When in Doubt, Blame the Parents: Do Parents Cause ADHD?–UPDATED (AGAIN)

There’s an article circulating from Psychology Today about Why French Kids Don’t have ADHD by Marilyn Wedge, Ph.D. With a few exceptions, the “share” comes with a comment like “Americans always want the quick fix” or “Parents should learn to say no.”  I agree with both of those statements in general. The problem is that neither of them really follow from the evidence presented in the article.

Dr. Wedge asks the question:

“Is ADHD a biological-neurological disorder? Surprisingly, the answer to this question depends on whether you live in France or in the United States.”

In case you didn’t catch that–the author did not provide an answer. She then goes on to detail the way ADHD is treated in America and in France, with a pretty firm bias on the French method that goes hand in hand with the current fashion for all things French. See also: Why French Women Don’t Get Fat, Bringing up Bebe, and Why the French are Superior to Americans in Every Way.

“To the extent that French clinicians are successful at finding and repairing what has gone awry in the child’s social context, fewer children qualify for the ADHD diagnosis. Moreover, the definition of ADHD is not as broad as in the American system, which, in my view, tends to “pathologize” much of what is normal childhood behavior.”

Wedge admits here that the criteria for diagnosing ADHD is much broader in America, which is an indictment of the current medical practice and the DSM-3 (the system of classification of childhood emotional problems that most American psychiatrists use).

So I’m not sure why she makes the next leap that she does, which is to provide a hyper-generalized picture of the way Americans parent that places blame for the ADHD diagnosis on parental sins ranging from offering their kids snacks to not letting their babies cry it out at night.

I cannot help feeling like this is a case of, “When in doubt, blame the parents,” which is, of course, the easy way out (since the monolithic group of parents-who-do-everything-wrong is beyond the reach of reasonable treatment). It also provides a critical platform for people who are annoyed by children in general, and even more so, by sloppy parenting.

Of course Wedge doesn’t provide solid evidence that sloppy parenting really does cause ADHD– just a few anecdotes about how different cultures parent, and their concurrent rates of ADHD diagnosis (Correlation is not causality).

I understand that the world is under no obligation to make me feel more secure in my parenting choices, but if one has never wandered through the cloud of guilt, worry and self-doubt that comes with recognizing that your child –who is so smart, so talented, so funny, and so lovable–cannot succeed at tasks that seem relatively simple for other children, then general prescriptions for how to solve his problems just don’t help that much and are the intellectual parallel of the illusary parents who are dying to medicate their kids.

The decision to use medicine to treat ADHD is not one most parents take lightly. No one wants to “feminize their boys” or turn their child into a submissive zombie, as the popular narrative goes.

Let’s give parents the benefit of the doubt.

Parental guilt is strong enough when our children don’t have learning or behavioral problems.  But when they do, we feel the eyes anytime our child acts weird in public, we hear the whispers, we sense the rush to put away the breakables because that kid is coming over, and that’s not even touching on the pressures that come in from teachers (“His homework? Yes, I watched him do it, but I have no idea what happened to it between home and school.”).

Perhaps one thing the French really do better than Americans is tolerate “normal childhood behavior.”

And if Doctor Wedge would like to work on reforming the way the medical community diagnoses and treats ADHD in America, I would thoroughly welcome her innovations.

 

 

 

UPDATE:

* Elizabeth Scalia appreciates the way French parents set limits for their children. I absolutely agree that the parenting style presented in the article is very good, and one I strive to practice. See here, I am the queen of “no.” My only caveat would be that the ADHD child typically doesn’t respond to these methods, nor any method, for that matter. He’s thinking about something else. Always.

 

*For those who would like to say “Back in my day, no one had this new fangled ADD,” my response is that if you knew someone who always got in trouble in grade school, flunked out of college, couldn’t keep a job, and keeps asking you for money so that he can self-medicate, you probably knew someone with ADD. The difference between today and yester-year is that there are treatments that may prevent this child from becoming the eternal ne’er-do-well.

