How Can I Find Out If My Child Was Misdiagnosed With ADHD?

By Ellen Braaten

I’m concerned that my 8-year-old may have been misdiagnosed with ADHD. How can I know for sure, and what should I do next?

Ellen Braaten

Director, Learning and Emotional Assessment Program, Massachusetts General Hospital

Before I get into the answer, I just want to say how great it is that you’re following your instincts and looking into the diagnosis of ADHD (also known as ADD). That’s the first step in finding out if your child is getting care she truly needs.

When a parent is questioning whether a diagnosis is accurate, it’s very important to pay attention to those feelings and get further information. You’ll want to ask yourself why you’re questioning the diagnosis.

Is it because you don’t feel the doctor spent enough time thinking about other possible areas of concern? Do you feel your concerns weren’t adequately addressed? Have you tried treatments like ADHD medication and behavior therapy and they haven’t worked?

Maybe you’ve wondered whether the problem is the school environment. Or whether it’s not ADHD at all but another issue that often co-occurs with ADHD, like anxiety, depression or learning issues.

There are many things that go into an effective evaluation for ADHD. It takes more than a quick visit with a professional to do a thorough job. A proper evaluation can’t be done in a one-time, 20-minute appointment.

An evaluation should be done by one of these types of doctors: a child psychiatrist, pediatric neurologist, clinical child psychologist or pediatric neuropsychologist. At the very least, that person should get a history of your child’s development. He should also ask about your child’s current symptoms and the impact they have on her daily functioning.

The evaluation should use quantifiable data through parent and teacher ratings scales. You should feel that all your concerns were addressed. And the doctor should have considered other diagnoses and whether your child’s behaviors are normal for her age.

That’s just the bare minimum to get an appropriate diagnosis.

So what can you do if you question your child’s diagnosis? The very first thing is to contact the doctor who made it. Ask why the diagnosis is appropriate and what information he used. Also ask how confident he is that your child has ADHD and not something else (or nothing at all).

What if you’ve discussed this at length with your doctor and you still have questions? The best thing to do is to get more information on what might be going on with your child. Getting a second opinion is a good idea. A comprehensive evaluation might be an option. These look at many different areas of functioning, not just attention.

A comprehensive evaluation would include:

  • A thorough review of your child’s development.
  • Testing of academic ability (to determine whether a learning issue might be present).
  • Testing of executive functioning skills, which include things like attention, working memory, planning and organization.
  • Rating scales completed by parents and teachers that evaluate your child’s behavioral and emotional functioning (to determine whether something such as depression or anxiety might be present).

Depending on what the evaluator notices, and the age of your child, the evaluator might also assess motor skills, language and social skills.

No matter why you’re questioning your child’s diagnosis, the best remedy is more information. A second opinion or comprehensive evaluation may shed new light on your child’s attention issues.

Don’t forget to get information from your child’s teacher as well. The teacher spends a lot of time with your child, and sees her in an environment you and the evaluator don’t spend much time in.

About the Author

Portrait of Ellen Braaten

Ellen Braaten is the director of the Learning and Emotional Assessment Program at Massachusetts General Hospital.

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