The Top 10 Myths about ADHD

Over the years, there have been many myths about ADHD. In this article, we attempt to address the most common ones prevalent today. Scroll down to see which myths you have heard and what the research says about each.

1. ADHD Does Not Exist!

Despite over 10,000 scientific research-based journal articles supporting the existence of ADHD, some people argue that ADHD does not exist.

For quite some time now, ADHD has been recognized as a legitimate diagnosis by national medical, psychological, and educational organizations:

  • National Institutes of Health

  • U.S. Department of Education

  • The American Psychiatric Society

  • The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – the official mental health “manual” used by psychologists and psychiatrists.

2. All ADHD Kids are “Bouncing Off The Walls!”

Although one of my all-time favorite cartoon characters, Calvin of Calvin and Hobbs, is often getting into all sorts of mischief because of his high levels of energy and enthusiasm, hyperactivity is a symptom that not all children with ADHD experience.

A percent of the children and adults with ADHD are diagnosed with what is called “Inattentive Presentation.” During the 1980s and part of the 1990s these children and adults were diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). Before the 1980s, their struggles are often unseen and unacknowledged. In the past, many of these individuals were diagnosed with Anxiety or Depression before their ADHD was discovered.

3. ADHD is Caused by Too Much Sugar!

During 1985, doctors at the University of Oklahoma “over-dosed” children on sugar (in a hospital setting). Thirty-seven different measurements of behavior and learning were given with and without sugar.

  • They found no effects of sugar on behavior or learning.

  • The same group of doctors later published a review article and concluded “the few studies that have found effects have been as likely to find sugar improving behavior as making it worse.”

In 1994, another group of researchers studied a group of children whose mothers reported that they were “sugar sensitive.” All of the children in the study were given a sugar-free drink, but half of the mothers were told their child’s drink contained sugar.

The mothers who thought that their child had received the sugar drink all rated their child as being more hyperactive than usual. By observation, these mothers also were more critical of their children and hovered over them more during this time.

The researchers in this study concluded that parental expectations about the effects of sugar are the cause of the perception that sugar makes children more hyperactive. Parental expectations also influence the way the parents interact with their children.

4. ADHD is Caused by Kids Watching Too Much TV

There are a few correlation studies showing kids with ADHD watch a lot of TV, but none of these studies show cause & effect.   A Texas Tech study failed to show a cause/effect relationship: their conclusion was “It’s more likely that kids with ADHD watch more TV because it requires limited attention.”

5. ADHD is Caused by Poor Parenting

As the father of a child with ADHD, one of my favorite Dennis the Menace cartoons shows Dennis walking in the door after school and greeting his dad with this statement, “I told my teacher that you taught me everything I know, and she wants to have a talk with you.”

No research studies show that poor parenting causes ADHD, but parenting style can have an impact on the success of children with ADHD.

Thousands of studies of temperament, brain structure, & DNA show that children are born with ADHD. We now know that ADHD is a brain-based neurodevelopmental disorder: the development of the frontal lobe in the brain is delayed and production of chemicals in that part of the brain is inconsistent.

6. ADHD is Just a Moral Character Flaw

If you still believe that one, you should have lived in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. Back then, doctors recognized a group of highly active and impulsive children who struggled with multiple-step math and seemed not to learn from their mistakes. Their diagnosis was “Morbid Deficit in Moral Control.” Treatment consisted mostly of shame, guilt, and public beatings for their lack of self-control. The more severely hyperactive were sometimes institutionalized.

In 2014, we know that ADHD is caused by the chemical reactions the brains. We also know that with proper treatment, they can develop skills to better COPE (deal) with their symptoms.

7. It’s a New Problem Caused by Our Crazy Busy Society and Invented by Big Drug Companies

Before Dennis the Menace & Calvin and Hobbes, German physician Dr. Heinrich Hoffman wrote poems about 2 “characters” in the 1840’s: Fidgety Phil and Johnny Head-in-Air described both the hyperactive and inattentive presentations of ADHD.  The earliest published medical record of symptoms of ADHD was noted in a German medical textbook dated 1775: this text describes impulsive, over-active, distractible adults and children who failed to persist in completing tasks.

Shakespeare described an individual who seemed to have symptoms of ADHD in his work King Henry VIII which was first performed sometime around 1613 and later published in 1623.

Around 55 A.D., St. Paul wrote of himself something I hear from a number of clients: he said, “I do the things I don’t want to do, and I don’t do the things I want to do.” (Romans 7:19).

Although people have been describing symptoms of ADHD for a long time, it wasn’t until 1935 that a doctor “stumbled” across the fact that hyperactive boys were less hyperactive and could focus better when he gave them a stimulant. Today, medications are part of a multimodal treatment approach for many children with ADHD. Medications aren’t for everyone and they don’t cure ADHD, but they can be highly effective at easing symptoms of the disorder for some. Medications do not turn kids into addicts or “zombies.”