 

UPDATE II:

Pentimento writes in the comments:

“One of the biggest problems with this assessment is one that neither the writer nor her many apparent admirers have mentioned, which is the stark differences between the French educational system and our own. In America, it is assumed (not always correctly, of course) that every American child is starting out on a level playing field, and that he or she will finish on one. All American children, in theory at least, have legal access to the same educational opportunities. In France, this is not the case. French children are tracked from an early age into either a university-prep or vocational-prep education, based on their performance on certain standardized tests.

In light of this, the %.05 ADHD diagnosis rate should raise flags for us. It’s widely acknowledged that ADHD kids do not perform well on standardized tests unless certain testing accommodations and supports are provided. It’s also well-known that ADHD kids can act up mightily in the classroom, disrupting their own ability to learn. The low rates of French diagnosis very likely have a lot to do with the two-tiered educational system in France and the fact that most “problem” kids will get tracked into vocational ed. It’s a safe bet to assume that these kids get tracked, INSTEAD OF being diagnosed with ADHD.”

About Elizabeth Duffy
  • Pingback: French Kids Rescued from “the tyranny of their own desires…” – UPDATED

  • Nicole DuPlessis

    Oh wow. I think my comment was quoted. That is somewhat annoying–especially since I was thinking of DOCTORS, as a later comment of mine on Melanie’s thread should have made clear, but maybe not. Need to watch myself when Facebooking with bloggers, I guess.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/duffy/ Elizabeth Duffy

      Actually, this article was in my feed so many times today, I have no idea who said what about it. If you want to own it, you’re welcome to, but it was echoed by many, many people.

  • Nicole DuPlessis

    Comments on a Facebook “share” are not necessarily simply responses to the article. They are also responses that proceed from whatever broader contexts the commenter might have. Many things feed into a comment–like recent ailments that were treated symptomatically, to the concern of the person commenting, and the attitude of a particular doctor on a particular occasion with the commenter’s mother in the emergency room. Facebook, even more than other venues, is much less about reaction to material and much more about personal reaction. That is both a fault and, depending on the user, an attraction. Sometimes there is direct engagement with the material that has been shared, other times, not so much. Facebook is less of a public forum for me than others, since I carefully choose my friends. That is *my* fault, I know. But at least it can occasion a little analysis of what is different between a Facebook comment and a blog comment, and why someone might comment in a less formal, engaged way in the former vs. the latter.

  • Nicole DuPlessis

    Frankly, I can’t figure out how to post under my blog name here, or I wouldn’t use my real name.

  • Kimberlie Meyer

    I have four kids that are adopted from overseas. Traditional parenting methods don’t work with them. We recently returned from two weeks at an attachment treatment facility where I learned to parent my children slightly differently than parents with bio children would parent their kids. The thing is, for YEARS, I have beaten myself up as a terrible mother and parenting wimp because my kids didn’t “conform” to how other kids behave. What I found out is that I shouldn’t compare my experience to others’. We are now practicing the four R’s in our house: Respect, Responsibility, Resourceful, and Reciprocal. Kids have to earn privileges based upon the demonstration of these character traits. It’s a bit Love and Logic but it’s mostly setting the bar high and showing my kids they are loved by creating very firm boundaries. All that to say, do for your child what you feel is best for you and your child, not what some researcher or Facebook shares happen to suggest is the “right” way to do it.

  • http://twitter.com/gailfinke Gail Finke

    THANK YOU for this piece. I have a son who has ADHD and I assure you, it’s real and has NOTHING to do with parenting or diet or people wanting boys to behave like girls. Until my son had medication, he was not able to be a reglar boy and enjoy the regular activities boys enjoy — he simply could not pay attention or follow (or REMEMBER) rules. I know many other parents whose kids have ADHD, and this is the case with them as well. There are cases of weird food intolerances causing ADHD symptoms, but they’re rare and remarkable because they ARE rare. And if there is something measurable that French people do that means less ADHD, I wish the author of the original article would provide some proof for that. Psychology Today is a pretty poor place to get actual psychological information so I’m not surprised at the source.

