My son was diagnosed with ADHD when he was three years old. However, I’m not going to lie. I had always known that he was different.
A bundle of live wires, my son would put forth a lot of energy and strength in everything he did. If he was happy, he would climb the sofas or tables like a puppy let loose in a park. By the time he was three, he was hitting, scratching and biting other children and grown-ups.
Every day for the past two years, I have come home from work to find the laws of gravity reversed. Everything that should have been hung up is on the floor. What should have been down is hanging from lampshades.
It is worse when he is unhappy. His tantrums and shrill voice would bring the neighbours to our doorstep. If I wasn’t too exhausted from chasing him around the house, I’d talk about my son’s ADHD symptoms and compare notes with other mums whose children were hyper.
ADHD, however, is more than just being hyper.
What is ADHD?
Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder is a neuropsychiatric condition affecting pre-schoolers, children, adolescents and adults, says Dr Majid Shahohammadi, specialist psychiatrist (child, adolescents and adults) from OpenMinds Centre, in Dubai.
“The disorder affects a child’s ability to sit still and have self-control, which can make learning difficult,” says Riffat Arshad, a special education teacher and a Dubai-based expat.
Experts can’t make a diagnosis for ADHD until a child is at least of toddler age, which is 3 years and above. Some symptoms like being hyperactive in the crib, sleeping little and crying a lot can be seen in infancy.
The 2016 National Survey of Children’s Health (NSCH) in the USA found that 6.1 million children have been diagnosed with ADHD and the diagnoses for ADHD has increased from about six per cent to 10 per cent between 1999 and 2016.
However, Rama Kanj, a child psychologist from The Developing Child Centre says, “The increase in diagnoses is largely due to an increase in awareness about ADHD and its symptoms.
“Teachers and parents who we consider our frontliners are becoming more and more pro-active the moment they pick up on signs of ADHD in a child by consulting mental health professionals.”
The increase in diagnoses is largely due to an increase in awareness about ADHD and its symptoms. Teachers and parents who we consider our frontliners are becoming more and more pro-active the moment they pick up on signs of ADHD in a child by consulting mental health professionals.
According to Kanj, symptoms of ADHD include inattention, hyperactivity and impulsivity such as:
• Difficulties sitting still
• Seeming to be constantly on-the-go
• Excessive talking
• Often interrupting conversations
• Engaging in risky behaviour
Then there are early signs of ‘inattention’ like:
• A short attention span
• Feeling easily overwhelmed by instructions
• Seeming not to listen
• Being easily distracted by external noise or stimuli
• Being forgetful of learnt information
How to find out if your child has ADHD
It takes a professional to make a diagnoses. However, according to Dr Shahohammadi, experts can’t make a diagnosis for ADHD until a child is at least of toddler age, which is 3 years and above. Some symptoms like being hyperactive in the crib, sleeping little and crying a lot can be seen in infancy.
“We cannot recognise them as symptoms of ADHD until preschool or elementary school when the children are supposed to pay attention and learn the instructions.”
At home, children with ADHD usually have a messy room and they look restless and cannot be put off for even one minute.
When it comes to school assignments, they may start it immediately, but they just answer the first two questions. They are unable to wait to be called on in class. They may interrupt other children and would want to answer before everyone else. They are forgetful and may lose their things.
Children who have ADHD are easily distracted by noise, movement in a room or a thought that leads to another thought and then another.
“Children who have ADHD are easily distracted by noise, movement in a room or a thought that leads to another thought and then another,” says Candice Render, counsellor and behavioural therapist from The Psychiatry and Therapy Centre in Dubai.
“The mind of a child who has ADHD has lower processing speeds and they are not able to maintain short term memories.”
The early years
In many ways, my son’s early years looked ordinary, to people who weren’t aware about my son’s disorder. Fussy child; over concerned mum.
Close friends and some family members thought, I had pampered my son to a fault. “You’ve got to be tougher,” they’d say. An advice that tickled me the most: “Your son needs a sibling.”
On some nights, ‘sleepy-time’ would be a battle. Such occasions would also call for self-reflection. Is he always going to be this way? My husband and I would wonder, while inspecting our faces for any new gashes. When I’d go to work with scratches on my face and bite marks on my hand, colleagues who were also working mums advised me to take a few years off from my career to “be there” for my son. My husband is with him, I’d say back. “But as a mother, you….”
