I regularly hear from other adults, “Aren’t we all a little ADD?” or “I think everyone has ADHD, just look at how we are all on our phones and computers all the time.” After hearing these types of comments numerous times and fielding more and more questions around increased numbers of ADHD cases in kids, I began to wonder if it is possible to “give” your child ADHD.
What we know from years of academic studies and anecdotal historical information, is that ADHD is in fact passed along in families. Whenever something is passed along in generations with such regularity, we start to look for genetic causes. At this point, there is a general consensus ADHD does have genetic roots. However, the question still stands around whether you can “give” your child ADHD, meaning can you cause the disorder in your child by accident? There are not clear studies pointing to this. However, there are important theories that when combined make a pretty strong argument that is in fact possible, to a point.
The general idea is that by not adequately attuning and being present with your child, you can damage their development and create attention problems over time. This can happen due to being glued to your phone or too frenetic to slow down and pay attention to your kids. We do know that poor attachment with a parent or primary caregiver can be extremely damaging. Dr. Gabor Maté has written extensively about this in his book on ADHD called “Scattered Minds” and in his book on attachment called “Hold on to Your Kids.” Maté actually goes as far as to say that ADHD is not a genetic disorder, but rather a disorder of attachment and attunement with parents. His theory is counter to that of most academics and members of the medical community. However, there may be something to it if we use another theory in concert.
Let’s look at the widely accepted theory of Mirror Neurons. These special nerve cells in the brain allow us to experience empathy, read emotions, and learn through imitation. In fact, they are so powerful that I have been routinely working to activate audience members mirror neurons during my lectures and trainings. This allows me to communicate in a much more meaningful and deep way. The way I do this, is to display emotion while sharing information, and it works great. So, think about what might be happening for a child who’s parent is spaced out starring at an iPhone or drooling on the TV remote? Or a child who goes to greet mom or dad after school, looking for a hug, just to find the parent is checked out on their tech of choice. What then? The reality is that this type of pattern, if it happens regularly can be damaging. Think about it. What is the child’s mind mirroring? What are they learning? Their brain is likely building pathways of disconnection from emotion, from deep focus, from attachment with others. To make matters worse, in the absence of the parental attunement and presence, the child will probably be permitted to engage in the same behaviors around technology. This pattern will create a closed loop of learning, neuronal development(or lack of), and the road to problems later in life will be laid.
To take a powerful quote from Dan Siegel, MD of UCLA “Relationships with a selective few adults, not sensory flooding, are the most important form of experience for the growing mind. Adults who are sensitive to a child’s signals, who can offer consistent and predictable behaviors, and who care about the child’s internal experiences are those that are likely to foster a secure attachment.”
What does all of this tell us? First off, their are millions of people with ADHD that clearly have a family history of it that has nothing to do with modern technology and large body of evidence that ADHD is likely genetic. However, when children are developing, their brains are growing at a rapid rate and the development of their Executive Functions (planning, execution, strategic thinking etc.) are critical to their success in life. Deficits in the Executive Functions are at the core of ADHD. So, it seems to make logical sense that if a child’s primary caregiver is obsessively checking their phone, surfing the web, and disconnecting from their child in order to get their tech fix, they may in fact be causing their child harm. I think the argument could actually be made that checking out on your kid to check in with your phone is a mild form of neglect. If you are depriving your child of what they need to develop a healthy brain, then yes, you may be “giving” your child many traits of ADHD that may last into adulthood.
Put down your phones and pick up your kids. Hold them tight, give them your attention, their minds are developing and you can be powerful in shaping them.
Note: Many of these patterns can be echoed in a parent with adult ADHD. If you are interested in tackling your adult ADHD, check out our video series Learn to Thrive with Adult ADHD.