  • http://www.facebook.com/marissaknichols Marissa Nichols

    On the bright side they’re still French and we’re not. One must thank God daily for that. (TOTALLY KIDDING, everyone!). What was I saying? Got a bit distracted…there… must be my parents’ fault…or my Cheetos diet…ooh, Snickers…

  • Pingback: A Conversation With Eugene Ionesco | New blog on creativity

  • http://womanofvalorpsalm39.blogspot.com/ Andrea

    I don’t know if this is helpful, but I was listening to the radio before bed last night where they were speaking about this report on ADHAD. They didn’t compare Americans to the French in the show, but what they did talk about was the high numbers of pupils recored as having ADHD but, when the statistics were looked into more closely, there was seen to be a huge imbalance in each year group with younger children within that year group being consistently diagnosed at higher levels. Perhaps suggesting, as you’ve said, the French may tolerate normal childhood behaviour and therefore differences within the maturity that one school year can bring.

  • Julia at LotsaLaundry

    I feel your pain. My ADHD kid was talking with me the other day and *while I was right there* and *while the meds were working*, the child picked up a highlighter and began to draw on a piece of furniture. It kinda redefined the word inattentive.

    As the FB thingy said:

    If I had a dollar for every time I got distracted,
    I want a puppy.

    One positive: ADHD kids do give parents additional (daily) opportunities to grow in humility.

  • Pingback: When in Doubt, Blame the Parents: Do Parents Cause ADHD?–UPDATED - Patheos (bl... - 3 Steps To Conquering ADHD

  • fats

    there is a difference between childhood misbehaviour and the inability to focus . Having seen firsthand the effects of ADHD in my grandchild, and seen the difference the medications made, it is clear to me that a child with real issues is helped by it. That said, such things as sugar can really bring out the problems, on or off meds. Aside from environmental issues, i suspect such things such as particular types of drug use by some parents has led to some of these issues with their children. When methamphetimine use began, the experts predicted an increase of sociopaths in the children, which didnt happen, but i wonder about more subtle effects . ( please dont construe that comment as applying to all parents)

  • http://www.facebook.com/gretchen.goodrich.5 Gretchen Goodrich

    Thank you so much for your response to the Wedge article, which has been posted three times to my facebook feed already. Here’s my big question – why AREN’T we asking “Why are so many French kids going undiagnosed? Why are French kids not getting the help they need?” I suspect cultural bias, and a tendency to blame the parent and shame the child in France. Any actual French people with hyperactive kids care to weigh in?

    • Isabelle

      See my comment below. What I gather from the tone of many of these comments is a feeling of resentment towards the French. The comparison drawn between two cultures (which is silly) would naturally foster that of course, but can I just say, I don’t think any French person came forward to criticize the American system here or claimed that ours is better.
      To answer your question, my cousin has been diagnosed with ADHD aged 6, he is now treated for it during school hours and fully supported by his school.
      Obviously, I can only talk by proxy here, but my uncle and aunt didn’t feel blamed nor my cousin shamed, although they were definitely relieved at the diagnosis which gave them methods and guidelines on how to best support their son.

  • Ines

    I’m so grateful for your post, Elizabeth: My husband and I were both raised “the French way” before this philosophy became trendy in the States, and we defaulted to raising our kids the same way (strict limits/boundaries, strong emphasis on good manners, good home-cooked meals with little snacking, good sleep habits, fewer child-centered “Disneypartyballoonprincess” activities, etc. etc. etc.)

    Ours are good kids, with normal childhood energy and naughtiness, but that said, one of our sons has ADHD, and it’s a real and distinct thing–something I wish I had dared seek a diagnosis for years earlier (when I knew in my gut something in this kid’s behavior was “off” in a way that had absolutely nothing to do with disobedience, energy, diet, electronics, or whatever other memes have been circling with the rise in ADHD diagnoses).

