When a child is diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), it can often be a surprise to the parents that one of them has ADHD as well. They may have experienced some of the symptoms but never had the condition diagnosed.
Physicians, however, are usually less surprised because they know that ADHD is a very heritable disorder. According to a 2015 study, if a parent has ADHD, the child has up to a 57 percent chance of having it, and the child’s risk is 32 percent if their sibling has it.
“There have been 20 to 30 twin studies that show that the heritability of ADHD is about 70 percent,” meaning that both twins have it, says Stephen Faraone, distinguished professor and vice chair for research at SUNY Upstate Medical University. “It is as heritable as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, autism or other psychiatric disorders that people tend to think are more biological than ADHD for some reason.”
More attention needed for adult ADHD
Brad McAlister, CMSE, executive director of the American Professional Society of ADHD & Related Disorders, or APSARD, explains that the consequences of untreated ADHD in adults are very well documented. The prevalence of ADHD in U.S. adults is 4.4 percent or about 11 million people.
Many adults go undiagnosed for decades or are misdiagnosed by providers. McAlister says that 75 percent are not receiving treatment. “The U.S. economic burden of adult ADHD is $105 to $194 billion annually,” he says. “The negative consequences on peoples’ lives include higher risks of dropping out of school, losing jobs, financial debt, divorce, fractured relationships, substance use disorders, and co-occurring depression/anxiety.”
One of the negative impacts of undiagnosed ADHD in adults is the effect that it can have on their children who have ADHD.
Adult ADHD is currently treated by a broad range of health care providers with different educational backgrounds and in different practice settings. In August, APSARD published the first U.S. guidelines for adult ADHD. “The creation of guidelines for ADHD in adults will allow all practitioners to benefit from the best evidence about diagnosing and treating the disorder,” McAlister says.
Faraone explains that the guidelines are intended to help practitioners understand the best practices for adults with ADHD, including screening and other ways of evaluating whether someone has it. He recently completed a study of what he calls the Metrics of Quality Care for adults with ADHD.
“We looked at a sizable group of primary care practices in the U.S., and we learned that although quality care for adults with ADHD has been gradually improving over the past decade, there are many areas where it is still far behind where it needs to be,” he says. “That’s consistent with other studies that show that in primary care for adults, ADHD is not treated nearly as well as it is treated in specialty and psychiatry care.”
How kids with ADHD are affected
One of the negative impacts of undiagnosed ADHD in adults is the effect that it can have on their children who have ADHD because their ability to care for that child’s special needs may be impaired.
“The treatments that are most effective in treating children with ADHD are medication and behavioral interventions as their reward bait, and at home, it’s the parent that administers them,” says Mark A. Stein, director of the ADHD and Related Disorders Program at Seattle Children’s Hospital. “Adults with ADHD have difficulties with time management and organization skills, so they will have a hard time making sure their child is ready for school, has breakfast, has their medications, etcetera.”
Even more challenging than getting a prescription, Stein adds, is finding a psychologist or therapist who is skilled in evaluating and working with children with ADHD and their parents. If left undiagnosed and untreated, adult ADHD may also interfere with getting a good evaluation for the child.
“If you have ADHD and your mind is wandering and you don’t have all of the forms from the school for your provider, and you’re focused on the bad day you’re having rather than giving a history of your child, all of that is going to delay getting an effective treatment for your child,” Stein says. “So that’s why it’s important to identify ADHD in parents.”
Promising research and training
After delays due to the pandemic, Stein and his colleague Andrea Chronis-Tuscano, professor and director of the Maryland ADHD Program at the University of Maryland, are now about two years into what they anticipate will be a six-year study that involves treating parents who have children with untreated ADHD symptoms. The goal is to see whether treating the parent first with medication and training, or just the training, helps the child’s symptoms due to improved parenting. They are also studying whether they can postpone the need for medication until children are older, when it’s more effective.
“Pediatricians are more aware of ADHD in parents because of our study,” Stein says. “They’re also more aware of the shortcomings in our healthcare delivery system in terms of how hard it is to find providers who are comfortable treating adult ADHD.”
“Besides depression, ADHD is the other disorder that parents have that really impacts kids significantly," Stein says. “With treatment, many people with ADHD do very well."
That said, he’s seen a significant improvement in the past decade with increased recognition of ADHD in adults. “It started with pediatricians recognizing that post-partum depression impacted the mother’s ability to care for her children and making it routine to screen for depression in parents of kids,” he says. “Besides depression, ADHD is the other disorder that parents have that really impacts kids significantly, so it’s important for them to be aware of characteristics of [ADHD in] parents and have resources they can give parents to help them.”
Stein emphasizes that even if someone displays symptoms of ADHD, that does not mean that they have it. They should seek a physician’s evaluation to confirm a diagnosis, which would enable them to get the medication and behavioral treatment they need.
The medication can take effect in parents within an hour. Meanwhile, when parents participate in the behavioral parent training courses, their kids with ADHD start showing significant improvement within about four to five weeks, according to Stein.
“With treatment, many people with ADHD do very well,” he says. “Especially if they get through formal schooling, find the right fit with their job, and if they make the right choices with their relationships, those three things can go a long way to make their ADHD fade into the background.”