It's in the genes:The ADHD connection between father & son
Dr. Lee Ann Grisolano | 06.07.13
Medical science has spent decades looking for answers to neurobehavioral syndromes like Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). There is still no definitive solution but researchers can come to an inevitable conclusion – there is a genetic component at work. This is a critical finding because ADHD exists in virtually every country in the world. Since ADHD affects more boys than girls, on a scale of 3 to 1 according to pioneer in the field Russell Barkley, PhD., fathers with ADHD may be the culprits.
A Little about ADHD
ADHD is a developmental disorder diagnosed in both children and adults. However, while there is overlap, the symptoms can manifest a bit differently in adults with ADHD.
The deficits occur through a number of behaviors:
- Inattention/concentration problems
- Disorganization; lack of forethought or planning
- Initiating and completing projects in a timely manner
- Premature shifting in activities
- Poor time management
- Forgetfulness and losing things (e.g., keys, where the car is parked)
- Impulsive decision making
- Difficulties at work
- Problems with the quality of social interactions
Of course, everyone has any combination of these symptoms from time to time; if you do, this does not mean you have ADHD. Only a qualified healthcare professional can appropriately diagnose ADHD.
Both children and adults with this ADHD have dysregulation of certain neurotransmitters in the brain. The disorder also affects the nerve pathways that control behavior. Simply put, people with ADHD have areas of the brain that function differently.
The disorder begins in childhood, but somewhere between 30 to 70 percent of sons will also be fathers with ADHD.
The Genetic Connection
A number of published studies show a clear link to genetics, but it is not 100 percent conclusive. There may be other factors involved or genetics may not be behind each incident. Some of the most promising research evidence comes from Cardiff University in Wales. Dr. Anita Thayer, M.D. analyzed the DNA from 366 children with ADHD. A comparison with DNA from unaffected patients showed an abnormality in the sequences.
Copy-number variations are structural alterations of DNA. The result is copies of one or more sections of the code within the DNA strand or a deletion of some of the genomes. Think of it this way – if a normal strand reads:
The CNV version might instead look like this:
Z-Y-Y-Y-U-T-V or Z-U-T-V
Thayer’s study shows that the ADHD group of children had larger and more frequent variations. Fathers with ADHD will pass this code discrepancy to offspring. Barkley explains that the heritability of ADHD runs around 80 percent. Genetics account for 80 percent of the components that define ADHD.
Heredity is not the only answer, however. ADHD is a complex condition. Not every child diagnosed with this disorder has copy-number variations. In some cases, prenatal exposure to cigarette smoke, head trauma in utero, or premature delivery may be a factor.
The Father-Son Factor
As a son is being assessed for a diagnosis of ADHD, clinicians like Barkley may suggest assessing the father as well. ADHD always starts in childhood, but is not always diagnosed. Getting the news in adulthood can potentially retrospectively answer many questions. With diagnosis comes treatment and the potential for positive changes.
Self-Concept – ADHD is not at all a matter of having low intelligence or sub-standard motivation. However, it is easy to for someone with ADHD underestimate their intellectual ability level and to unnecessarily feel lazy when it is hard to pay attention, follow through with commitments, show up for appointments on time, stay organized, and maintain behavioral and emotional control when faced with stressful circumstances. For these reasons, demands in the workplace can be extra challenging, causing job dissatisfaction and/or many job changes. Many people who have lived for years with ADHD and have experienced constant job dissatisfaction develop poor self-esteem, and are at risk for depression and anxiety symptoms and/or disorders.
A support system – It is one thing to go on your own when you don’t realize a problem exists, but once a diagnosis is made, a support system becomes critical. A support system may include, but not be limited to, a physician, spouse or significant other, friends and other family members (even kids!), support groups, and other professionals, such as a therapist or ADHD coach. Other adults with ADHD may find support in the workplace or through educational programs. One of the most important people in your support system is YOU! Make sure you are knowledgeable about your ADHD so that you can take an active role in the way that your symptoms can most effectively be managed. Only you know what works, what doesn’t, and what kinds of learning approaches work best for you.
Lifestyle – ADHD is best managed through a plan, not through a single intervention. Working through a support system, particularly a health care team, a management plan can be developed. A psychotherapist may recommend seeing a dietician and increasing exercise. Energetic exercise provides a calming effect on those with restless tendencies, and can also sharpen cognition so that the brain functions more efficiently. It will also be important to set realistic goals for yourself that are specific, realistic, and easily conducive to monitoring progress. Increased communication with your spouse or significant other can also help you work together to ease the stresses and burdens of home life, such as creating a schedule or other reminder system for carrying out household chores, transporting the kids to activities, or making sure that Dads actually schedule in time to do enjoyable activities with their children.
Time management – It is possible the father has always had difficulty managing his time. Without proper identification or treatment of ADHD, he may promise his family that he will attend a school performance, only to show up when the event is over. On days off of work, he may have good intentions of spending leisure time doing something enjoyable with the family, but underestimate the amount of time it will take him to do something else that he has planned to do first. These are just a couple of examples of problematic circumstances dads with ADHD can find themselves in. Regular use of simple time management tools, such as planners, logs, watches, times, apps, and computer monitors can also help to keep schedules organized, as well as improve career options and learning. Some tools can additionally track progress and establish and maintain a routine for completing tasks.
Sleep – A father with ADHD may need to adjust his sleep schedule. Increasing sleep helps improve cognitive function and reduce stress. Reducing stress also reduces irritability, an emotional reaction that even parents without ADHD can target toward their children.
Improved relationships – Individuals with ADHD find it hard to follow through with commitments, think ahead about how decisions they make may affect others around them, and fail to arrive at social engagements on time. Many people with ADHD therefore experience a compromise in the quality of their social relationships, which are very often victims of ADHD. With proper diagnosis and treatment, adults with ADHD can learn to manage these issues.
Compassion for an affected child – Dads who have ADHD are at a distinct advantage of knowing what their sons with ADHD are experiencing. Without rehashing all of the old “war stories,” it can be very helpful for Dads to share some of their experiences with their sons, and let them know they are not unintelligent or lazy. By the same token, Dads with ADHD can also help their sons with the disorder know that ADHD cannot be used as an excuse, and that it is necessary to receive appropriate assistance to help surmount the challenges that may face.
ADHD is a manageable condition, and that matters. Since there is a likely genetic connection, it is natural to look to the father once his son shows signs of the disorder. Together, they can support one another and take on the challenges that life brings as a team.
Dr. Lee Ann Grisolano
About Dr. Lee Ann Grisolano
Dr. Grisolano is a pediatric neuropsychologist who specializes in helping children and their families conquer problems with learning, attention, behavior and emotions. She is also a certified school psychologist who understands the many ways in which neurodevelopmental disorders can create challenges that are barriers to a child’s learning and development.
Dr. Grisolano has extensive clinical practice in school psychology, neuropsychological evaluation and behavioral assessment. She is an experienced college professor, published researcher and accomplished presenter.