Divorce Increases ADHD Rates Among Children
> 6/5/2007 2:17:27 PM

Going through a divorce and living with an ADHD child can both be trying experiences, and new research further illuminates the problematic relationship between those two variables: not only are parents with ADHD children more likely to end their marriage, but after a divorce, children are nearly twice as likely to be prescribed drugs designed to treat the disorder.

Previous research has indicated that children living in one-parent or step-parent homes are more likely to demonstrate ADHD characteristics and eventually receive prescriptions for methylphenidate (Ritalin). Some of these children, however, have never experienced divorce if parents are either unmarried or deceased, so researchers on the current project considered only children whose parents divorced during the time table constituting the study. Divorce has traditionally led to increased behavioral problems among affected children, which may in turn make a child more likely to be prescribed methylphenidate. Age, gender, and socioeconomic status also play debatably significant roles in determining which kids will later need the medications.

In order to control for these statistical variations, University of Alberta researchers drew subjects from a pool of children chosen from more than 13,000 Canadian households participating in the semi-annual National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth. They then tracked the progress of these children for a six-year period, excluding those whose status made them ineligible and limiting subjects to those whose ages at the study's inception were between 2 and 7 as that age range is the one during which ADHD diagnoses are most common. More than 13% percent of those children experienced a divorce during the period in question, and the study's most significant finding was that those who did were nearly twice as likely to receive prescriptions for methylphenidate during the same period.

This percentage did not differ among those who transitioned into a step-parent environment and those whose parents did not remarry, implying that a positive change in living situation did not remedy previously diagnosed cases of ADHD. Younger children in the study were slightly more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD, and researchers attributed this finding to the fact that divorces occur most often during the early years of a marriage.

Unfortunately, the open-ended nature of this experiment allows for very little in the way of concrete conclusions. It simply offers alternative explanations, all of which probably have some degree of bearing on the trend. Because ADHD is heavily influenced by genetics, and adults growing up with the disorder generally find it more difficult to maintain a successful marriage, one theory reads that the divorced adults themselves were considerably more likely to suffer from ADHD, but their status was not taken into account. Researchers also did not ask parents whether their children had ever been treated for emotional or neurological difficulties in the past. Some may have simply no longer been taking their previous medications when they study began. Another distinct possibility is that a number of the children involved began taking the drug in response to behavioral problems which had been exacerbated by divorce, implying incorrect or adapted diagnoses. Again, this explanation is all but impossible to measure. Researchers also speculate that the increase in prescriptions may have, in part, been due to increasing psychiatric attention given to these children in the wake of divorce.

The central theme of this study's conclusions is the importance of maintaining familial cohesion during the formative years. Sobering statistics already reveal that ADHD children, on reaching adolescence and adulthood, are exponentially more likely to engage in drug abuse, become involved in problem relationships, suffer from bipolar disorder, and die in automobile accidents than the general public. They are also less likely to graduate from high school or attend college and have a much higher (five times) incidence of behavioral infractions and time served in juvenile detention facilities. This study implies that, aside from genetic predispositions or pre-existing conditions, children who endure the trauma of divorce simply display higher rates of attention-deficit afflictions, which then leave them more likely to enter unsuccessful marriages themselves (though the line drawn here is a tentative one). Whether this is due to emotional changes in the developing brain or any number of other factors remains unclear, and more research is clearly needed on the topic. But parents should be aware that divorce leaves their children more susceptible to the undesirable influence of ADHD and the medications ordered to regulate it.

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