserves a lot more attention than it has received.”

To go back to our example above, the non-ADHD child would have figured out the answer to the word problem, developed confidence, and met his academic potential. The child with ADHD who went undiagnosed and untreated had a much different outcome. Early and accurate diagnosis and treatment of ADHD can circumvent the above scenario and ensure a child’s success in school and later in life.

If you recognize your child in the description above, please do not call him or her lazy, dumb, crazy, or a loser. Instead, seek medical help from an expert physician who is knowledgeable in diagnosing and treating ADHD.

[Read This Next: The Full Range of ADHD Treatment Options for Children]