ADHD Research Studies with Powerful, Practical Insights

ADHD: New Research with Powerful, Practical Insights

ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) affects children, adolescents and adults. Symptoms include difficulties controlling impulses and temper, maintaining concentration, sitting still, waiting or paying attention for longer periods.

ADHD research is ever growing. We know that ADHD is related to impairments in the executive functions of the brain – the ability to think and plan ahead, impulse control, organisation, and staying with a task through to completion. It has nothing to do with intelligence or personality.  People with ADHD can be as intelligent, charming, capable and likeable as anyone. It’s also not about ‘bad behaviour’.  Kids with ADHD want to do the right thing. They want to be able to sit quietly, be still and do as they’re asked, but their brains won’t let them. 

The more that research is able to add to our understanding of ADHD, the greater our capacity to provide more effective forms of treatment and support. Here are some important practical insights.

The ADHD Research.

  1. Let them move! (It’s good for them.)

    People with ADHD tend to move, a lot, and we’re now discovering that there’s a very good reason for this – movement aids their cognitive function. Those who move more intensely perform better on cognitively demanding tasks that demand greater attention.

    In a study of pre-teens and teenagers with ADHD, researchers at the University of California found that greater movement – both in terms of intensity and frequency – was correlated with significantly better cognitive performance.

    A second study from the University of Florida found similar results, demonstrating that excessive movement plays a critical role in the way people with ADHD remember information and process complex cognitive tasks. There is something about that excessive movement that enhances their working memory – the important brain system that temporarily stores and manages the information needed to perform complex cognitive functions such as learning, reasoning and comprehending.

    This adds to previous research by the study’s author which found that children with ADHD showed excessive movement only when they were using the brain’s executive functions, particularly working memory. This challenges previous beliefs that excessive movement was always there in children with ADHD. It’s not always there, only when they need it to be to maximize their cognitive function.

  2. Stopping kids with ADHD from moving is detrimental.

    Traditionally, interventions have aimed to decrease hyperactivity, but this undermines their capacity to perform and achieve well.

    Children with ADHD need to be able to move to maintain alertness and to maximise cognitive function. In contrast, when children without ADHD move during cognitive tasks, their performance is worse.

    This research strongly suggests that it’s detrimental to try to keep ADHD kids still, particularly in the classroom. If we want them to learn, which we do – they are bright, creative and capable – we need to find a way to let them move. This doesn’t mean letting them run around the classroom, but rather letting them do what they need to, provided it’s not intrusive. Feet tapping, leg swinging, squirming in their seat – let them go. Research is telling us that the bulk of students with ADHD will perform better at exams, homework and class work if the, say, are allowed to work while sitting on activity balls or exercise bikes.

    Of course, this has to be measured with the disruptiveness to the rest of the class, but the more a balance is able to be achieved between maximizing opportunities for people with ADHD to move, while at the same time minimizing the chance of distraction to the rest of the class, this will allow people with ADHD the opportunity to participate and achieve on a more level playing field as more with their peers.

    [irp posts=”141″ name=”ADHD Diagnosis: Finally A Foolproof, Accurate Measure”]

  3. Omega 3 and 6 improves symptoms.

    35% of children and adolescents who are diagnosed with ADHD have a subtype called ADD – inattention without hyperactivity. Research has found that for these children Omega 3 and 6 supplements improve symptoms.

  4. Inability to recognise angry facial expressions. 

    Researchers have found a difference between the way children with ADHD and without ADHD respond to angry facial expressions. When children were shown happy faces, there was a measurable response in the brains of those children with ADHD and those without ADHD. There was a difference though, between the two groups of when they were shown angry faces. Unlike their non-ADHD peers, children with ADHD did not show any neural response when they were shown faces with angry expressions. 

    Recognition of emotion is important to the establishment and maintenance of social relationships. The inability of children with ADHD to identify when someone is angry may be the reason they tend to struggle with peer relationships. That’s the bad news. The good news is that by being aware of this deficit, support can be tailored towards this to increase their capacity to respond more effectively in social situations. Try working towards increasing their awareness around the way people change – in facial expression, voice, body language etc when they become angry. Role play might be one way to do this. 

  5. Aerobic exercise before school can ease ADHD symptoms.

    Aerobic exercise before school can help to ease the symptoms of ADHD in the classroom and at home. We know that children generally show improved brain function and better maths and reading skills following physical activity. In a study of 200 students ranging from kindergarten to second grade, half the group participated in moderate to vigorous physical activity each day before school while the other half completed more sedentary classroom based activities. All students showed improvements, but with children who showed early symptoms of ADHD, those who participated in the exercise group showed a wider range of improvements than those who were in the sedentary group.