8. Parents who give their Kids ADHD Medications are Just Lazy

Most parents I know rarely get to see their kids when the medication is effective. Many of today’s medications for ADHD take an hour to start working and most last just 4 to 8 hours. Teachers, coaches, and others who see the child during the day see the benefit of the medications, but parents often get the least help from the medication.

Decisions about medication are personal! If they decide its right for their child, why should a parent withhold any appropriate resource from their child?  Would you want someone from the New York Times shaming you for providing your child the best treatment you believe is possible for their medical condition?

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and American Association of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) strongly urge the use of a thorough evaluation to diagnose ADHD before prescribing medication.

  • Parents have to answer a lot of questions to rule-out all the other things it could possibly be such as anxiety, depression, a medical condition, or nothing at all.

  • Teachers are asked to complete questionnaires about the child’s behavior and mental health.

  • The child’s symptoms must significantly impair functioning in two settings. This means that even if the child has symptoms, those symptoms must cause significant problems at home and at school.

9. Lots of Things Can Help Kids with ADHD

In 1997, the National Institute of Mental Health started a study of the best treatment for ADHD. This study showed that a “multimodal treatment approach” is best including:

  • Parent and child education about diagnosis and treatment.

  • Behavior management techniques designed to teach you and your child specific skills to address his or her executive functioning needs.

  • School supports designed to accommodate your child’s weak executive functioning skills in the classroom setting.

  • Medication can be effective at getting 70-80 percent of children with ADD/ADHD focused so they can take advantage of the other three parts of this approach.   The decision to try medication is a difficult one that each family must make with the assistance of their child’s physician.

  • Treatment should be tailored to the unique needs of each child and family. In other words, families should choose the best treatment approach for them and their child.

10. Lots of Other Treatments Can Help Too, Right?

In their articles about alternative treatments, the National Resource Center on ADHD (NRC) has identified 3 types of treatments.

  • Alternative Treatment is any treatment that claims to treat the symptoms of ADHD with an equally or more effective outcome when compared to the standard treatment protocol.

  • Complementary interventions are not alternatives to multimodal treatment, but have been found by some families to improve the treatment of ADHD symptoms or related symptoms.

  • Controversial treatments are interventions with no known published science supporting them and no legitimate claim to effectiveness.

The NRC suggests asking a number of questions about treatments.

  • Have clinical trials (scientific tests of the effectiveness and safety of a treatment using consenting human subjects) been conducted regarding your approach?

  • Has the effectiveness of this treatment been compared to the effectiveness of medication and behavior management?

  • Have these results been published in scientific peer-reviewed journals?

  • Do you have copies of these results I can share with my pediatrician or psychologist?

  • Can the public obtain information about your alternative approach from the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (888-644-6226 or at the National Institutes of Health?

  • Is there a national organization of practitioners?

  • Are there state licensing or accreditation requirements for practitioners of this treatment?

  • Is your alternative treatment reimbursed by health insurance?

The NRC suggests avoiding treatments that make the following claims.

  • Claim to work for everyone with ADHD and other health problems. No one treatment works for everyone or for everything.

  • Claim to cure ADHD.

  • Claim to work immediately and permanently for everyone with ADHD.

  • Is described as “astonishing,” “miraculous,” or an “amazing breakthrough.”

  • Claim to be based on a “secret formula.”

11. Just Let ‘Em Drink Energy Drinks (BONUS!)

The American Academy of Pediatrics (APP) has clearly said that energy drinks are not appropriate for children or teens.

If your child drinks anything that someone has suggested will help with their focus, please look at the label! Some energy drinks can contain more than twice the amount of caffeine as in an Espresso! It’s also important to know the names of other stimulants besides caffeine in these drinks.

The AAP reported the following at a Senate hearing on the marketing of energy drinks to children and teens.

  • Caffeine can cause sleep disturbances.

  • Caffeine can increase anxiety in those with anxiety disorders.

  • Caffeine can also cause numerous cardiac effects including elevated heart rate, high blood pressure and cardiac arrhythmias in susceptible individuals.

  • Additional concerns specific to caffeine use in children include its effects on the developing neurologic and cardiovascular systems and the risk of physical dependence and addiction.

  • Symptoms of caffeine withdrawal can include headache, fatigue, decreased alertness, drowsiness, difficulty concentrating, irritability, depressed mood, muscle pain or stiffness, and nausea or vomiting.

  • In school age children, caffeine withdrawal has been shown to be associated with decreased reaction and decreased attention for up to one week after cessation of caffeine use.

What Other Myths Have You Heard?

If you need additional answers, you are encouraged to read the “What We Know” Fact Sheets on the National Resource Center on ADHD website. If you suspect you or a loved one has ADHD, call us at 817.421.8780 to better understand and address needs.

Need Help Understanding and Addressing ADHD?

Call 817.421.8780 to make an appointment.


(c) 2014, Monte W. Davenport, Ph.D.