My oldest son has severe ADHD. In the beginning we tried several different ADHD medications with little success. The side effects greatly outweighed the benefits. I started to research non-medication options and we got my son into a behavior modification program. We have been using behavior modification for three years. He is doing amazing in school now.
I am telling you all of this because I don’t want you to think I am one of those people who thinks ADHD isn’t real and that children with “ADHD” just need to be disciplined. I understand exactly how real of a diagnosis it is and that it is an uphill battle for families who are dealing with it. However, I believe that ADHD is frequently misdiagnosed and that this is one of the main reasons there is such a stigma associated with it.
My youngest son has always been the exact opposite of my oldest. Where my oldest son has always been full of exhausting energy, my youngest son has always been a bit of a slug. I’m not joking, it would literally take this kid an hour to put his pants on in the morning if I didn’t give him not so gentle coaxing. My youngest son has always been a sponge. When he was three he convinced us he could read. What he was really doing was memorizing the books as I read them to him. He would “read” the story to me in order, even if I skipped a few pages. My youngest son has always been capable of following complex multistep directions. He is in first grade and can sit still through an entire game of Monopoly and build Lego planes using the instructions. I have never been worried that he might have ADHD.
So you can imagine how surprised I was when my youngest son’s teacher and school counselor sat me down and told me that they believe my youngest son has ADHD. The school counselor informed me that she observed my son in the classroom and he was able to focus less than 1% of the time. Then she made a joke that I was lucky because there was medication that could help my son focus the rest of the 99% of the time. The hair rose on the back of my neck at that statement and I knew that this counselor and I were about to have some issues. First, after everything I went through with my oldest I am a firm believer that medication should be used as a last case intervention, not a first option. Second, I am about 99% sure my youngest does not have ADHD.
The teacher told me that at the beginning of the year my youngest son was able to focus and stay on task, but that his ability to focus greatly diminished as the year went on. Now he wanders around the classroom and rolls around on the floor. He makes statements to his teacher that he is “frustrated” and “can’t focus”. He frequently doesn’t follow directions and doesn’t know what he is supposed to be doing. They told me that he is adorable and polite and they truly believe he is trying and that he just can’t focus. The counselor said that there was a ten minute span when he was 100% engaged, because the activity was a fun one. He was answering questions correctly and seemed to be enjoying the activity. She said this gave her hope and that she thought with medication he could be that boy all of the time.
Honestly, I felt like screaming “This is bull shit” and marching straight down the school board and demanding that this “counselor” be fired. What six year old is self-aware enough to tell a teacher he is “frustrated” because he can’t “focus”? Also, what ADHD kid all of a sudden gets completely better because they are enjoying the activity? As his mother it became completely obvious to me what was going on. My adorable little boy has been completely manipulating his teacher. (She is a first year teacher so I am going to give her some slack) At some point he must have realized that if he mimicked his older brother’s behaviors and used words he has heard from his brother at home that he could totally get out of doing stuff he doesn’t want to do. He is like a little evil genius.
I told this theory to his teacher and the counselor and they looked at me like I was on crack. I will probably get voted worst mom of the year at the next teachers meeting. They told me they really felt like he didn’t have control over his focus. The counselor asked me what my aversion to ADHD medication was. She confided in me that one of her sons was on medication for ADHD. She told me that he didn’t have to take it all the time, just when he was at school. At this point, I took over the meeting. I decided that I would humor them by starting some behavior modification in the classroom and that I would handle my child’s “issue” with some real world discipline at home. I told them I needed every day communication about his behavior. I asked for daily email updates. I also asked that we start him on a rewards chart and that they ask him to focus on certain behaviors every day.
At home we took all of my son’s toys out of his room. He can earn them back by behaving and focusing at school. We sat him down and had a talk with him. He admitted that he wasn’t doing his best in school or trying his hardest. He told us that school was hard and he only wanted to do the fun stuff. I am hoping that in the next few weeks the teachers start to see an improvement in his focus now that he has an added desire to actually do the work. If they don’t, I will have him tested to see if he has a diagnosis that is making school hard for him.
What scares me is how quickly they jumped to the ADHD conclusion. Yes, his brother has ADHD and there is a 60% chance siblings of kids with ADHD will also have it. However, his brothers ADHD was believed to be caused by lead poisoning rather than genetic factors. My youngest son has never had a positive lead test, so are his chances of having it truly 60%? Shouldn’t he have been screened for other issues first? A large majority of children who are misdiagnosed with ADHD actually have other learning disabilities. APD, LPD, Dyscalculia, Dysgraphia, and Dyslexia are all learning disabilities that could cause a child to get frustrated and check out or act out during school. Shouldn’t kids be tested for these disabilities before being diagnosed with ADHD? Yes, it is possible that the child has both ADHD & a learning disability, but I don’t think that can truly be assessed until the child has been given intervention for their learning disability.
Another factor that can affect attention and focus are personal issues. That child that lacks focus in school every day might have ADHD. However, he might also be distracted because he is being bullied, his father is sick, he is being abused, he has a crush on the little girl who sits in front of him, or maybe he just doesn’t want to pay attention and doesn’t think there will be consequences for his inattention. Shouldn’t a psychological evaluation be completed and the home and social situation be looked into before ADHD medication is suggested? There are also a number of other psychological disorders that can cause a child to be distracted. My son has a strong family history of OCD & Bipolar disorder. Either of these could cause symptoms that mimic ADHD.
So why was ADHD and medication immediately suggested? The truth is, if I wasn’t an experienced ADHD mom. I probably would have marched down to my pediatrician with my ADHD evaluation from the school in my hand. There is a good chance that just based on the schools recommendation alone, my son would have been immediately started on ADHD medication. No one would have told me about the many possible alternative causes for his behavior. No one would have suggested non-medication therapy like behavior modification. Just thinking about how many families have been through this exact same scenario and ended up with a child misdiagnosed and mistreated for ADHD is horrifying.
The only way to stop the cycle of misdiagnosis and stop the stigma for boys who really have ADHD is to start educating more parents on this topic. This subject is very important in the boy mom community because males are three times more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD than females. Studies show that one in five boys will be diagnosed with ADHD. An estimated 6.4 Million American Children have been diagnosed with ADHD. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) says that 11% of American children have ADHD. The American Psychiatric Association (APA) believes that only 4% of American children truly have ADHD and that the other 7% have been misdiagnosed. So roughly that means that there are around 3.9 million children misdiagnosed with ADHD in America.
Let’s put these numbers in perspective. The total population in Jamaica is 3 million. There are more kids misdiagnosed with ADHD in America than there are people living in Jamaica. That is insane! This needs to stop. If you are a boy mom and you are reading this share it with another boy mom. If you are ever told by a teacher, counselor, coach, pediatrician that your child has ADHD make sure that every other option for his behavior is looked at before you accept the diagnosis. You are your child’s best and only advocate. If your child does truly have ADHD than read this Dear Mom Whose Kid Just Got Diagnosed With ADHD. The battle you have ahead of you is long and hard and you can do it. However, if your child’s attention, hyperactivity, or focus issues are caused by something else, he will thank you in the future for making sure he didn’t get added to the 3.9 million kids who got misdiagnosed.
Tiffany O’Connor is a mom to two amazing, energetic, and fearless boys. She is married to her high school sweet heart and has three college degrees. Her hobbies include watching TV shows about zombies, hiding in her hot tub with a bottle of champagne, and writing all about her misadventures parenting in a “man cave” at #Lifewithboys.