Does my child/teen have ADHD? Here’s how to find out, and get the best outcome if they do.January 19, 2020
As a Family Therapist, I see many undiagnosed and untreated teens with ADHD who by the time they (and their parents) have reached me are completely out of their parents’ control. They’re often running away, leaving the house whenever they like, not attending school, into drugs (sometimes dealing drugs) and often intimidating family members.
Children with ADHD are at higher risk of mental illnesses, behavioural problems and drug and alcohol addiction when they reach puberty. But the research also shows that children who are diagnosed and treated for their ADHD before puberty are more likely to stay on track afterwards.
Many parents are not aware their child is living with ADHD until really serious behaviours show up in the teen years. This is because the symptoms of ADHD are not widely understood, and ADHD presents differently in each child (although there are some common symptoms). And as a result, many children simply are not diagnosed with ADHD (in fact there are also a whole lot of adults out there in the world who have undiagnosed ADHD).
It might help to explain what ADHD stands for. ADHD stands for ‘Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder’. Some people experience the inattentive side of ADHD – they are the children who find it difficult to focus and can appear dreamy. Other people experience the hyperactivity side of ADHD which tends to express itself as behavioural problems.
The children at highest risk of not getting the support they need are those on the inattentive side of ADHD – (which used to be called Attention Deficit Disorder or ADD). The inattentive type of ADHD children are not necessarily disruptive or challenging; they’re usually kids who struggle with focusing and appear dreamy or lost in their own world a lot.
The children who tend to get diagnosed fairly easily are the ones who present strongly with hyperactivity – they can appear highly energised, oppositional, spirited and socially difficult. Typically, these children are disruptive at school and teachers will also flag concerns with parents.
ADHD is a neurological disorder that requires a medical assessment and a formal diagnosis by a medical professional.
If you child is diagnosed with ADHD, they will need a specific plan tailored to their individual needs.
But first, you need to know if your child actually has the disorder.
Here are some behaviours that may suggest ADHD in your child: –
- Tantrums that are severe and ongoing (longer than five minutes) – parents may start to avoid public places or social interactions or become frightened of their child.
- Stressful or challenging social interactions with other children – controlling, domineering behaviours from your child.
- Poor school engagement or academic progress – ADHD has nothing to do with IQ – some of the brightest kids have ADHD but struggle to perform well at school because of their symptoms.
- Trouble following instructions (relative to their peer group)
- Oppositional behaviour – often.
- Excessive talking and interrupting without awareness of others.
- Being argumentative and blaming of other people or things and objects when hurt or disappointed. Back chatting.
- Inability to focus and stay on task – e.g. taking three times as long to eat their dinner as other family members.
- Rage or explosion when the child does not get their own way or is told “no”.
- Parents having a sense of “walking on eggshells” for fear of explosions or tantrums.
- Dreamy or appears distant – seems to have trouble staying “present”.
Things you can do if you suspect there is something wrong
- Visit your GP and raise your concerns. Ask for a referral to a Developmental Paediatrician if your child is under 12. If your child is over 12 then ask for a referral to a Child Psychiatrist.
Please note this must be a “Developmental” Paediatrician. Developmental Paediatricians are trained to assess and work with neurological disorders.
The reason I suggest a Child Psychiatrist (if the child is over 12) is because children with ADHD are also at risk of other mental illnesses like anxiety and depression which typically show up at the onset of puberty. It is therefore more efficient to work with a Child Psychiatrist who will help your teen manage all aspects of their mental health.
- It can take between 3-6 months to get in to see some Developmental Paediatricians. Ask to be put on the cancellation list. Often appointments come up sooner if you are prepared to be flexible. This is the same for Child Psychiatrists.
- If both parents are not in agreement about the assessment, visit a Family Therapist who specialises in this work. They will be able to give you their professional opinion after carefully assessing other potential causes of the behaviour. There are some situations where behaviour looks like ADHD but it’s actually about family dynamics, conflict in the home, or unhelpful parenting styles.
