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ADHD? It's The Whole Family

ADHD genes, ADHD DNA, ADHD inherited, ADHD in my family

The web, and our Forums, are full of speculation about Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) being caused by diet, bacteria, family stress, lack of a vitamin, or severe lack of good old-fashioned spankings.
(Cue old man muttering, ‘In my day we didn’t have all these fancy…’)

The problem with these theories is that siblings turn out so differently. Same house. Same stress. Same diet. Same bacteria. Same lack of an old-fashioned spanking. The daughter has ADHD, her two brothers do not.

Why is only one child battling Inattention, Hyperactivity and Impulsivity? Did Mom forget the vitamins during the second pregnancy but not the first one, or the last one? Studies suggest ADHD has a strong genetic component.
If you’re like me, and you don’t know a lot about genes, you might ask, ‘Then if it’s the same genes, why aren’t the kids all struggling with it?’ Well, if it’s the same genes, you could ask, ‘How come I have two brothers, and three sisters. Why not all girls like me?’ (I actually came from a family of all boys, but that just shows the danger of trying to extrapolate from a very small sample group.)

Genetics: It’s not Rocket Science. Alas. It’s not enough to have a particular gene, it’s also how the gene gets ‘expressed.’ I’m going to get into science for a second. And if I get this wrong, someone who knows better, please correct me. (My degree is in Physics. Gooey biology stuff is not what I studied.)

When scientists started mapping our DNA, the human Genome, they expected to find a quarter of a million different genes. They reckoned there would have to be that many to produce the diversity of human beings. A bit surprising then that they discovered our DNA contains about 1/10h the number of genes.

Turns out a gene could do many things. The little strand of DNA contained information, but the layer of proteins that coat the strand seem to be crucial to how the gene gets ‘expressed.’ So, even though researchers have found a number of genes in folks with ADHD, with names like DRD4.7 and Shank 4, having those genes doesn’t automatically curse you with ADHD. Or bless you with it, depending on your point of view. Plus, many of these genes show up in other disorders.

I spoke with Dr. Rosemary Tannock from The Hospital for Sick Children, a legend in ADHD research. After years spent closing in on these ADHD genes, she said it was disheartening to discover that having a particular gene was no guarantee of anything. It’s not just what you inherit, it’s how it gets expressed.

Welcome to the world of epigenetics. The blend of nurture and nature. What you inherit and how it gets ‘expressed.’ Which reminds me, another ADHD expert told me that a severe case of food poisoning has ‘turned on’ his gene for Celiac disease, so he is now unable to eat gluten.

All In The Family

It gets better. A study of twins revealed that your fraternal twin is more likely to have ADHD than a sibling. The odds that your Identical twin will also have ADHD is almost 100%.  As in similar DNA raises the odds.
While diagnosing a child for ADHD, the doctor may ask, “Who in the family does she remind you of?” Usually, everyone agrees. “Oh, she’s just like her uncle!”

In my case I recognized my father and grandfather in the traits of ADHD. If no one else in the family shows signs of ADHD, perhaps it’s not ADHD. Or it’s ADHD that it was caused by something else.

For example, ADHD symptoms can show up after a brain injury. A mother who smokes or drinks appears to be a factor in some cases. Being a premature baby also increases the risk of having this neuro-developmental disorder.

Adding to the confusion, there are things that make it worse, but that doesn’t mean they cause it. Poor sleep comes to mind. (If you lie awake wondering why you can’t sleep, check out this video.)
So while the ‘causes’ appear to be varied, with genetics the main one, full understanding will come from more research.

The Good News? It’s In My DNA!

When I first learned that there was a strong genetic component to this disorder, it was actually a relief to me. It made it much easier to defend the disorder from people who believed that video games, food dye, or ‘a shocking lack of spanking’ was the root of the problem.

The genetic link was also a bit depressing. I felt like I’d been dealt a bum hand. Or a bum Pre-frontal Cortex. Damaged. Damaged genes. And worse, I’d passed them on to my child.

Ultimately, I came to see that those of us who already fall into the spectrum, or have loved ones with this mindset, the causes are somewhat academic.
What matters is, ‘What can I do about it? And what can I do to help my child avoid what I have endured?’

tips for parenting an ADHD child,

All I want for my child…

Parenting a child with ADHD is hard enough. With one parent, or both, trying to manage their own ADHD, it’s that much harder to be a reliable, responsible parent.

As Patrick McKenna explains in our video on Parenting, ADHD undermines key parenting skills: consistency, regular structure, following through, managing time, and things.

You love your child, despite their ADHD. That is a given. Whether you always like them, well… As kids, we can be exhausting. That doesn’t make you a bad parent. It means you need to ask for help, find strategies, and be that much smarter about what you’re doing.

Feeling guilty for how you react sometimes, worrying about your child’s future, adds to the stress and the paralysis. Easy for me to tell you, ‘Let it go. Trust that it will work out.’ But trusting is not enough.

