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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Anxiety is a sign that the brain has registered threat and is mobilising the body to get to safety. One of the ways it does this is by organising the body for movement - to fight the danger or flee the danger. 

If there is no need or no opportunity for movement, that fight or flight fuel will still be looking for expression. This can come out as wriggly, fidgety, hyperactive behaviour. This is why any of us might pace or struggle to sit still when we’re anxious. 

If kids or teens are bouncing around, wriggling in their chairs, or having trouble sitting still, it could be anxiety. Remember with anxiety, it’s not about what is actually safe but about what the brain perceives. New or challenging work, doing something unfamiliar, too much going on, a tired or hungry body, anything that comes with any chance of judgement, failure, humiliation can all throw the brain into fight or flight.

When this happens, the body might feel busy, activated, restless. This in itself can drive even more anxiety in kids or teens. Any of us can struggle when we don’t feel comfortable in our own bodies. 

Anxiety is energy with nowhere to go. To move through anxiety, give the energy somewhere to go - a fast walk, a run, a whole-body shake, hula hooping, kicking a ball - any movement that spends the energy will help bring the brain and body back to calm.♥️
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#parenting #anxietyinkids #childanxiety #parenting #parent
This is not bad behaviour. It’s big behaviour a from a brain that has registered threat and is working hard to feel safe again. 

‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what the brain perceives. The brain can perceive threat when there is any chance missing out on or messing up something important, anything that feels unfamiliar, hard, or challenging, feeling misunderstood, thinking you might be angry or disappointed with them, being separated from you, being hungry or tired, anything that pushes against their sensory needs - so many things. 

During anxiety, the amygdala in the brain is switched to high volume, so other big feelings will be too. This might look like tears, sadness, or anger. 

Big feelings have a good reason for being there. The amygdala has the very important job of keeping us safe, and it does this beautifully, but not always with grace. One of the ways the amygdala keeps us safe is by calling on big feelings to recruit social support. When big feelings happen, people notice. They might not always notice the way we want to be noticed, but we are noticed. This increases our chances of safety. 

Of course, kids and teens still need our guidance and leadership and the conversations that grow them, but not during the emotional storm. They just won’t hear you anyway because their brain is too busy trying to get back to safety. In that moment, they don’t want to be fixed or ‘grown’. They want to feel seen, safe and heard. 

During the storm, preserve your connection with them as much as you can. You might not always be able to do this, and that’s okay. None of this is about perfection. If you have a rupture, repair it as soon as you can. Then, when their brains and bodies come back to calm, this is the time for the conversations that will grow them. 

Rather than, ‘What consequences do they need to do better?’, shift to, ‘What support do they need to do better?’ The greatest support will come from you in a way they can receive: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘You’re the most wonderful kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen. How can you put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
Big behaviour is a sign of a nervous system in distress. Before anything, that vulnerable nervous system needs to be brought back home to felt safety. 

This will happen most powerfully with relationship and connection. Breathe and be with. Let them know you get it. This can happen with words or nonverbals. It’s about feeling what they feel, but staying regulated.

If they want space, give them space but stay in emotional proximity, ‘Ok I’m just going to stay over here. I’m right here if you need.’

If they’re using spicy words to make sure there is no confusion about how they feel about you right now, flag the behaviour, then make your intent clear, ‘I know how upset you are and I want to understand more about what’s happening for you. I’m not going to do this while you’re speaking to me like this. You can still be mad, but you need to be respectful. I’m here for you.’

Think of how you would respond if a friend was telling you about something that upset her. You wouldn’t tell her to calm down, or try to fix her (she’s not broken), or talk to her about her behaviour. You would just be there. You would ‘drop an anchor’ and steady those rough seas around her until she feels okay enough again. Along the way you would be doing things that let her know your intent to support her. You’d do this with you facial expressions, your voice, your body, your posture. You’d feel her feels, and she’d feel you ‘getting her’. It’s about letting her know that you understand what she’s feeling, even if you don’t understand why (or agree with why). 

It’s the same for our children. As their important big people, they also need leadership. The time for this is after the storm has passed, when their brains and bodies feel safe and calm. Because of your relationship, connection and their felt sense of safety, you will have access to their ‘thinking brain’. This is the time for those meaningful conversations: 
- ‘What happened?’
- ‘What did I do that helped/ didn’t help?’
- ‘What can you do differently next time?’
- ‘You’re a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. What can you do to put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
As children grow, and especially by adolescence, we have the illusion of control but whether or not we have any real influence will be up to them. The temptation to control our children will always come from a place of love. Fear will likely have a heavy hand in there too. When they fall, we’ll feel it. Sometimes it will feel like an ache in our core. Sometimes it will feel like failure or guilt, or anger. We might wish we could have stopped them, pushed a little harder, warned a little bigger, stood a little closer. We’re parents and we’re human and it’s what this parenting thing does. It makes fear and anxiety billow around us like lost smoke, too easily.

Remember, they want you to be proud of them, and they want to do the right thing. When they feel your curiosity over judgement, and the safety of you over shame, it will be easier for them to open up to you. Nobody will guide them better than you because nobody will care more about where they land. They know this, but the magic happens when they also know that you are safe and that you will hold them, their needs, their opinions and feelings with strong, gentle, loving hands, no matter what.♥️
Anger is the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. It has important work to do. Anger never exists on its own. It exists to hold other more vulnerable emotions in a way that feels safer. It’s sometimes feels easier, safer, more acceptable, stronger to feel the ‘big’ that comes with anger, than the vulnerability that comes with anxiety, sadness, loneliness. This isn’t deliberate. It’s just another way our bodies and brains try to keep us safe. 

The problem isn’t the anger. The problem is the behaviour that can come with the anger. Let there be no limits on thoughts and feelings, only behaviour. When children are angry, as long as they are safe and others are safe, we don’t need to fix their anger. They aren’t broken. Instead, drop the anchor: as much as you can - and this won’t always be easy - be a calm, steadying, loving presence to help bring their nervous systems back home to calm. 

Then, when they are truly calm, and with love and leadership, have the conversations that will grow them - 
- What happened? 
- What can you do differently next time?
- You’re a really great kid. I know you didn’t want this to happen but here we are. How can you make things right. Would you like some ideas? Do you need some help with that?
- What did I do that helped? What did I do that didn’t help? Is there something that might feel more helpful next time?

When their behaviour falls short of ‘adorable’, rather than asking ‘What consequences they need to do better?’ let the question be, ‘What support do they need to do better.’ Often, the biggest support will be a conversation with you, and that will be enough.♥️
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#parenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #anxietyinkids

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