Using ADHD medications has become the modern solution for a child’s behavioral and academic problems. Medicating troubled children has become even easier with the American Academy of Pediatrics’s new ruling last month. They declared that children as young as 4 years old can receive the ADHD diagnosis and get treated with dangerous amphetamines like Ritalin. It just goes to show how drug companies have successfully marketed their “chemical imbalance” theory as the root of childhood behavioral disorders.
However, alternative theories to the causes of ADHD are also becoming widely accepted. One of these is the idea that family stress can be as toxic to children as it is to the parent, triggering troubled behavior and other symptoms that resemble ADHD.
I know of a few family therapists who have been working with this theory for decades. Instead of viewing behavioral issues as a genetic or biochemical issue, family therapists look at a child’s home environment and see how he or she is being nurtured. A family is a very complex social system, and the smallest change can disturb the balance and cause unexpected changes in a child’s behavior.
For instance, a colleague recently had a four-year-old boy in his office because the teacher suspected that he had ADHD. He literally transformed into a different person overnight, from a caring, well-behaved boy to a restless tornado that would hit his friends and refused to listen to his teacher. When my colleague asked what was wrong, he said he was worried about his father, who starts fights at home and cries all day after losing his job. It’s amazing how young children can be so attuned to the moods of their parents and experience emotional problems because of this.
My colleague then spoke to the child’s parents and requested that they avoid having arguments around their son. In fact, he suggested that they discuss serious issues in the car with the windows rolled up or while their child is at school. Secondly, since the boy seemed worried about his father, my colleague asked him to avoid looking sad in front of his son and tell him two good things that happened in his day. In two weeks, the child’s behavior improved. Although he still displayed moments of aggression, he was for the most part the same sweet boy everyone at school knew. In a little over a month, his aggressive tendencies disappeared and he was his usual cheerful self once more.
What may seem like symptoms of a behavioral disorder may actually be a child’s reaction to his or her family environment. As parents, we can adapt healthy communication habits to protect young children from family stress. This means arguing when the children aren’t around, avoiding serious financial or political discussions at the dinner table, or telling your child a positive thing or two about your day. An ADHD evaluation should only be considered if the child displays behavioral problems despite a healthy home environment.