I have spent countless hours in deep discussion with both parents and professionals questioning why so many kids are being diagnosed these days with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) or Attention Deficit with Hyperactivity (ADHD). Is there some causal contributor in our food or environment? Is it due to changes in parenting practices? School environments? The increase in technology in everyday life? The lobbying power of drug companies? All of the above?
The number of American children leaving doctors’ offices with an attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) diagnosis has risen 66% in 10 years, according to a Northwestern study. “The magnitude and speed of this shift in one decade is likely due to an increased awareness of ADHD,” explains first author Craig Garfield, M.D., perhaps causing more physicians to diagnose the disorder. Researchers also found that psychostimulants have remained the most common medication, prescribed to 87% of children with ADHD in 2010.
No matter what the reason, it is frightening to think about. Not only are kids being given psychiatric medications at younger ages, more young adults than ever before are now taking ADHD medications, usually powerful and addictive amphetamines like Adderall. In the past four years, IMS Health reported that the number of monthly prescriptions has more than doubled for Americans ages 20 to 39. The use and abuse of stimulants is on the rise.
Far too many kids, once 18 and away from home, decide on their own to get a prescription. Certainly some of these kids have legitimate difficulty keeping up with their studies because of real attention problems. Countless others look up the symptoms on the web and act the part. A 2010 study by researchers at the University of Kentucky compared two groups of college students– those diagnosed with ADHD and others with faked symptoms–and found they were indistinguishable on the standard tests typically given. Once your kids become adults, there is nothing much that parents can do. But, is there anything you can do NOW to stem the tide? I think so.
When you think about some of your happiest memories as a child, what do you remember? My husband spent countless hours of his childhood playing on his own or with pals in the woods near his home. No adults supervising. Hours building forts, throwing acorns, damming the creek, climbing trees, playing hide-n-go-seek.
And mine? Summer nights with a dozen kids of all ages, catching fireflies in jars, playing kick-the-can while being dive-bombed by bats. Or going to the dump in Wisconsin with my dad, where we were almost guaranteed to see bears or other animals foraging after dark.
Even as recently as the 1970’s, American kids still spent most of their free time exploring and playing outdoors, using the sidewalks, streets, playgrounds, parks, and vacant lots with little or no restriction or adult supervision.Throughout all but the last tiny sliver of human history, adults and children alike were in constant relationship to nature, working with its rhythms of dark and light, sometimes in harmony, often struggling with its unpredictability. Two hundred years ago, most children were still surrounded by fields and farms. Little by little since then, our lives have become more urbanized.
Enter a glimmer of hope. A new study published in the journal, Biological Psychiatry, found that fewer children have attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder where sunshine is plentiful so they can play outdoors. Study leader Martijn Arns from the Netherlands suggests a link between increased screen time in the hours leading up to bedtime, less quality sleep, and attention problems. So here’s what parents can do: get your kids playing outside during the day and to sleep early at night. Nix the computers and gameboys right before bed.
What if part of the cause of the epidemic of childhood disorders–not just ADHD but depression, anxiety, and childhood obesity too–comes from our kids being deprived of their relationship to good old Mother Earth? What is even part of the problem is that simple: too much time indoors, too little sun and exercise, too many electronics, not enough sleep…These are simple solutions to a complicated problem. But as parents, these are variables that you CAN control. Have at it.
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Last reviewed: 15 Apr 2013