Attention Deficit Disorder is More Than Sugar Overload

Note: I asked my son for his permission before writing this post.

There is evidence that the diagnoses of ADD/ADHD (Attention Deficit Disorder/Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) are on the rise for a variety of non-medical reasons. There are stories about schools pushing parents to have their children diagnosed to increase the school’s test scores. Some say that big pharma is encouraging physicians to prescribe ADD/ADHD medications to children who are merely impatient or who misbehave too much. Diet has been suggested as a cause of ADD/ADHD, with sugar being the main culprit, though this study did not find food additives and sugar to be the problems many think they are. While any one of these may be true in some situations, it doesn’t mean that there aren’t children who have ADD/ADHD and need medication to help manage it.

One of the biggest problems? Parents of ADD/ADHD kids are often blamed and chastised for their children’s learning disorders.

My son was diagnosed when he was 8 years old after his teacher suggested he might have ADD. I wasn’t surprised, though his father and I had hoped that his lack of focus was more a function of immaturity than a disorder. He wasn’t a behavior problem in the usual sense of the word – he didn’t disrupt the class or get out of control at home – but he was a fidgety and distracted boy who was most calm when watching television or playing on a computer (or later, video games) which is a classic trait of ADD kids. His intelligence was no match for his ADD, and his schoolwork was below what we – his teachers and his father and I – expected of him. He was put on a 504 plan to give him the extra help he needed, though implementing it was often a challenge, as some teachers disregarded it. There were times I had to go into full mom attack mode to get my son what he needed.

No one wants to medicate their child for any reason. Starting him on medication was not a decision we came to easily, but when we saw how much it helped him, we were so relieved. However, contrary to popular belief, medication was by no means a magical chemical formula that changed him from a distracted, average student to a focused and driven one. While it helped him somewhat, it took many years of diligent parenting and growth on his part before his maturity and self-motivation caught up with his intellectual capabilities, medicated or not.

About the medication – it was a challenge, all through his childhood and teen years, to keep his dosage correct. There were times when he was taking too much and would be a little zombie-like, and we’d adjust it down. When he became an adolescent and grew by leaps and bounds, the dosage had to be adjusted again. We made the disastrous mistake during his junior year of high school of seeing a new (and ultimately horrible) psychiatrist who came highly recommended who cut his dosage by nearly 80%. His grades and his behavior suffered dramatically during that year, and I will never forgive myself for that decision. Why did we wait so long to fix it? We didn’t trust our own instincts. It was a hard lesson.

I am 100% certain that my son was correctly diagnosed with ADD. Was his diet perfect? No. Were we as strict and regimented with him as he might have needed? Perhaps not. But it wasn’t just a matter of  him “behaving” or “calming down.” His entire being seemed to relax and smooth out when he took his medication. Would it have been better to skip medication and allow him to be fidgety, antsy, and unfocused? Should I have tested no sugar/no preservatives/no junk food/no television/no video games over a period of months or years to try and determine what might have been causing his behavior or causing his ADD? We decided we didn’t want to waste a moment of making his life better by first making it worse.

For a child with ADD, it’s not only a behavior problem or a learning problem – it’s a life problem.

Ultimately, what made the most difference in my son was maturity. And while some may think “Well, if you’d just been patient, he would have outgrown it,” they’d be wrong. At 21 and about to graduate from college, he manages his ADD and knows when he needs to take his medication (for school, mostly) and when he can skip it. He sees a mental health specialist for his prescription on a monthly basis, not an internist as many do. He’s become a good student who has used the support system at his university to help him succeed. Will he need to continue to take medication, now that he’s an adult? That remains to be seen – and now the decision is his.

To those who say that ADD/ADHD isn’t a “real” disorder, that ADD is a result of parents who are lazy or kids who are undisciplined, or that it’s because of McDonald’s or World of Warcraft or Snickers bars or bad teachers or big greedy drug companies, I would say this – tell me what you would do if your child had a health problem – maybe asthma or allergies – and you were given the choice of medicating your child or waiting to see if some dietary or behavioral adjustment would fix it. Wouldn’t you want to give your kid the best possible chance to succeed, be healthy, and be happy? Would you want to experiment and test theories on your precious child while his youth was being disrupted by a treatable disorder?

We didn’t.

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  • The most compelling “other side of the story” I’ve read. You’ve done a lot of people a favor. Excellent piece.