    Encouraging kids to get out in nature, eat and sleep well, blow off lots of stream, and learn social and moral boundaries, is something crucial, and too-often neglected in our society. But none of those things, good as they are, will “cure” someone like my son, who is hardwired a little differently…

    That’s why I find the linked article (on French kids and ADHD) so disingenous.
    I thank God for our son’s diagnosis, his excellent pediatrician and his brilliant, loving teacher; we are all working hard together to help him succeed, and I only wish that other parents struggling with similarly distracted kids get the help they so desperately need and deserve.

  • DeirdreMundy

    I always wonder if the high rate of ADHD in North America may be selective mating. As in….maybe all the ADHD Frenchmen left to become fur traders (a great ADHD career! Hunter-gathering!), and the low instance of ADHD is a result of sending all their ADHD people here. And maybe the cultural differences are not the CAUSE of less ADHD, but the RESULT of less ADHD.

    ADHD clearly runs in my family. You can see it right back to the moment we got off the boat. But hey, the risk-taking and inability to stick it out are what GOT us on the boat instead of leaving us in Ireland to starve while we waited for the famine to end.

    A lot of what, when it reaches pathological states, is ADHD is also what made America a land of inventors and explorers and revolutionaries……..

    (I’m ADHD. A number of my kids are. And it’s real. I would argue, however, that teachers and coaches push medication way too quickly because they’re unwilling to deal with the hard work of teaching ADHD kids how to cope. They really CAN turn out OK. You just need more time and repition on the life skills like not chewing up pens and making them explode in your mouth,….)

  • Rebecca Fuentes

    I think it’s very common for parents (and teachers) who have no experience with an ADD child to blame the child’s parents for the condition. While I think diet–especially keep super-processed food and artificial colors and flavors away–can help, there also seems to be a genetic connection. I worked with several young people with ADD when I taught–some medicated, some not. It isn’t just normal childhood rambunctiousness or activity; it isn’t just boys being boys. I have seen people comment that a very active or talkative child is ADHD, but it isn’t usually someone who has spent much time with children who actually have that diagnosis.

  • Pentimento

    One of the biggest problems with this assessment is one that neither the writer nor her many apparent admirers have mentioned, which is the stark differences between the French educational system and our own. In America, it is assumed (not always correctly, of course) that every American child is starting out on a level playing field, and that he or she will finish on one. All American children, in theory at least, have legal access to the same educational opportunities. In France, this is not the case. French children are tracked from an early age into either a university-prep or vocational-prep education, based on their performance on certain standardized tests.

    In light of this, the %.05 ADHD diagnosis rate should raise flags for us. It’s widely acknowledged that ADHD kids do not perform well on standardized tests unless certain testing accommodations and supports are provided. It’s also well-known that ADHD kids can act up mightily in the classroom, disrupting their own ability to learn. The low rates of French diagnosis very likely have a lot to do with the two-tiered educational system in France and the fact that most “problem” kids will get tracked into vocational ed. It’s a safe bet to assume that these kids get tracked, INSTEAD OF being diagnosed with ADHD.

    • Isabelle

      Just a small precision, the “tracking” system you refer to happens after a child turns 14. Now, your argument may still be that this is very young, which I won’t dispute, but I find the lack of precision could be very misleading here. Also, my impression is that this article is criticizing putting all parents in one same basket, which is always wrong, and generalizing is at best poor academic practice, so please avoid doing it to the French in response.

  • Alexander S Anderson

    I struggle with this. The two years I spent on ADD medication were some of the worst of my life. It suppressed my appetite, ruined my desire to be social, and all-and-all made me a zombie. My grades remained just as poor during that time and after I dropped the medication. More to the point: the grades were the main issue. My story fits rather well with the “American” picture painted in the piece, and I don’t want it to happen to others. Surely, there are those that really need stimulants, but there’s also plenty of over-diagnosed or over medicated people, like me, and I think we do need to do something about that.

  • Captain Dg

    My two cents: I taught in one of the worst high schools in the SF Bay Area. Special Ed. was a dumping ground. ADHD was as good a reason as any to get these kids in the dumping ground. In such a bad district, parenting was generally in effective at best, so the schools had a free hand guiding the worst to Special Ed. Overall, I guarantee you ADHD is over diagnosed in the US.

