Do kids really outgrow ADHD?

When most of were growing up it was believed that ADHD was a disorder that only occurred during childhood. Parents were often told that their children would probably outgrow their symptoms by the time they were teenagers, and most certainly by the time they were adults. Over the past two decades research has shown that this is actually not the case. In fact, studies have shown that about 70% of children diagnosed with ADHD will continue to meet criteria for an ADHD diagnosis in adulthood.

Despite current research evidence, the belief that children will outgrow their ADHD has persisted in our culture. As parents you may have relatives, friends, and even teachers tell you not to worry because your child’s symptoms will simply go away as they get older. People usually mean well when they say this, but it can be frustrating if it makes you feel like your child’s current challenges are not being taken seriously.

So why has this belief persisted, even when we now know that many teenagers and adults do in fact have the ADHD? One reason may lie in the child-centered way that ADHD has been defined and categorized. When ADHD was first included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the authoritative guide to the diagnosis of mental health disorders in the US, the symptoms and impairments were based solely on the presentation of ADHD in children. While there have been some minor adjustments to the symptoms and diagnostic criteria in the DSM over time to better account for the disorder’s presentation in adolescents and adults, the overall child-centered focus of the criteria has remained. As a result, some symptoms, like “often runs and climbs on things excessively,” or “often leaves seat in situations where staying seated is expected,” are in fact only seen in children. If we were to see an adult “climbing on things excessively,” for example, we would suspect that there is much more going on than ADHD!

So, in a sense, children do outgrow some symptoms of ADHD – at least on the outside. What many people without ADHD don’t realize is that the underlying ADHD feelings and impulses often stick around into adolescence and adulthood. A child who struggled to say in their seat during class may have learned to stay seated as they got older, but they have continued to experience strong underlying feelings of restlessness. Another child who would “often blurt out answers” or “interrupt others” may develop greater awareness of these symptoms over time. They still experience the urge to blurt out or interrupt during conversations, but now they work hard to hold their thoughts and not speak out of turn. Sometimes they may have a hard time focusing on conversations or staying in the moment because they are so distracted by the urge to jump in and speak. So, in other words, many of these childhood ADHD symptoms don’t go away over time. They just become less visible to other people.

As a parent there are many things you can do now that will help your child manage their symptoms well into adolescence and adulthood. The skills you teach them as children, especially social skills, organizational skills, strategies for doing things independently, will last a lifetime. Being open to having conversations with your child about their ADHD symptoms can create a safe space where your child can learn to accept their ADHD rather than judge and hide their symptoms. And if behavioral strategies alone are not enough, helping your child find a medication that will work for them can make a tremendous difference in their symptom management now and in the future. So, while your child may not ultimately outgrow their ADHD symptoms, they can improve over time with the right treatment and support from family and friends.

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