What Causes ADHD?

I've heard teachers say, "All the kids in my class have ADHD." Of course, that's not true but I'm sure it must seem like it.

And how many times have you said "Oh, I was just so ADHD today"? Or maybe you've said, "If my kids would just stop running around like they have ADHD"?

ADHD is a common term. Some of us, especially those with kids who aren't working up to their potential, use the term "ADHD" or "ADD" all the time.

Usually we mean that our kid is being hyperactive and can't pay attention. Or our child is dreamy and never seems to know what's going on.

In addition to how often we use the terms, it also seems like every expert (and lots of non-experts) has their pet theory of what causes ADHD.

A few of these theories that have been blamed for "causing" ADHD include

  • Poor diet and too much junk food
  • Allergies to artificial coloring (and flavoring)
  • Bad parents
  • Traumatic Brain Injury
  • Vaccinations
  • Too much TV
  • Too many video games
  • School is boring
  • School is too hard
  • Learning disabilities
  • Right-brain kid in a left-brain world
  • Lead poisoning

None of the above "cause" ADHD but they can cause behavior that looks like ADHD. And many of these factors when corrected will help with both ADHD and ADHD-like behavior.

ADHD and Diet

Sometimes it's hard to sort out. For example, children with what researchers thought was ADHD have been put on the Feingold Diet.

The Feingold diet promoters suggest that poor diet causes ADHD and a better diet will "cure" it. This somewhat complicated elimination diet does help lots of kids. In some children, it eliminates ADHD symptoms totally. In other kids curb the symptoms a lot. But that doesn't mean that bad diet caused ADHD.

All we can really say is that a poor diet can cause ADHD-like symptoms, And that a nutritious diet often goes a long way in helping with both ADHD-like symptoms and ADHD itself.

If, however, a child's ADHD-like symptoms go away entirely after eating more nutritious food, they didn't have ADHD in the first place. They had behavior caused by their brain getting too few nutrients and that looked like ADHD.

ADHD Drugs for ADHD-like Behvior?

The distinction between ADHD and ADHD-like symptoms is important since stimulant drugs are not appropriate for ADHD-like symptoms. These drugs may, however, be appropriate for ADHD.

It's always important to rule out factors that can cause ADHD-like behavior before putting kids on ADHD meds.

Unless these factors are ruled out, we put our kids at risk of taking powerful drugs for a condition they don't have. For a list of 12 of these factors that can cause ADHD-like behavior, you can get immediate access to the checklist "Maybe They Don't Have ADHD After All" at by signing up over in the right-hand side bar toward the top of the page.

On the other hand, most non-drug alternatives will help with both ADHD-like symptoms and ADHD so the actual diagnosis doesn't make that much difference.

Non-drug strategies, programs and activities can help kids pay attention and focus. Can help them to be less hyperactive or less dreamy. Can help them from being so impulsive.

Now these children can reach their potential in school without that pesky ADHD behavior getting in the way.

Be sure to leave us a comment? What experience have you had with ADHD at your house?

Discover 12 conditions that look like ADHD and ADD but aren't. Sign up now!

About Dr. MaryJo Wagner

MaryJo Wagner, PhD, helps you help your kids transform ADHD behavior for success. Sign up at Coaching & Accountability to get your questions answered with a complimentary Transformation Session.


  1. My daughter has ADHD and so do I. I lived it with pretty well though. I made good grades all during school, never got into trouble and didn't get diagnosed until I was 24. My girl on the other hand got kicked out of every daycare in the county! She has been to therapy and has took meds. The meds have by far been the best route for her.

    • Glad the meds are helping. You might want to try some of the non-drug alternatives too. With many kids, including those whose symptoms are pretty severe, lots of daily vigorous physical activity will help. As will less TV, esp. before school and before bedtime.

    • My son just got diagnosed with ADHD anmd I have always wondered if I have it because even thought I did well in school as you did Stacie... I have SO many of the symptoms and I cant seem to keep my house clean, pay bills on time etc... Group Health did a cursory eval with a counselor and deicided I don't have it since I did well in school. I have, however, heard that girls of express the symptoms differently than boys and so often go undiagnosed through school... especially when you had parents like mine who only took you to the doctor if you had a severed limb or something.
      Good to hear feedback about meds... I am terrified of putting my seven year old son on stimulant meds. I'm so scared of the side effects!

      • Stimulant drugs can help. Not every child will have side-effects. Get several medical opinions and do your research. I think there are many options that can help with ADHD but certainly don't say "NO" to using the drugs if that's what is necessary.

  2. Carinda Habig says:

    Amen on that one doc!! I am the principal of a school for children with add/adhd and being add myself I can only salute my doctor who introduced me to the correct medicine and help me to cope with myself and 120 vibrant, lovely children!! Parents please don't just say NO to medication because of what you hear... There are 2 sides of a coin.

    • Thanks for your good comment. Glad the meds are working for you. They aren't for everyone. They're wildly over-prescribed and wrongly prescribed. But for those who truly need them, what a difference the correct meds can make!

  3. There are so many potential "causes" to ADHD out there it can get quite overwhelming! There is yet another study that was just published last month that suggests prenatal and/or childhood exposure to fluoride can increase the likelihood of developing ADHD. The fluoride exposures apparently alter the norepinephrine and dopamine levels during development which adversely affects cognitive skills such as concentration.

    Check it out to read more about it: http://www.hbhcoaching.com/link-between-adhd-and-fluoride/

    Or you can view the original study here: http://www.ehjournal.net/content/pdf/s12940-015-0003-1.pdf

    • Yes, you are so right, Cameron. There are 3 dozen or so that I know of. But I believe that some "causes" cause ADHD-like behavior but not "real" ADHD. So when you correct for something like allergy to Red Dye 40 or lack of sleep or terrible diet or . . . , the ADHD symptoms go away. Thanks for commenting and for the good links.

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