  6. Playing outdoors in natural green settings reduces symptoms.

    Children with ADHD who regularly play outdoors in natural settings where there are lots of trees and grass have milder symptoms than those who play inside or in built outdoor environments. This is in line with previous research that has found that even for people without ADHD, brief exposure to green outdoors improves concentration and impulse control. Children who were high in hyperactivity (ADHD rather than ADD) benefitted more if they played in an environment that was green and open, such as a soccer field, or an expansive lawn, than if it was just green, such as a green space with plenty of trees or a built setting, indoors or outdoors.

Parenting a Child with ADHD.

As with any child, parenting a child with ADHD will have it’s great days, it’s challenging days and lots of days in between. Over time, a child with ADHD will increasingly be able to step back and think about whether or not a course of action or a behaviour is a good idea, but this will take time. Here are some things to try in the meantime. (And if you’re already doing some of them or all of them, well it’s always good to know you’re on the right track.):

  • Decide what you will ignore and what you won’t accept. Nobody is perfect and one of the greatest gifts we can give our kids is showing them that they don’t have to be. One way to do this is by tolerating or ignoring the things they do that don’t really do any harm.
  • Be gentle with yourself. If you lose your temper now and then, have the odd day that’s a parenting disaster, or get it wrong sometimes, you won’t break your child forever. Adults aren’t perfect either.
  • Have clear, consistent rules so everyone knows where they stand.
  • Have a predictable routine, but be flexible enough to bend a little when it’s needed.
  • Whenever you can, let them move – and if it’s in a green, open space, even better.
  • Connect them to as many things as you can – special places, things they love to do, pets, nature, the family, rituals (e.g. a family bike ride on a Sunday/ walking the dog with you on a Wednesday). Most importantly, make sure they’re connected to you – they just want to be your hero too, remember- eat meals with them, talk to them, read to them (they’re never too old for that).
  • Play with them – let them take the lead, make suggestions and sometimes decide the rules. Play is the opposite of doing as you’re told and is a way for them to learn about themselves and experiment with the way they are in the world and in relationships. By playing with you, they can learn what works and what doesn’t in a gentle, loving environment and they can take that learning into their own peer relationships. 
  • Provide opportunities for them to achieve mastery and recognition. It doesn’t matter what it is – if it’s something they can be successful at, and recognise their ability to do something well, it will do amazing things for their confidence and self esteem.  

ADHD has its challenges, but all kids do. With ADHD, the challenges are just more obvious. Like anything, if it’s managed well over time it can be an asset and kids who are diagnosed and supported will go on to be superstars. There’s no reason for them not to be.

ADHD has been likened to having a Ferrari for a brain. It’s fast, powerful and in many situations, when it’s handled effectively, it will be a winner. The problem is that this Ferrari engine has feet through the floor for breaks. Not being able to go slow, stop or pause when you need to can cause a bit of trouble, but with the right support, knowledge and treatment, and given time, children ADHD can thrive.

12 Comments

Kate

Thanks for this great article. I like the Ferrari analogy to describe an ADHD brain. Using the same analogy, how would medication fit in? Break fluid?

Reply
Belinda

Good article, but apart from the tiny aside about Omega 3 and 6 being helpful for children with non-hyperactive ADHD everything here relates to the hyperactive and combined types. It is so difficult and frustrating trying to find anything that is actually useful for the management or understanding of non-hyperactive ADHD when the conditions have the same names and it means trawling through countless articles about over-lively children. I always feel we are just a little ‘after thought’ and somehow, because our children are quiet and cause no trouble, we’re fine. That is until they begin to implode, or self-harm or self-medicate, and are misdiagnosed with depression, etc., etc. A new name for the condition would help (and ADD was a misnomer if ever there was one. Focus deficit disorder might be better.) Sorry, rant over. Frustrated mum.

Reply
Mark

As a 40-something with ADHD who once was a child with ADHD, the parent of a hyperactive child needs to first ask themselves: are they ADHD too?

Reply
Hey Sigmund

Absolutely. ADHD seems to have a strong genetic basis. Children who have ADHD are more likely to have a parent or sibling with ADHD, although we’re still not completely sure what causes it.

Reply
Ann

Thank you for the wonderful article and support. My child has been diagnosed with ADHD for 4 years now and it has been a very difficult road. Home is OK but school has been his nightmare. Much of what you have mentioned works for my son as well. If we could only get the education system to understand how to work with them….his life would be so much happier.