  • Absolutely agree, Sharon. As a university-based mental health professional for many years, I worked with a large number of students with ADD–and I can attest that it’s neither imaginary nor trivial. It can be treated both medically and through educational amendments, but it takes work and understanding to help people with ADD get the most out of their educational experiences.

    • Sharon Greenthal

      By far the biggest challenge with raising a child with ADD was navigating the public school system and ensuring he got the few compensations he needed. We have been thrilled with the SALT Center at the University of Arizona, where he has been given wonderful support.

  • I tweeted, interesting post….I don’t know much about it but feel a bit more educated now.

  • I love that you said “maturity” makes a difference. I was unsuccessful getting my daughter to eat right or take her medicine. But she knows that all things make a difference and that she needs to be in tune with her body. As she matures, I see her taking charge of her education and her self care.

    • Sharon Greenthal

      That’s exactly what happened with my son – and partly I’m sure because he was on his own at college.

  • KIM

    I almost bet my husband has it!! I do think though, kids with ADD can “feel better” when much sugar is not added to their daily intake. Never ever thought JUST sugar caused it – no way.

  • Sharon thank you so much for sharing your experience (and please thank you son as well).

    My youngest son also has ADHD and it was a hard decision to start using medicine but we saw such a huge change. In fact this last winter break we actually saw what it use to be like, when we had to switch his medicine for a week from an extended release formula to a faster acting formula.

    We had gone to a movie and did not give it a second thought when we decided to go to a later show. Peter did beautifully, waited on line, was just a delight. Then after the previews were over, he looked at me and said, I cant sit still mom, I have to leave. And just started to walk out, not in a misbehaving way but because he really could not sit still. My husband and l looked at each other and realized that he was due for his second dose. That experience really made me feel better about our choice. The medicine he takes helps him function in the world as a happier person. Again, thank you for sharing your story.

  • I am so happy that my post inspired you! Like you my son is not a behavior problem, he doesn’t act up in class, he just gets distracted by any little sound like the boy at the next desk tapping his pencil, or a bird flying past the window, or really just anything at all to the point that he is unable to finish his work in a timely manner, he then becomes discouraged and thinks “what’s the point!?”. Medicating him was NOT an easy decision but when he went from getting C’s and D’s to A’s in just a few weeks, I knew I had made the right decision for him. Each of us ultimately has to make that decision for ourselves and for our own child!

  • My son has been on an IEP his entire school career (he’s now a high school junior). Not for ADHD, yet your comment about getting fierce on your kid’s behalf resonated with me. We, too, didn’t wish to experiment with our son, and went with our instincts many times. Guess what? Parents know their kids best.

    • Sharon Greenthal

      Yes we do! There was nothing more infuriating than people who wanted to tell me how to deal with my child.

  • Thank you for sharing this post. I’m sure you have touched many who needed to see this. So important for us to trust our guts and keep pushing for answers even when someone wants to persuade us otherwise.

  • Sharon, thank you for writing this! I wasn’t diagnosed until I was 40. My sister decided to look into it and was diagnosed at 39. We’ve always been ADD/ADHD. My experience with medication has been nothing short of miraculous. Two of the symptoms I deal with are seeing everything as equal importance, which means I never know what to do first in anything, and overwhelm. Within an hour of taking my first dose it was like everything all lined up and sorted out and I could actually “see” what had to happen. My sister described it best. She said it was like her thoughts were scattered around on moving clouds just above her head, but her medication made the clouds stop long enough for her to find what she needed. She can organize and find her thoughts. My sister then had her son checked and, sure enough, he’s also ADHD. He was also aware almost immediately of the difference.

    Bottom line is this: when you have ADD and you’re unaware of it and unmedicated, life is hell. You feel stupid, you get called and treated like you’re stupid. You think something is wrong with you. And we live in a multi-tasking world, which makes it worse. Medication doesn’t cure ADD, only helps manage it. But medication (and counseling) have made life a whole lot better and richer.

    • Sharon Greenthal

      I’m so glad to hear that you have found medication to be helpful, Edee. My mother was a psychotherapist until she retired, and referred many, many patients for psychiatric evaluation that led to this diagnosis – and changed their lives.

  • Many diseases get mistaken for lifestyle choices. Then of course there are the arm chair doctors. You and your family show courage! Medication dosages for many conditions need to change as some one ages, grows, looses weight, gains weight or adds additional medication. It is an ongoing challenge especially with children and the elderly.

