For much of the past three years, I've been struggling to focus on distraction.
I began this effort after my son, now 15, and I were diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, within just a few months of each other. This, in fact, is becoming a common coming-of-middle-age story for baby boomer parents. In recent years, researchers have found evidence to suggest that ADHD is nearly as hereditary as height. What that means is that, for every clinically distracted child, there is also likely a mother or father, or both, having an equally hard time.
Sometimes the results are comic, like the few months I tried keeping detailed "reward charts" to encourage my son on a variety of problematic tasks, such as getting out of bed on time in the morning. (The charts became more and more convoluted, and we ended up arguing endlessly over the payoffs my son claimed.) But they can just as easily be heartbreaking, like when I realized I hadn't hugged my son in more than a year.
The rate of new ADHD diagnoses in the Western world is reaching epidemic levels, as attested by the recent U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report estimating that one in 10 American children - a total of 5.4 million - has been handed that label. Some experts question the reason for the rise, suggesting many kids are being diagnosed unnecessarily. Yet, there's also solid research to suggest that possibly millions of children aren't getting the help they need.
Scientists have made great progress in recent years in identifying the roots of this neurological disorder. Evidence points to a core problem in the way the brain uses dopamine, a key neurotransmitter, or chemical messenger, affecting attention and motivation. Researchers have also documented the often-devastating toll of this disorder, in terms of above-the-norm numbers of academic failures, teen pregnancies, car crashes, divorces, crimes and suicides. Where much more progress is needed is in effective treatment.
I was uniquely blessed, three years ago, to get a book contract that let me make my effort to solve my family crisis my full-time job. This involved a journey through what I've come to think of as the ADHD Industrial Complex, made up not only of the powerful pharmaceutical industry, but an emerging, lucrative and mostly unregulated industry of non-drug alternatives, including such far-out treatments as custom-made contact lenses, magnetic mattresses, hair-follicle analysis and, I kid you not, swimming with dolphins.
A potent combination of distraction, impulsivity and desperation has made parents like me easy marks for an often unscrupulous sales force. Amazon's "one-click" button had to have been invented for folks like us! Yet, what I discovered is that some of the best interventions cost little or nothing. While meds can help in a crisis, they can't be relied on as a single or life-long strategy. A regular program of aerobic exercise, on the other hand, can be a godsend. So can helping your child find situations where he or she can shine, since, often, the greatest toll of ADHD is on someone's self-esteem. Not least is for parents to become a lot more educated about this bewildering but very real disorder, so as to be the best possible advocate for their children, in and out of school.
It takes a lot of cultivating focus, and a lot of work on staying calm. The good news for parents is that both of these pursuits can bring potential payoffs long after Junior leaves home.
Katherine Ellison is a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist and author of Buzz: A Year of Paying Attention. More information can be found at www.katherineellison.com.