Brain and Behavior

Parents May Help Prevent ADHD Symptoms From Developing

Although most developmental psychologists are in agreement that temperament, the brain’s executive functions, and parenting are all interconnected factors in the development of childhood ADHD symptoms, a new study indicates that parents be able to adapt their style to help moderate the development of symptoms.

The Research on Preventing ADHD

A team of researchers from the University of Waterloo followed 291 children from 4 months of age to 15 years old, with the following milestone assessments:

• Observation of child temperament and parent-child interactions at 3 years old

• Assessment of the child’s executive functioning at 4 years old

• Analysis of parent-reported ADHD symptoms 6 times between the ages of 5 and 15

Specific factors that predicated a higher chance of ADHD symptoms included “exuberance,” that is, a temperament characterized by high excitement, curiosity, positive responses to unfamiliar people and context. This child temperament, combined with family factors, appeared to predispose some kids to develop ADHD symptoms.

The scientists determined that temperament and parenting work together to impact a child’s developing executive functions. More specifically, they found that with young children with an excitable or exuberant temperament, parents could adapt their parenting style in order to help moderate the potential for developing ADHD.

But why would these traits—which could also be perceived as positive, especially in toddlers, be of concern? Because research has shown that exuberant children often tend to have difficulties with self-regulation and executive functions, such as flexible thinking and working memory. In addition, the team found that ADHD symptoms increase throughout childhood when there’s early exuberance and low to normal executive function, combined with less directive and engaged parenting as the young child navigates new situations.

“Symptoms of ADHD typically stabilize from ages 5 to 9 and decrease from ages 9 to 15,” explains University of Waterloo Developmental Psychology Professor Dr. Heather Henderson, who was a co-author of the study. “But for predictable cases of very young children with exuberant temperament and less directive parenting, that stabilization may not occur. This work demonstrates that parents can really help break down the pathways that lead to ADHD through more directive and engaged parenting behaviors, such as guidingthe child with verbal and physical cues as they encounter new situations.”

The study was published in the journal Research on Child and Adolescent Psychopathology.

Directive and engaged parenting

In broad terms, the four types of parenting styles are:

• Uninvolved/neglectful: generally detached from their child’s life; sometimes fulfilling basic needs

• Permissive: warm and nurturing but with limited rules or expectations

• Authoritarian: strict rules without explanation; less nurturing, high expectations with limited flexibility; mistakes often lead to punishments

• Authoritative: nurturing; clear guidelines for expectations that are explained to help kids understand; open communication; children often have input into goals and expectations; any discipline is usually for support, not punishment

Of the four types of parenting, almost all experts agree that authoritative parenting leads to the healthiest outcomes for children. This is due to the fact that authoritative parenting often results in children, teens, and (later) adults who are able to self-regulate their emotions, who have higher self-esteem, and who are responsible and independent in accomplishing their goals. In addition, these children usually have a high level of academic achievement and school performance.

While authoritarian parenting can also be directive, it often comes with demands and a lack of responsiveness in terms of listening to the child’s wants, needs, or questions. Authoritative parenting, however, uses engaging and directive behaviors to guide children. This might include talking to a child about right and wrong, teaching them what behaviors are appropriate for different settings and why, or talking about boundaries and personal space and setting clear but fair and reasonable ules about consequences.   


Wendy Burt-Thomas writes about the brain, mental health and parenting.

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