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?’
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.
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