5 Big Myths of ADHD

If you have a teen with ADHD, then frustration is a daily reality for you. Trying to manage your child’s life leaves you little time to manage your own life.

If that wasn’t bad enough, others misunderstand your child or the disorder.

Does this sound familiar?

  • People judge you for your teen’s behavior.
  • People believe that ADHD is just an excuse for bad behavior.
  • People think that your child just needs to apply him/herself.

It’s time to bust some myths.

Myth #1: “ADHD is a disorder of attention.”

Attention is only one symptom of ADHD. Here’s why that matters:

  • Calling ADHD an “attention deficit” disorder implies that attention deficit is the only thing causing harm. It’s not.
  • Calling ADHD an “attention deficit” disorder tells us nothing about the underlying reasons for the attention deficit.
  • People often make light of ADHD because they think it about just paying attention. They might say, “I got distracted. I guess I’m a little ADD today.” ADHD is a serious developmental disorder that wreaks havoc on the lives of suffering individuals and their families.

So what is ADHD? At its heart, it’s a self-regulation disorder. In the short term, children and adults with ADHD try to control themselves and are unable to. In the long term, they are unable to change their behavior in order to achieve a goal.

More specifically, ADHD is a disorder of brain development related to executive function. Researchers have identified from 5 to 11 executive brain functions affected by ADHD. They include:

  • The ability to hold thoughts in working memory: People with ADHD forget what they were supposed to do or remember.
  • The ability to recall relevant events from the past in order to make good decisions: Their lack of good hindsight leads to lack of foresight.
  • The ability to inhibit inappropriate responses: People with ADHD often think, speak, and act impulsively (but not always hyperactively).
  • The ability to manage emotions so they are socially acceptable and consistent with well-being: They are often seen as insensitive, offensive, or aloof.
  • The ability to motivate themselves toward long-term goals: People with ADHD usually have to rely on short-term consequences to motivate them to take action on a task that isn’t engaging.
  • The ability to plan and problem-solve: They are often inflexible and unable to see good alternatives.

A better name for ADHD might be “Self-Regulation Deficit Disorder” or maybe “Executive Function Deficit Disorder.”

Myth #2: “ADHD isn’t a real disorder.”

Maybe you’ve seen the memes. You know the ones. They say things like, “Back in the day, it was called ‘daydreaming.’ Now it’s called ADHD and we drug our kids for it.”  Or “When did childhood become a mental illness?”

If you’re a parent of a child with ADHD, I bet your blood pressure went up just reading that. People who say such things almost certainly don’t have a child with ADHD.

ADHD is not due to poor discipline (or poor parenting in general) and it’s not just children acting like children. It is a developmental disability.

What is a developmental disability? It is a delay of a normal trait. Think of it like a child who is shorter than other children their age: still growing, but always behind his/her peers.

The normal traits delayed with ADHD are the executive brain functions listed above. ADHD children have the executive function skills of a child up to 30 percent younger. Here’s what that looks like on a graph:


There’s a few important things to notice about this graph:

  • Even normal children have executive deficits compared to normal adults. A child’s frontal lobe (where much of executive function is located) doesn’t fully mature until they’re in their mid-twenties. So in that sense, yes, childhood is “like” ADHD. That’s why we hold a 4-year-old’s hand while crossing the street and give a 15-year-old a curfew.
  • Notice that both the ADHD and non-ADHD lines rise with age. Executive function improves with age, whether a child has ADHD or not.
  • Even though the ADHD line rises, it always remains lower than the non-ADHD line. A child with ADHD has the executive skills of a much younger child—they lag significantly behind their peers.

“Self-control is NOT LEARNED!  It is not a result of your upbringing and how good your parents were.  This is one of the most profound insights from our research in ADHD… Our capacity for regulating ourselves is a neuro-biological trait.” – Dr. Russell Barkley

People with ADHD are not lazy. They can’t “just remember” things if they “try harder.” They must put tools, structures, and habits into place to cope with their deficits. What we may find easy, people with ADHD find hard.

Studies show that children with ADHD have significantly less “grey matter” and “white matter” in their brains compared to their peers. You can Google what that means if you wish. Suffice to say that this is compelling evidence that ADHD is, in fact, “real.”

Myth #3: “Children grow out of ADHD.”

Take another look at the graph above.

Notice that executive function for individuals with ADHD levels off at a lower level than individuals without ADHD. Indeed, about two-thirds of children with ADHD still have symptoms of ADHD as an adult.

Often it seems as if their ADHD has gone away. After all, they’re doing better than when they were younger.

But remember that they still lag behind their peers. Adults with ADHD still have impaired functioning.

About half of all adults who continue to experience ADHD symptoms into adulthood are impaired at a level lower than the diagnostic criteria. That means that they don’t officially “have” ADHD, but they still suffer from symptoms.

However, spouses, family members, friends and employers are much less forgiving than they would be of children. They expect an adult to have an adult level of functioning.

Myth #4: “ADHD is over-diagnosed.”

Researchers estimate that about two-thirds of all children with ADHD are diagnosed and treated.

This is a big improvement! If you’re my age, you’ll remember when ADHD was hardly diagnosed at all. Most people had never heard of it. I hadn’t. I was only diagnosed with ADHD as an adult. It explained a lot about my childhood.

It isn’t that people suddenly started getting ADHD. It’s that people with ADHD weren’t getting the help they needed.

Have there been children diagnosed with ADHD who don’t actually have ADHD? Undoubtedly. But one-third of all children with ADHD still need help. As that number inches its way toward 100 percent, the number of children incorrectly diagnosed with ADHD will rise too.

So it’s a balance. But it’s better that we get help to more people who still suffer.

Myth #5: “ADHD is like any physical disease—you either have it or you don’t.”

You are either pregnant or you aren’t. You can’t be a little bit pregnant.

But it’s becoming increasingly obvious that you can be a little bit depressed, be a little bit OCD, and yes, be a little bit ADHD.

If you’ve ever looked at the diagnostic criteria for—say—depression, you may have reacted, “Just about anybody could say ‘yes’ to these questions!”

In order to meet the full diagnostic criteria, however, these symptoms must significantly interfere with a person’s daily life. In other words, the symptoms must cause harm.

The same is true for ADHD. As the quote from Dr. Barkley states above, executive function is a trait. Some people are naturally good at self-regulation and executive skills. Others are not. Most are about average.

But if your child’s executive functioning is well below their peers, and it’s causing them harm, then it’s a developmental disability that should be treated.

There is hope! Beyond medication, we can teach our children coping strategies that are very effective.

As an entrepreneur with ADHD, I’ve founded and run two multi-million dollar companies. My lifelines are my calendar, my to-do list, my notes, and an alarm app on my phone.

We all come up with ingenious ways to work around our limitations, no matter what they may be. So will the person in your life with ADHD. I’m rooting for both of you!


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 Steve Safigan I’m Steve Safigan, a certified professional life and business coach with a master’s degree in positive psychology. I help parents build confidence, motivation, and mental toughness in their soon-to-be college students. Work with me.

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