  • me

    Thank you for this! I just went on a huge rant on my FB page trying to express exactly what you have written. If only I had seen this earlier I could have just posted it. I thought the article was terrible and can only be used to stigmatize and blame the parents for their child’s condition.

  • shootist MP

    Parents don’t cause ADHD, they fail to train their young men with the proper discipline.

    http://www.jerrypournelle.com/jerrypournelle.c/chaosmanor/

  • Emily

    I’m glad for the second update. I am a teacher and I believe our education system plays a part in the ADD scene. My son is high functioning Autistic and ADHD and he struggles a great deal with a lot of things. He was diagnosed at age 3 and we struggled with diets and other things. He is now in a mainstream school, and we have him on ADHD drugs to fix the busy boy stuff so we can focus on the autism and surround him with socially adept peers. It was not an easy decision, it was one of the hardest ones I have ever made.

  • http://andrewdouglass.com/ Andrew Wells Douglass

    Good article. I’m now not fuming over the Wedge piece. Her name is so apt: the article is designed to drive a wedge between good parents everywhere.

    I think American “weakness” is a great thing. It makes us question the rigidity of just doing the same thing over and over as if condemned. Spanking to fix ADD? Really? I guess it wasn’t that long ago spanking was thought to cure everything.

    The Wedge article is littered with logical inconsistencies and straw men, so no wonder it stirs the pot. It is a standard technique to say nine true things that everyone agrees on (kids shouldn’t eat junk food? drugs don’t fix social problems? some parents are spineless? duh) to imply the tenth is true (ADHD is a myth? wait….). I think the French and American parents stereotyped there agree on a lot more than they disagree. The article’s single biggest abuse to use different standards for diagnosis to suggests that there are different rates of dysfunction.

    My own experience was that diagnosis with ADD at age 36 was liberating, and not because meds fixed everything (I don’t use any). It suddenly provided an explanation (or reconception) for why I had messed up so often for so many years with simple things like deadlines and listening, failings I routinely blamed myself for even as a managed a path of achievement high enough to go to Harvard (I *really* beat up on myself :). The psychological shift between fighting myself as the enemy and this malignant “other” allowed me to just concede, yes, I need three keychains rather than trying with futility to keep track of one (the others always turn up eventually, in a planter or bookcase or somewhere). I am more effective now because I’m not wasting time trying to fix an imagined failure of character.

    Wedge is selling her words. Not truth. The French and Americans under- or overdiagnose, well, the truth obviously lies somewhere inbetween and not with the preposterous idea that ADD doesn’t exist—a notion that, frankly, is child abuse. (And a disservice to quite a few of us adults too!)

    P.S. Grr. I just reread: “French children don’t need medications to control their behavior because they learn self-control early in their lives.” Self-control, eh?

  • Anderson Silva

    The fact that some kids benefit from or require medical treatment for symptoms of ADHD does not negate the fact that overdiagnosis of ADHD and the subsequent medicating of children as standard does disproportionately affect boys. “No one wants to “feminize their boys” or turn their child into a submissive zombie…”

    I’m not sure why you feel justified to speaking for others here, but you seem to only be negating a strawman. The issue isn’t that boys are being medicated BECAUSE they’re boys. The issue is that boys are being diagnosed as having ADHD for exhibiting typical boyish behavior and medicated as a corrective measure. The parents commenting here are more than likely in the group I alluded to before- kids that benefit from of require medical treatment- and of course these kids deserve the chance to make their lives better if their symptoms are so bad that they interfere with life. But in no way have you addressed the idea that ADHD is way overdiagnosed, that ADHD diagnoses are disproportionately boys, and that medication is the standard treatment. In result, it’s not that distinguishable from medicating boys that are a little too…. well, boyish. Yet you just say…. that’s not happening. Nobody is medicating boys for being boys. Do you not see how this response avoids a large part of the issue?


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X