Parenting doesn't cause Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), but it does appear to have an impact on the symptoms. ADHD is a common and often controversial condition that affects about 5% of all children. Associated symptoms include distractibility, impulsivity and disruptive behaviour. ADHD is linked with negative outcomes (dropping out of school, criminality, antisocial behavior, etc.) and a multitude of challenges to mental health, like mood and sleep disorders.
What is ADHD?
ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder, meaning that it is associated with functional impairments in some brain networks (currently thought to include those related to the neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine).
Motivation is known to be impacted by ADHD as well. Recent research suggests that children may not react the same way to positive and negative experiences. For example, when the social rules change from recess to the classroom - they aren't able to adjust their behaviour.
The cause of ADHD has been linked to both genetic and environmental influences, but no definite causal factors have been uncovered. There is no biological test for ADHD, so diagnosis relies on observation and psychological testing often performed by child psychologists. Attention problems are a part of a number of mental health disorders, so diagnosis often involves ruling out other conditions. Adults can also be diagnosed with ADHD.
Impact of Parental Style
Evidence suggests that some parenting styles can sustain or even worsen the symptoms associated with ADHD. The characteristics of one’s parenting can vary on a wide range of scales, like aggression, consistency and emotional expression. Recently a group of researchers studied more than 500 children (388 with ADHD) over a period spanning the ages of 7-13. They tracked symptoms related to ADHD, as well as parental characteristics related to emotions (use of criticism, expression and over-involvement) to determine if there were significant associations between the two groups.
ADHD symptoms were found to be significantly associated with parental criticism. Symptoms of ADHD usually decrease with age, but these improvements were inhibited when consistently high rates of parental criticism were present. These findings are alarming because many of the behaviors associated with ADHD can cause frustration for parents (as well as the child). When children show symptoms of ADHD it can be a very natural and almost reflexive response for parents to respond with criticism.
ADHD is a difficult condition for those experiencing it as well as their family, but it is important that parents be aware of the effect that their own behaviors can have on its development. Criticism can be especially damaging when it is emotionally charged and persistent. Other characteristics of some parental styles, like inconsistent discipline and inadequate supervision, have also been found to be associated with poor outcomes for children with ADHD (Ullsperger, Nigg and Nikolas, 2016).
One thing seems to be clear, many parents will likely need support to prevent natural responses to ADHD symptoms. Parental frustration can cause criticism as well as other behaviours that only make the symptoms worse. It is also important to not that this research is not talking about the occasional parental slip. It is amazing how children are open to repairing relationships with parents if parents are willing to take steps to repair and improve the relationship. Although difficult, parents who work on managing emotional responses can help create a more positive family dynamic over the long-run.
By: Dr. Syras Derksen
Alsop, B., Furukawa, E., Sowerby, P., Jensen, S., Moffat, C., & Tripp, G. (2016). Behavioral sensitivity to changing reinforcement contingencies in attention‐deficit hyperactivity disorder. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.
Musser, E. D., Karalunas, S. L., Dieckmann, N., Peris, T. S., & Nigg, J. T. (2016). Attention- deficit/hyperactivity disorder developmental trajectories related to parental expressed emotion. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 125(2), 182.
Ullsperger, J. M., Nigg, J. T., & Nikolas, M. A. (2016). Does child temperament play a role in the association between parenting practices and child attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder? Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 44(1), 167-178.