There are practical steps you can take, ways to dramatically improve communication. You can make simple changes that will start dialing down the chaos and emotions. Something as simple as using their name at the start of a question to make sure you have their attention. Keeping sentences short.

A Psychologist specializing in ADHD in kids taught me about the Plus-Five rule: Studies show the average child can only follow a sentence that has as many words as their age, plus 5. So a 6 year old can probably comprehend a sentence that’s 11 words long. (That sentence was 14 words long, by the way.) But with kids who have ADHD, it’s closer to  one-to-one. Not plus five. Telling an 8 year old, “I want you to go up to your room, and don’t come down again, no matter what, until you have picked up all of your…” doesn’t work. They’re lost.

Another strategy you can use every day is making specific requests, ‘Can you put all your dirty clothes in the hamper,’ rather than, ‘Clean up your room.’ Breaking big tasks into smaller, specific ones. ‘Can you find your knapsack?… Great, can you open it and take everything out? … Great…’
These are not huge, dramatic changes. But they add up. The real challenge is remembering to pause and use them when things start getting crazy.

Parenting is so stressful. And I can tell you, it never ends. You’re always their mother or father. You just are. But small things, done well, regularly, consistently, have made all the difference for me and my kids. And yes, they were never as consistent as I would have liked. That’s okay.

P.S.: What works for kids may be helpful for adults too.


Rick Green

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  1. donsense March 6, 2016 at 9:47 am

    Rick I am one of 12 children and the only one blessed with all of these gifts or 17 of 18. Being able to hyper focus has its benefits I have found especially when researching the relationships between scientific studies on causes. Two papers on genetic markers and pregnancy go a long way to satisfying my curiosity. One reviewed major stress of the mother with the marker gene and concluded that particularly Major stress in the 12 th and 22nd week of pregnancy when certain developmental growth is taking place. The other concluded that major stress during pregnancy as compared to any other factor including smoking, drinking alcohol, is a greater indicator than anything save genetics.
    In 1944 my mother faced the extreme stress of her eldest child at the front of the war Sailing with RCN. He graduated from the North Atlantic convoy duty to the Sail past the entire German UBoat fleet to Murmansk Russia. To add to this stress her two year old daughter died in the 12 th week at the end of May and I was born at the end of November 6 months later..
    Mystery solved for me.
    PS Being the last of 12 meant I was born into a very structured environment of necessity. And instructions to us were short by necessity. The ultimate attention diversion device didn’t enter my life until I was twelve ….TV. It was confusing however when under pressure my mother would run down the list of boys to me when she needed something done urgently . As in Tom,Dick, Fred, DON. Pick up those toys in the dining room NOW

  2. jennifermac March 6, 2016 at 4:41 pm

    Very interesting topic of debate, the genetics factor in families with ADHD. I have four siblings and two are diagnosed. The other two are mostly likely ADD, but what happens is that in families is that if you aren’t just like your sibling everyone will be convinced your not ADD. As if it’s a personality type, not a separate issue. And watch the denial escalate if one sibling is ADD and really dysfunctional, anger issues or addiction, and the others aren’t so much. Everyone will swear they aren’t ADD cause they don’t have th same problems.
    My husband is also diagnosed, his twin brother isn’t, but given the genetics he’s almost guaranteed to be. You’d think they would have exactly the problems but again nature vs nurture. One is happily married and well adjusted at home and at work, the other is a train wreck most of the time! One is happy go lucky, the other tends to be cranky and irritable. My point is that this difference was evident from childhood. It’s no ones fault, not his parents, not teachers, not wives or children. It’s genetics. Period! The rest is just circumstance.
    There are seven types of ADD(check out Dr. Amen) so having it is going to look different on everyone. Even siblings. If I had known this years ago I would have had my kids tested cause although they didn’t act exactly like their other family members, my gut feeling was that something bigger than them was driving their issues. In hind sight I was right, they were ADD not stupid and lazy! So be careful making assumptions based on family “personality” types. It’s a lot trucker than that!

  3. danodea March 6, 2016 at 5:17 pm

    In my case, it IS my whole family, possibly because both Mom and Dad were ADHD. Then I passed it to both of my children (my wife is as neurotypical as they come).
    “The ADHD is strong in this one.”

  4. danodea March 6, 2016 at 5:19 pm

    Addendum to the above: they were fortunate I didn’t pass my autism to them as well. I’m the only one in the family with that.

  5. donsense March 6, 2016 at 6:27 pm

    2Donsense addendum, despite none of my 11 siblings having all the synptoms and none to my knowledge having children with it, my youngest son and my grandson of my eldest daughter both were diagnosed as children and grandson continues to have it a s an adult in the mil,itary Yes he is one of those with his hand on the button. Ritalin for them My grandson and I both talk a blue streak .
    The other note is the references for the 12th and 22nd week is WEBmd at http://www.webmd.com/add-adhd/childhood-adhd/news/20040716/anxiety-during-pregnancy-increases-adhd-risk

  6. addeanne April 3, 2016 at 11:43 am

    Thanks for that tidbit about sentence length. This will really help in the classroom.

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