Reply
Hey Sigmund

You’re very welcome. I have the greatest respect for teachers but when it comes to the education system, you’re so right – there is often a ‘one size fits all’ approach that doesn’t work for so many children. There are kids with such enormous potential who are being limited because of the way the school system is structured. It has nothing to do with how clever or capable they are and everything to do with the constraints in which they are asked to learn. The world needs the potential that’s there in all of them.

Reply
Sally Barrable

Thank you for a very practical informative article. As a speech language pathologist I shall be sharing this with the parents of many of my clients.

Reply

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How we are with them, when they are their everyday selves and when they aren’t so adorable, will build their view of three things: the world, its people, and themselves. This will then inform how they respond to the world and how they build their very important space in it. 

Will it be a loving, warm, open-hearted space with lots of doors for them to throw open to the people and experiences that are right for them? Or will it be a space with solid, too high walls that close out too many of the people and experiences that would nourish them.

They will learn from what we do with them and to them, for better or worse. We don’t teach them that the world is safe for them to reach into - we show them. We don’t teach them to be kind, respectful, and compassionate. We show them. We don’t teach them that they matter, and that other people matter, and that their voices and their opinions matter. We show them. We don’t teach them that they are little joy mongers who light up the world. We show them. 

But we have to be radically kind with ourselves too. None of this is about perfection. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on too many of those days we’ll be hard too. That’s okay. We’ll say things we shouldn’t say and do things we shouldn’t do. We’re human too. Let’s not put pressure on our kiddos to be perfect by pretending that we are. As long as we repair the ruptures as soon as we can, and bathe them in love and the warmth of us as much as we can, they will be okay.

This also isn’t about not having boundaries. We need to be the guardians of their world and show them where the edges are. But in the guarding of those boundaries we can be strong and loving, strong and gentle. We can love them, and redirect their behaviour.

It’s when we own our stuff(ups) and when we let them see us fall and rise with strength, integrity, and compassion, and when we hold them gently through the mess of it all, that they learn about humility, and vulnerability, and the importance of holding bruised hearts with tender hands. It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency, and honesty, and the way we respond to them the most.♥️

#parenting #mindfulparenting
Anxiety and courage always exist together. It can be no other way. Anxiety is a call to courage. It means you're about to do something brave, so when there is one the other will be there too. Their courage might feel so small and be whisper quiet, but it will always be there and always ready to show up when they need it to.
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But courage doesn’t always feel like courage, and it won't always show itself as a readiness. Instead, it might show as a rising - from fear, from uncertainty, from anger. None of these mean an absence of courage. They are the making of space, and the opportunity for courage to rise.
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When the noise from anxiety is loud and obtuse, we’ll have to gently add our voices to usher their courage into the light. We can do this speaking of it and to it, and by shifting the focus from their anxiety to their brave. The one we focus on is ultimately what will become powerful. It will be the one we energise. Anxiety will already have their focus, so we’ll need to make sure their courage has ours.
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But we have to speak to their fear as well, in a way that makes space for it to be held and soothed, with strength. Their fear has an important job to do - to recruit the support of someone who can help them feel safe. Only when their fear has been heard will it rest and make way for their brave.
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What does this look like? Tell them their stories of brave, but acknowledge the fear that made it tough. Stories help them process their emotional experiences in a safe way. It brings word to the feelings and helps those big feelings make sense and find containment. ‘You were really worried about that exam weren’t you. You couldn’t get to sleep the night before. It was tough going to school but you got up, you got dressed, you ... and you did it. Then you ...’
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In the moment, speak to their brave by first acknowledging their need to flee (or fight), then tell them what you know to be true - ‘This feels scary for you doesn’t it. I know you want to run. It makes so much sense that you would want to do that. I also know you can do hard things. My darling, I know it with everything in me.’
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#positiveparenting #parenting #childanxiety #anxietyinchildren #mindfulpare
Separation anxiety has an important job to do - it’s designed to keep children safe by driving them to stay close to their important adults. Gosh it can feel brutal sometimes though.

Whenever there is separation from an attachment person there will be anxiety unless there are two things: attachment with another trusted, loving adult; and a felt sense of you holding on, even when you aren't beside them. Putting these in place will help soften anxiety.

As long as children are are in the loving care of a trusted adult, there's no need to avoid separation. We'll need to remind ourselves of this so we can hold on to ourselves when our own anxiety is rising in response to theirs. 

