Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder — Not just a naughty child

Posted by Jennifer Wickham, L.P.C.
October 19, 2015


With school conferences, I find that soon after, families come to a first counseling appointment with their child concerned with an important question: “Does my child have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or is my child just naughty?”

At school conferences, parents may receive feedback and examples like these from their child’s teacher prompting their concerns:

  • Child is not remaining seated
  • Child can’t keep hands and feet to themselves
  • Child may be loud and interrupts
  • Child may be unorganized
  • Child may be off task/inattentive
  • Child may be defiant and may have aggressive behaviors with children and/or staff
  • Child may not listen to instruction
  • Child may have difficulty controlling his/her emotions
  • Child struggles to meet educational goals

While these observations may seem to reflect a child’s character, we want to remember that children are learners. Behavior that seems naughty is a part of their growth and developmental process. However, when a child’s behavior becomes disruptive to the learning environment to the point that they are interfering with their own learning and that of others, it may be an indicator that the child is struggling with a developmental disorder, such as ADHD.

ADHD is a developmental disorder of the brain impacting a child’s ability to self-regulate behaviors and focus attention on a task. In more recent years, research has begun to establish that memory also is compromised, making it more difficult to remember items to complete multistep tasks.

Imagine for a moment that a child’s brain is like a car. If all its systems are working properly, it only needs a driver to move about safely. However, if the car has faulty brakes, it may take longer to stop at a stop sign. If the gas pedal is extra sensitive, the car may lurch forward uncontrollably with too much speed. If the blinkers don’t work, the car cannot signal to other cars what it is going to do next. If the car’s GPS is offline, the driver can’t find the next turn. The driver is doing the best they can to get where they are going most often with less than optimal and, sometimes, disastrous results.

If you were driver of this car, how would you feel? If you were a driver on the same road with this car, what would you feel, think, say or do? 

Jennifer Wickham, L.P.C.

This is the challenge for children who are struggling with ADHD. They want to stop when they need to. They want move smoothly on to the next activity. They want to control their emotions, share, take turns, be organized, be proud and feel good about accomplishments. They want to have healthy relationships.

Children with ADHD may be mislabeled by professionals and parents as naughty because the outward behaviors appear to be naughty or irresponsible by conventional social standards. While there are many causes for a child’s academic and behavioral difficulties, the question of undiagnosed ADHD is real and important. The Centers for Disease Control reported in 2012 that the number of children ages 3 to 17 diagnosed with ADHD was 5.9 million. Dr. Russell Barkley, preeminent ADHD researcher and clinician states, “when this condition is left undiagnosed, it risks a life of failure and underachievement” (Barkley, 2013). Self-esteem, family and peer relationships, school and future work success can be affected negatively by the disorder.

Seeking expert assessment, diagnosis and treatment is essential to helping children and families identify the meaning and source of children’s academic and behavioral difficulties.

There is no cure for ADHD. However, it is a disorder that can be managed through education, behavioral strategies, medication, educational modification and learning organizational skills. There is much hope for success with treatment.

Jennifer Wickham is a licensed professional counselor in Behavioral Health in Eau Claire, Wis.

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