Despite optimism by professionals and researchers years ago that treating ADHD in childhood would lead to improved outcome in adulthood, current research has not supported this perception. In fact, relieving the symptoms of ADHD may not necessarily contribute to increasing the likelihood of positive outcome in the adult years. Why not? What should parents and professionals be doing to ensure positive future outcomes? In this article, Sam Goldstein, Ph.D., answers these questions.

We all accomplish our goals and successes in life through our strengths and abilities. Happy, successful adults frequently comment that their success lay, in part, to finding something in life they were good at, having the opportunity to develop the skill or ability, and being appreciated for it. This speaks to an important issue relative to your question. Is symptom relief for ADHD equivalent to positively changing long-term outcome? Unfortunately, as far as we are currently aware, the answer is no.

Symptom relief offers some benefit

First, let’s focus on symptom relief. Longitudinal studies, including the recent multi-site study of over 300 kids with ADHD funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, have unequivocally demonstrated the impairment caused by symptoms of ADHD is dramatically reduced through a combination of education about the condition, medication, parent training in behavior management, and support from the classroom teacher. Although initial data analysis of this research demonstrated medication alone to be the most powerful intervention, recent re-analysis of data leaves no doubt that the combination of interventions is superior to medication only.

This finding has been further reinforced in a study of adolescents with ADHD published in the May issue of Experimental and Clinical Psychopharmacology (Volume 9, Number 2). Medication in combination with behavior modification intervention improved students’ performance on a range of academic measures , including note taking, daily assignments, and quiz scores. Consistently and conscientiously applied parenting strategies involving behavior management, as well as educational support in the classroom, are very effective in reducing the impairing problems caused by the symptoms of ADHD.

Specific medications, particularly those that affect certain neurotransmitters in the brain, are also very effective in increasing self-control and thereby reducing symptoms and impairment. In particular, stimulant and antidepressant medications that affect the neurotransmitters, dopamine and norepinephrine, appear quite beneficial for ADHD. In contrast, the currently popular antidepressant medications that impact serotonin, such as Prozac® and Zoloft®, have not been found to be beneficial for ADHD.

Unfortunately, as we follow children with ADHD growing up, those who responded best to our symptom-focused interventions were not necessarily those who turned out to be most functional as adults. Thus, although we once believed that relieving the immediate symptoms of ADHD led to better life outcome, treatment alone doesn’t predict outcome. From a common sense perspective, if every day of a child’s life is better, certainly the sum total of his life should be better. Yet, we have had difficulty demonstrating this fact. What we have demonstrated, however, is the factors that contribute to good life outcome for all kids are particularly important for children with disabling conditions, such as ADHD.

Resilient mindset a crucial factor

Current treatment for ADHD is now dual focused. First, we focus on research proven interventions involving medication, education, parent training, and classroom intervention to reduce the symptoms of and impairment caused by ADHD. We have discovered that by making tasks interesting and payoffs valuable, children with ADHD function dramatically better.

Our treatment for ADHD, however, has now taken on a second, equally important component, providing children with ADHD opportunities to develop a resilient mindset. Kids with such a mindset are empathic. They communicate effectively. They learn to problem solve, develop a social conscience, and, most importantly, are self-disciplined.

Parents engaged in the process of raising resilient youngsters possess an understanding that is sometimes explicit, at other times implicit or intuitive, of what they can to do nurture this mindset in their children. To do this requires parents to appreciate the components of resilience so that their interactions with their children are guided by an important set of principles, ideas, and actions. Although each child’s road to adulthood is shaped by a variety of factors, these principles are applicable for all roads and can direct all parents in raising resilient children.

Just as some kids require more support, effort, and instruction to learn to ride a bicycle or swim, similarly it is critical for us to provide support for children with ADHD to assist them in developing self-control. Day in and day out modeling of the behaviors necessary to become self-disciplined can assist kids with ADHD to develop the internal skills necessary to function more effectively in future life.

ADHD by other names and acronyms

While Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is the official term and acronym used by today’s mental health care professionals, it is sometimes referred to by other names and abbreviations. For example, it is sometimes called:

ADHD (without the “slash” in the middle)

Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD)

Attention Disorder