    • Sharon Greenthal

      The dosage was always something we monitored carefully. Now that he’s an adult, it’s leveled out and we’ve had no problems at all since he started college.

  • Thank you for sharing this Sharon. It is such an important message. I work with students like your son. My sister is the head of a special education department in a Chicago suburb school and I know she would echo my applause for this post. I am going to pass this on to her and to my colleagues. I only wish that you could translate it into other languages, so that I could share with other parents from countries that do not understand or recognize ADD and consequently stigmatize and ostracize the child.

    • Sharon Greenthal

      Thank you so much, Pat. I really have had it up to here with those who say this isn’t a “real” problem.

  • Hi Sharon, you and Writer Mom hit the nail right on the head with these two very accurate articles about ADHD and we experienced all of this and more.

  • You are the parent and nobody knows your child better than you. It is so hard to see your child needing help, the last thing anyone needs is other people second guessing your decisions.

  • Sharon,

    I can’t thank you enough for writing this. I know ADD intimately.

    My oldest nephew has ADHD and, since we are close, I know every step of his difficult and long journey. Then came my son who has learning disabilities and OCD. The next nephew has Asperger’s (high functioning) and the next one has ADD.

    The oldest was the most difficult to handle, yet with love, medication, a little therapy and compassion, he is now a PhD student in math, tuition free! My son had an IEP all through school and is doing very well in college with no extra help necessary (makes Dean’s List every time), and my Asperger’s love of a nephew got 1 wrong on his SAT (!!!) and is now a sophomore in college living on campus.

    I loved all you wrote, agree with it a million percent, and am so thrilled you are spreading awareness and educating others are OCD. Plus, you are extraordinary parents and it shows in your son’s achievements. Kudos.

    If you lived near me I’d give you a great big hug.

  • Helene Cohen Bludman

    I applaud you for writing this post, Sharon. This issue needs more visibility and more conversation. It’s not always easy to make the right decision for your child and parents should know the options as a first step.

  • This is such a well written, tempered article about something that is very important. Two of my nephews have ADD/ADHD and as you note, they do so much better when they’re on their medication and it also wasn’t something that could be managed just by changing their diet (although both of my siblings tried that route in conjunction with the meds). I hadn’t thought about the need for changing the dosage based on their growth spurts, that must be a difficult challenge when you’re looking to get them on a solid schedule. Thanks for writing such a powerful and helpful piece, I’m sure there are many who will benefit from it.

    • Sharon Greenthal

      Thanks Claudia. The dosage was most difficult to get right during early adolescence. It’s not all about size, either – it’s more complex than that.

  • Sharon – thanks for this post. My son was diagnosed at 16. His best year was when he was on medication. After a year he refused to take it or consider any kind of help and support. We’ve been living with the fallout for the past 10 years. Maybe doctors are over diagnosing but that doesn’t mean the condition is not real and disabling.

    • Sharon Greenthal

      I’m sorry you’re having such a hard time. And you’re absolutely right, just because some are overdiagnosed doesn’t mean those who need the medication should be penalized by society.

  • I have a son with ADHD. You are right on Sharon. I applaud you for sharing your story!!!

  • Some don’t want to admit or are still in denial that their child has ADHD. Accepting the truth is always the first step and getting help is still the best option. I just read recently that Maroon5’s Adam Levine has ADHD but through medication he is able to achieve his goals in life.

  • Julie

    My son was a fine student, was well-behaved and didn’t fidget (he used to sing absentmindedly) and was diagnosed the summer before his freshman year when he grades started slipping and I wondered aloud to his pediatrician, “when is he going to stop losing things?” He was able to fake it until the work load became more intense.

    He, unfortunately, tried the meds and refused them. He hated how they made him feel, in every combination. He also refused accommodations, as he didn’t want to stand out at his small private boys’ school.

    He’s about to start college in the Fall and it has not been easy. Before he was diagnosed, I thought ADD was an over diagnosed condition because high achieving parents could not accept their kids were average. It has affected him in so many ways. Your essay on parenting an average student brought me to this blog. I completely identified with every word.

    College will be interesting.

    • Sharon Greenthal

      I think people can find ways to accommodate for their ADD without meds, and your son wants to do that. I’m glad my essay made sense to you – it’s not a topic people like to talk about very much.

      By the way, my son whistles absentmindedly, still!

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