I did consider being a stay-at-home mum, a role that is as difficult as the role of a working mum. Especially when you’re bringing up a child with ADHD. However, my husband and I refused to believe that as working parents, or being sterner, would make our son better. Instead, we needed better house rules.
How to cope with ADHD
I’ve found that small changes in my son’s daily routine has helped him cope with ADHD. Here’s what the experts have to say:
Talking about how they’re feeling or describing their emotions helps children with ADHD feel more in control of their emotions. I find this difficult because of my son’s speech delay. However, I have removed sources of stress. Mobile phones, tablets, candies, his favourite toy car that he once broke and is now impossible to fix. These are well hidden.
Steady those energy swings
My son is calmer when he’s eaten the right kind of food. I’m guilty of giving him lollipops to quiet him down, especially when I wouldn’t have time to handle him, while strapping him to the child seat. However, candies, chocolates and fruit juices give children a sudden burst of energy.
ADHD affects a child’s ability to sit still and have self-control, which can make learning difficult.
This high calorie-low nutrition food burns fast and then the child begins to feel restless, bored and tired again, says Arshad.
It took some effort, but now I always keep pistachios, cashew nuts, salted almonds, fresh fruits and water, within arm’s reach, when I’m out with my son. This has helped him stay full for longer and slightly less hyper.
Try to say, “I don’t like the way you’re speaking to me right now,” instead of, “Don’t talk like that.” It’s important that children know their rules and limitations.
When I’d tell my son to “stop”, he would get louder. It was a constant tug-of-war between his will and mine. When children with ADHD are told to “Stop!” “Don’t” or “Focus” it negatively impacts self-esteem in children, cautions Render.
“I encourage parents to change the activity and avoid negative feedback or reminders.” Try to say, “I don’t like the way you’re speaking to me right now,” instead of, “Don’t talk like that.” It’s important that children know their rules and limitations. There needs to be predictability, for example, homework is at this time, then its screen time. While doing homework, you must limit distractions and monitor them.”
In older children, Rama Kanj explains other ways to manage ADHD behaviours like:
• Going over checklists to help the child achieve lengthy tasks
• Identifying a study space that is free of visual or auditory distractions
• Providing movement breaks
Taking baby steps
Even after getting an ADHD diagnosis, it was a challenge to understand at first. I tried to learn everything I could about the disorder. What helped me get through it was the support from my family and the professional team I worked with.
As a working parent, my support system helps me look after my son. From nursery, daycares, to colleagues, friends and family members stepping in, it helps me keep going.
We met pediatricians, speech therapists, occupational therapists, child psychiatrists and special education teachers. We even met a couple’s therapist, because the disorder was gnawing on our marriage. This course of events lasted a year. Today, there have been some improvements.
My son has so many wonderful talents now. He swims, dances, makes people laugh and he adores animals, even the ones that creep and crawl. However, he is still unable to follow instructions and has to be repeatedly told what to. Anything could trigger an emotional outburst. This is our normal.
Before I learned about ADHD the myths about the disorder worried me the most. Gulf News spoke to experts who busted some of the myths.
Children with ADHD can’t pay attention:
Myth. The trick is to get them interested. They do pay attention when they are attracted by something they like the most. My son loves solving puzzles online. Offline, he loves building blocks and demolishing it with his toys. This is a tiny way of organising chaos.
Bad parenting causes ADHD
ADHD is largely genetic and parents do not cause ADHD in children. However, good parenting skills can help manage symptoms of ADHD in children.
ADHD is diagnosed only in boys
ADHD affects girls as well, although, symptoms may present differently. A competent mental health professional can pick up on signs of ADHD in girls in the clinical setting.
Children with ADHD are not trying hard enough
ADHD is a brain-based disorder that is not within the child’s control.
It’s not easy work
I know that the families of children with ADHD put in a lot of effort and long hours and then there are some children who don’t get diagnosed until they’ve struggled for most part of their lives. I count myself lucky that my son was diagnosed early and that I have access to resources to help me on this journey.
However, from personal experience, I can tell you there is such a thing as being too hard on yourself when you have to be both parent and a therapist for your child. So if you’ve ever come to a point when you need someone to say, “You’re doing an amazing job.”
Know that anything done with love for your child, is amazing.
Some social media accounts share ADHD tips that are easy to follow: