What is ADHD? Common—and Surprising—Symptoms
Do you frequently start and abandon projects? Does your ability to concentrate flip-flop between The Laser Beam and The Disco Ball? Sometimes ADHD is obvious, but sometimes it can fly under the radar. Guest author, Dr. Ellen Hendriksen explains the common, and not so common, signs of this disorder. Plus, learn about medication-free tips to manage ADHD in kids and adults.
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Medication-Free ADHD Treatments for All Ages
- Get more sleep. Kids (and some adults) with and without ADHD often manifest fatigue not by getting tired, but by getting wired. A 2012 study in the journal Pediatrics shows that behavior deteriorates when sleep time is cut by as little as 30 minutes, and improves with an extra half hour or more. So make sure that you or your child gets plenty of zzz's.
- Exercise. A recent study showed that just 20 minutes of exercise improved kids’ self-control and attention, whether or not they had ADHD. Kids with ADHD showed specific behavioral improvements as well. Here's a great episode from Get-Fit Guy about how to get your kids fit.
- Take one thing at a time. Multitasking quickly descends into chaos for those with ADHD. Focus on doing one activity at a time. Also, multi-step directions can be difficult to process for kids with ADHD. A request like “Clear your dinner plate, find your backpack, and start your homework” will likely result in several detours and much exasperation. Break it down into three separate requests, however, and everyone will be happier.
Medication-Free ADHD Treatments for Kids
- Praise good behavior. Often, kids with ADHD get negative feedback about their attention, motivation, or behavior. A positive, loving, non-critical, and helpful home is the best foundation. When a kid with ADHD is behaving appropriately, praise him and his efforts.
- Build in immediate reinforcement. A recent book for psychologists described this tactic for a boy with ADHD: The teacher wrote answers to worksheet questions in invisible marker; he could answer the question and immediately color the space to reveal whether or not he was right. He went from pestering the kids next to him to answering almost every question correctly. Immediate feedback pays off. Try offering praise or another reward immediately after good behavior.
- Be on the lookout for learning disabilities. Dyslexia or difficulties solving math problems commonly coexist with ADHD.
- Make eye contact and gentle physical contact when you need their attention. Calling from the adjacent room, “Put on your shoes! We’re late!” is like talking to the wind. Instead, go to the child, touch her arm, look her in the eye (requesting “Look at my eyes,” can help), and then ask her to put on her shoes.
- Request a desk in the front of the class. Not having to filter out a classroom’s worth of distraction can work wonders.
- Include more “green time.” In a 2009 study, just 20 minutes of walking in a park, compared to 20 minutes of walking in an urban downtown area or a residential area, was enough to improve attention in kids with ADHD.
Medication-Free ADHD Treatments for Adults
- Choose an organizing system and stick to it. Many adults with ADHD know they need to get organized, but they abandon system after system. Pick one and stick to it for at least a few weeks, not just a few days. Get-It-Done Guy has an article to help you create a custom organizational system.
- Break down onerous tasks into small chunks. Tedious tasks, like filing or sorting, often fall by the wayside. Tell yourself you’ll file 5 pieces of paper, sort 10 items, or pay 2 bills. Once the task is started, often the momentum will carry you beyond the initial quota. Check out the article on speed-dating your tasks to help you stay on track.
- Use technology to keep you focused. One patient of mine created a text alarm on his laptop; it scrolled across the screen every 15 minutes and read “Are you doing what you’re supposed to be doing?” Another patient set her phone alarm to beep at 20-minute intervals in the early afternoon, when she knew her medication was likely to be wearing off. How can you use technology to keep you motivated and on track?
Finally, be patient. It isn’t possible to will oneself out of ADHD, but with support and persistence, it can be well-managed. Just look at Modern Manners Guy, Richie Frieman. He struggled with ADHD his entire childhood, and now he's got a book coming out!
Thanks for reading and for your, well…attention!
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Dr. Ellen Hendriksen is a clinical psychologist at the Stanford University School of Medicine. Ellen graduated from Brown University, earned her Ph.D. at UCLA, and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. In her clinic, she treats everything from depression to trauma to panic, but she has a special place in her heart for anxiety disorders. Ellen is also an active research scientist and develops therapy programs for individuals and families living with chronic illness. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and two sons, ages 5 and 2.
Disclaimer: All content is strictly for informational purposes only. This content does not substitute any medical advice, and does not replace any medical judgment or reasoning by your personal health provider. Please always seek a licensed physician in your area regarding all health related questions.