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When people think of ADHD, they might think of kids bouncing off the walls, screaming, and running around the house. Maybe instead, it’s a picture of a child fidgeting endlessly at their desk in school. It’s your intelligent teen failing their algebra class because they just couldn’t complete and turn in their homework. It’s your daughter who just learned how to drive, and your fear of her getting distracted on the road and causing an accident. It’s the spoiled food you bought for your teen, going to waste again because they forget it’s there. It’s parents wondering, “Where did we go wrong? What can we do to solve these problems?”

Does that sound familiar? If you have a young adult with ADHD, you know their symptoms extend far beyond stereotypical hyperactivity. You aren’t alone. We work with teens with ADHD and their families every day at BNI Treatment Centers, so we know sometimes parents fear the behavior that comes with ADHD is their fault. That isn’t the case. If parenting isn’t responsible for ADHD, then what is? What contributed to 5.6% of Californian children developing ADHD, and not the other 94.4%? Where does ADHD come from? Scientists don’t have all the answers yet, but there are some known ADHD risk factors.

Does ADHD Run in Families? Genes and ADHD

The short answer is yes. Genetics may account for 74% of ADHD diagnoses. A family member having ADHD doesn’t mean a child will develop it, though. A child may also develop ADHD even if they don’t have a family member diagnosed with the condition. Twin studies have not shown both twins have ADHD 100% of the time, so factors besides genetics contribute, too.

Scientists are still searching for the primary genetic components of ADHD. One of the genes that may contribute is the DRD4 gene. This gene influences how the brain uses dopamine, a neurotransmitter that helps regulate attention. DRD4 has been studied for its potential role in many psychiatric conditions. Certain expressions of the DRD4 gene may be a risk factor for ADHD, and may also partially explain why it is often found alongside other mental health conditions. A certain expression of DRD4 still does not guarantee ADHD, though. Scientists largely agree the condition is genetic to some degree, but that this genetic aspect is caused by multiple genes working together, or maybe more accurately, dysfunctioning together.

What Are the Neurotoxins Linked to ADHD?

Lead is a common neurotoxin found to increase the chances of ADHD in children. Lead exposure is far less common today than it once was, but can still be found in paint in old houses, some old water pipes, some toys, some jewelry, and some medicines and cosmetics from outside the United States. 

Childhood exposure to organophosphate, a neurotoxin used in pesticides, was proven to impact their brain’s development and make ADHD more likely.

Methylmercury, the mercury most well-known to us, is also scientifically proven to contribute to ADHD. All humans have some mercury in their system. This is normal and harmless. More mercury exposure, however, can be very dangerous. People are most frequently exposed to it through fish and shellfish that contain it.

Does Smoking and Alcohol Use During Pregnancy Cause ADHD?

Research has shown smoking and alcohol use during pregnancy can increase the chance of a child having ADHD. Children whose mothers drank alcohol during pregnancy were 1.55 times more likely to develop ADHD, and those whose mothers smoked were 2.64 times more likely to develop it. That being said, prenatal exposure to smoking and alcohol doesn’t guarantee a child will have ADHD, either.

key risk factors for adhd in children and adult

Other ADHD Risk Factors

Scientists have not found the sole cause of ADHD. Two children who are exposed to the same neurotoxins may not both develop ADHD, and even a child whose entire family has ADHD may not have it themselves. Instead, several factors come into play. Additional factors which may make ADHD more likely include:

  • Birth complications. Babies with a low birth weight are more likely to develop ADHD, as are those who were born prematurely. Babies who receive less oxygen to the brain are more likely to develop ADHD later in life. Additionally, there may be a correlation between cesarean-section births and ADHD, but more research is needed to understand why.
  • Brain development. Children with ADHD generally have a smaller brain volume than those without it. Additionally, parts of the brain associated with coordinated movement, emotional regulation, motivation, and reward processing are a little smaller in individuals with ADHD. These differences are more noticeable in children with ADHD than adults, which may indicate the brains of people with ADHD develop more slowly than those without it. People with ADHD may also have different brain networks than those without it, as MRIs found less brain activity in areas related to decision-making, working memory, attention management, timing, and cognitive control. Individuals with ADHD also tend to have less dopamine in their system than those without it, but the relationship between ADHD and dopamine requires more research.
  • Adverse childhood experiences. More research is needed in this area as well, but so far, individuals who experienced childhood trauma are more likely to have ADHD. Children and adults with ADHD are also more susceptible to trauma, so this relationship is still being studied.
  • Traumatic brain injury. 62% of children with traumatic brain injuries went on to develop ADHD later in life, according to one study, indicating traumatic brain injuries as potential contributors to ADHD.

Common Myths: What Doesn’t Cause ADHD

There are many misconceptions about what causes ADHD. The following may worsen ADHD symptoms, but there is not enough evidence to suggest they contribute to the development of ADHD:

  • High sugar consumption
  • Watching television
  • Playing video games
  • Parenting habits
  • Poverty
  • Family chaos
  • Allergies
  • Vaccines

Due to those with ADHD’s tendency to hyperfocus on what interests them, they may watch more TV and play more video games than the average person. In the same vein, those with ADHD are more inclined to snack throughout the day. Instead of these things causing ADHD, it’s more likely ADHD contributes to these habits.

Risk Factors for ADHD: The Bottom Line

ADHD is a condition that manifests through inattentiveness, hyperactivity, inability to sit still, disorganization, trouble following directions, lack of motivation, and difficulty regulating mood. While symptoms typically first begin in childhood, ADHD continues throughout adulthood, and without treatment, can create significant challenges for those living with it.

Scientists have studied ADHD extensively, and have yet to pinpoint a sole factor responsible for ADHD. Instead, it appears there are multiple contributing factors to ADHD, including genetics, environmental factors, trauma, and developmental differences between individuals with ADHD and those without it.

The more scientists study ADHD, and the more they learn about how ADHD develops, the more treatment options will be available. These treatments will only grow more accurate over time thanks to research shedding light on the condition.

understanding genetic and environmental adhd risk

Finding ADHD Treatment for Your Adolescent in the Los Angeles Area

The most common treatment option for ADHD is a combination of medication and behavior therapy, with behavior therapy as the preferred option to try before considering medication. 

When it comes to young children, behavior therapy is just as much for the parent to help their child as it is for the child to develop habits to counter their ADHD. They will also work to improve their social skills and executive function, helping their self-monitoring and organizational skills.

Sometimes it feels like you’ve tried everything, and your child is still experiencing challenges related to their ADHD. If your teen has been living with ADHD for years and is now in need of help, outpatient or residential ADHD treatment with BNI Treatment Centers may be a good next step.

BNI Treatment Centers is a mental healthcare facility for teens. Our teams are led by psychiatrists qualified to treat any mental health condition, with ADHD and any comorbid concerns included. For more on how we can improve your teen’s life, call us at (888) 522-1504.

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