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Is Your Child's ADHD Your Fault?

A new study looks at the parent's role in kids "outgrowing" ADHD symptoms.

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Could a child's ADHD be your fault?

A new study published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology says just maybe parents are to blame for their child's Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Specifically, how critical a parent is of her child, and how emotionally involved she is, may have an impact on whether teens "grow out of" the disorder.

Over the course of three years, researchers at the Florida International University looked at 515 families with kids ages 7 to 11, including some who have ADHD and some who do not. It's worth noting that 69 percent of the ADHD participants were boys, 79 percent were white, and 75 percent lived in two-parent households.

More than 6.4 million kids suffer from ADHD in the U.S. The overall makeup of the study group, 30 percent of which had the inattentive type, and 70 percent of which had the inattentive hyperactive type of the disorder, reflected that of the general population, according to the study.

Using surveys filled out by parents and teachers, the team, led by Erica Musser, an assistant professor of psychology, and funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, aimed to understand changing symptoms and their relationship to parental criticism and emotional involvement.

Life with ADHD and Sensory Processing Disorder

One specific thing researchers looked at were two separate five-minute speech samples that asked parents to talk about their relationship with their kid. The samples were assessed for certain keywords and phrases. The example used in The Washington Post contrasts, "Charlie is a really bad kid. He's always getting into trouble," with "Charlie sometimes does bad things." The first would yield a higher score for being critical than the second.

"The shift there is about talking about the behavior critically versus the child," Musser says. "This was one of the key aspects of the parent-child relationship that seemed to be affecting stability and change."

When a parent cried; described themselves and their child as if they were one and the same; expressed extreme, self-sacrificing thoughts; or showed overprotectiveness, parental emotional overinvolvement was noted by researchers.

Surprisingly, so-called parental emotional overinvolvement did not seem to increase the risk of kids continuing ADHD behavior into their teen years. However, highly critical parenting did increase that risk.

Teens who don't "outgrow" their symptoms are thought to be at a higher risk for drug abuse and addiction, school dropout, criminality, and antisocial behavior into adulthood.

Musser hopes this study will help parents overcome highly critical behaviors that may impact their children. Notably, she admits the research is observational so there's no way to know whether it's the criticism that's influencing ADHD symptoms, or the reverse. It's also important to mention some kids with highly critical parents saw their symptoms decrease, so there are clearly other environmental and genetic factors at play.

The takeaway: Having a child with ADHD is extremely challenging. Judging a parent for struggling to cope with the disorder is not the aim of the study. Rather, it seems this research is meant to encourage parents to refrain from being too critical of their child. If you need help changing your behavior, talk to a psychologist who can help you adopt positive coping techniques instead.

What's your take?

Melissa Willets is a writer/blogger and a mom. Follow her on Twitter (@Spitupnsuburbs), where she chronicles her love of exercising and drinking coffee, but never simultaneously.