If separation is the problem, connection has to be the solution. The connection can be with any loving adult, but it's more than an adult being present. It needs an adult who, through their strong, warm, loving presence, shows the child their abundant intention to care for that child, and their joy in doing so. This can be helped along by showing that you trust the adult to love that child big in our absence. 'I know [important adult] loves you and is going to take such good care of you.'

To help your young one feel held on to by you, even in absence, let them know you'll be thinking of them and can't wait to see them. Bolster this by giving them something of yours to hold while you're gone - a scarf, a note - anything that will be felt as 'you'.

They know you are the one who makes sure their world is safe, so they’ll be looking to you for signs of safety: 'Do you think we'll be okay if we aren't together?' First, validate: 'You really want to stay with me, don't you. I wish I could stay with you too! It's hard being away from your special people isn't it.' Then, be their brave. Let it be big enough to wrap around them so they can rest in the safety and strength of it: 'I know you can do this, love. We can do hard things can't we.'

Part of growing up brave is learning that the presence of anxiety doesn't always mean something is wrong. Sometimes it means they are on the edge of brave - and being away from you for a while counts as brave.
Even the most loving, emotionally available adult might feel frustration, anger, helplessness or distress in response to a child’s big feelings. This is how it’s meant to work. 

Their distress (fight/flight) will raise distress in us. The purpose is to move us to protect or support or them, but of course it doesn’t always work this way. When their big feelings recruit ours it can drive us more to fight (anger, blame), or to flee (avoid, ignore, separate them from us) which can steal our capacity to support them. It will happen to all of us from time to time. 

Kids and teens can’t learn to manage big feelings on their own until they’ve done it plenty of times with a calm, loving adult. This is where co-regulation comes in. It helps build the vital neural pathways between big feelings and calm. They can’t build those pathways on their own. 

It’s like driving a car. We can tell them how to drive as much as we like, but ‘talking about’ won’t mean they’re ready to hit the road by themselves. Instead we sit with them in the front seat for hours, driving ‘with’ until they can do it on their own. Feelings are the same. We feel ‘with’, over and over, until they can do it on their own. 

What can help is pausing for a moment to see the behaviour for what it is - a call for support. It’s NOT bad behaviour or bad parenting. It’s not that.

Our own feelings can give us a clue to what our children are feeling. It’s a normal, healthy, adaptive way for them to share an emotional load they weren’t meant to carry on their own. Self-regulation makes space for us to hold those feelings with them until those big feelings ease. 

Self-regulation can happen in micro moments. First, see the feelings or behaviour for what it is - a call for support. Then breathe. This will calm your nervous system, so you can calm theirs. In the same way we will catch their distress, they will also catch ours - but they can also catch our calm. Breathe, validate, and be ‘with’. And you don’t need to do more than that.
When things feel hard or the world feels big, children will be looking to their important adults for signs of safety. They will be asking, ‘Do you think I'm safe?' 'Do you think I can do this?' With everything in us, we have to send the message, ‘Yes! Yes love, this is hard and you are safe. You can do hard things.'

Even if we believe they are up to the challenge, it can be difficult to communicate this with absolute confidence. We love them, and when they're distressed, we're going to feel it. Inadvertently, we can align with their fear and send signals of danger, especially through nonverbals. 

What they need is for us to align with their 'brave' - that part of them that wants to do hard things and has the courage to do them. It might be small but it will be there. Like a muscle, courage strengthens with use - little by little, but the potential is always there.

First, let them feel you inside their world, not outside of it. This lets their anxious brain know that support is here - that you see what they see and you get it. This happens through validation. It doesn't mean you agree. It means that you see what they see, and feel what they feel. Meet the intensity of their emotion, so they can feel you with them. It can come off as insincere if your nonverbals are overly calm in the face of their distress. (Think a zen-like low, monotone voice and neutral face - both can be read as threat by an anxious brain). Try:

'This is big for you isn't it!' 
'It's awful having to do things you haven't done before. What you are feeling makes so much sense. I'd feel the same!

Once they really feel you there with them, then they can trust what comes next, which is your felt belief that they will be safe, and that they can do hard things. 

Even if things don't go to plan, you know they will cope. This can be hard, especially because it is so easy to 'catch' their anxiety. When it feels like anxiety is drawing you both in, take a moment, breathe, and ask, 'Do I believe in them, or their anxiety?' Let your answer guide you, because you know your young one was built for big, beautiful things. It's in them. Anxiety is part of their move towards brave, not the end of it.

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