Possible Causes of ADHD

By Amanda Morin

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ADHD is one of the most common childhood brain-based conditions. Researchers still don’t know the exact cause, but they do know that genes, differences in brain development and some outside factors like prenatal exposure to smoking might play a role. Find out more.

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Genes and Heredity

Researchers looking into the role of genetics in ADHD say it can run in families. If your biological child has ADHD, there’s a one in four chance you have ADHD too, whether it’s been diagnosed or not.

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Differences in Brain Development

There are various areas of the brain that control your child’s ability to do things like “hit the brakes” and pay attention. Studies show that these areas may develop more slowly or be less active in kids with ADHD. The best evidence for this occurs in the front part of the brain, or the frontal lobe.

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Differences in Brain Chemistry

For us to maintain focus and control our impulses, our brain uses several important brain chemicals. Scientists call them “neurotransmitters.” They include norepinephrine and dopamine. These chemicals travel in complex circuits. They direct our attention and other important cognitive and behavioral processes. Scientists suspect that when someone has ADHD, the circuits may not be organized or “wired” in a typical way. This can make it hard to use certain brain chemicals effectively.

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Brain Injuries and Epilepsy

Children who’ve had traumatic brain injuries or who have epilepsy but who don’t have ADHD can often have ADHD-like symptoms. The number of children who have ADHD and have also experienced a brain injury is small. Researchers aren’t sure whether epileptic seizures can cause brain changes that trigger ADHD or if the two conditions simply coexist.

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Environmental Factors

Some external factors affecting brain development have also been linked to ADHD. Prenatal exposure to smoke may increase your child’s risk of developing ADHD. Exposure to high levels of lead as a toddler and preschooler is another possible contributor.

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One Thing That Doesn’t Cause ADHD

While researchers continue to search for possible causes of ADHD, one thing is clear: Your parenting skills aren’t the cause. ADHD doesn’t come from a lack of discipline or concern. It’s a brain-based biological condition. By loving and accepting your child, you can be the most powerful positive force in your child’s life.

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6 Types of Fun Fidgets for Kids With ADHD

Fidgets can help some kids with ADHD focus better. They’re not “one size fits all,” however. Different types of fidgets can meet different sensory needs. You can see which work best for your child, and then talk to the teacher about using them in class.

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5 Common Myths About ADHD

There are a lot of misconceptions about ADHD (also known as ADD). This can make it hard to know what’s true and how best to support your child. Here we separate myth from fact to help you feel more confident in your ADHD knowledge.

About the Author

Portrait of Amanda Morin

Amanda Morin is a parent advocate, a former teacher and the author of The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education.

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Portrait of Bob Cunningham

Bob Cunningham, Ed.M., serves as advisor-in-residence on learning and attention issues for Understood.

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