Steps to take if your child has received a diagnosis of ADHD.
Many parents are confused about which professional to see and when. Here is a diagram to help you identify which professional might be the right one for your situation.
If my child/teen has ADHD, why should we see a Family Therapist?
- A Family Therapist can help you learn parenting skills that are specific for children/teens with ADHD.
- A Family Therapist will give you tactics and skills to help you manage challenging behaviour in different situations or in certain settings.
- A Family Therapist will help you understand what is occurring in your child’s brain and explain how you can help your child/teen.
- A Family Therapist will support parents to take back parenting control and to build confidence.
- A Family Therapist will help both parents get onto the same parenting page.
- A Family Therapist will help repair relationships (including sibling relationships) which are often strained and under duress by the time a child is diagnosed with ADHD.
- A Family Therapist will support parents and other family members.
- A Family Therapist will work with the teachers/school to support your child socially and academically.
- A Family Therapist will connect you with other professionals depending on the age and needs of your child but remain as your over-arching family therapist to help you all stay connected and mentally well.
Families where there is a child with ADHD are likely to be more stressed than other families. And often the parent’s relationship is deeply impacted. That’s why I strongly recommend parents access help from any or all of the following:-
- Join a support group online – there are lots of them around.
- Do a parenting course – N.B. this should be a course specific for parenting children with ADHD. There are online courses and courses you can do in person.
- Attend couples counselling
- 123 Magic is a very good parenting course to learn for parents with ADHD children.
It is worth noting that because there is a strong genetic link, it is highly likely that one of the parents of a child with ADHD will also be living with ADHD (often undiagnosed). This can further stress the family as all people with ADHD get activated very easily which impacts relationships. Sometimes I also recommend that parents are assessed for ADHD.
It is important that all members of the family seek support and professional help which will give your child or teen a far greater chance of staying on track and being well connected to a stable, healthy family.
Jacqueline has been in private practice for more than two decades, helping individuals, couples and families. She has extensive experience in couple and family therapy and is considered a specialist in these areas. In her clinical practice, she has helped people deal with complex trauma, affairs, complex mental health issues, eating disorders, adolescent behavioural problems (including self-harm and suicidal ideation), behavioural issues in young children which are impacting parents and families, relationship issues and post-separation work.
Jacqueline works with many different dynamics: couples, parents, families with young children, same-sex couples, foster/adopted families, families with teenagers and also adult families. She is particularly interested in helping parents of children with behavioural issues, or with diagnosed conditions such as anxiety, ADHD, ASD and so on.
Although Jacqueline’s work is supportive and friendly, she will challenge her couples and families to make the necessary behavioural changes, to repair relationships and to move towards healthier communication styles in the future.
Jacqueline’s style is direct and fast paced and she is known for quickly getting to the heart of the matter. Clients report that they feel safe and understood with Jacqueline.
Qualifications and Professional Membership
Jacqueline has a Masters in Couple and Family Therapy (UNSW). She has a Bachelor degree in Counselling and Human Change, and a Diploma in Psychotherapy and Counselling.
Jacqueline is a Clinical Supervisor for Counsellors and Therapists. She lectures in couple and family therapy at Masters and Post Graduate level, and is currently Head Lecturer for the Couple and Family Therapy course (Masters) at the Jansen Newman Institute. She has been a Lecturer at the University of Western Sydney and Sydney University, and continues to guest lecture at other tertiary institutions.
Jacqueline is also the Director of the Couple and Family Training Centre where she runs regular professional development workshops and seminars for Therapists, Counsellors, Psychologists, Social Workers and Health Industry Workers who are looking to gain skills in this specialist area.
“Thank you for seeing me today. Your help with all our family issues and all your advice has been invaluable.
I don’t know how other families do it, without a Jacqueline in their lives.” – Anna (43) step-mum and mum to four children.