ADHD or Stress?

Jerrod’s pediatrician took him off stimulant drugs for ADHD—and all the other medications he was on.

Jerrod had been excessively hyperactive and impulsive, unable to focus on even the simplest schoolwork.

The drugs helped hyperactivity but Jerrod still didn’t pay much attention to school. His grades were still lousy.

Some days the combination of drugs made Jerrod sleepy and spaced out. At least he wasn’t getting into trouble every day.

Now Jerrod’s a happy 9-year-old, doing much better in school than last year, and rarely gets into trouble. What happened?

When Jerrod was given Ritalin for ADHD, his Mom, Estella, was in an abusive relationship. She had an on-again, off-again minimum-wage job. At her wit’s end, exhausted and unhappy, Estella was unable to pay much attention to her kids, except for daily, relentless yelling and screaming. When she wasn’t yelling at her kids, her boyfriend was.

Jerood’s teacher, sensing that Jerrod was living in a stress-filled home, alerted the school’s social worker who called Estella. At the meeting, the school social worker, Catherine, talked about how poorly Jerrod was doing in school and asked Estella to help him.

Estella wasn’t sure how to help and admitted being worried about the side effects of all the drugs Jerrod was on. Catherine suggested she get some help and gave her information about available community services. Estella followed through

She took a parenting class, learned not to yell at her kids, and got the self-confidence to leave the abusive relationship. From there, she was able to get into a part-time job-training program for a higher-paying job.

Things aren’t perfect for Estella, Jerrod and the other kids in the family but enough better that Jerrod no long has “ADHD.”

Obviously Jerrod didn’t have ADHD in the first place even though he’d been on Ritalin since he was six. His behavior was caused by his stressful home environment.

Before kids get prescriptions for stimulant medication, look at what’s going on at home. A divorce? Unemployment? Mom or Dad seriously ill? Death in the family? Mom and Dad constantly arguing and yelling at each other?

Even less obvious situations at home are stressful enough to cause some kids to act as though they have ADHD: chaos, everybody in the family involved in too many activities, confusion, always being late, never having tasks done on time, unconscious lack of consistent attention to kids.

Stress doesn’t cause ADHD although it can make it worse. But stress often causes ADHD-like behavior and without thorough evaluations by pediatricians, psychologists, and psychiatrists, kids are often prescribed medication for disorders they don’t have.

In addition to stress, other common conditions can also cause behavior that looks like ADHD and lead to prescriptions for medication kids don’t need.

Find out about 12 other factors that can cause hyperactive, impulsive, and inattentive behavior by getting your free copy of “Maybe It Isn’t ADHD After All.” Just go to

Leave a comment? Have you ever discovered that what you thought was ADHD turned out to be something else?


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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. Carolyn says:

    My personal experience was quite the opposite. I spoke to my school psychologist recently after spending the past 3 years of high school, and countless years of school before that, losing assignments, running late for class, forgetting homework, spacing out during lessons, forgetting about tests, and even forgetting a sock or two some days. I was told that I was just stressed and that I needed to work harder. I was a straight A student enrolled in 5 AP classes, yes it is a bit stressful, but now I am under more stress approaching finals with a B average for the first time in my life because I cant just compensate anymore.

    • I certainly empathize with you. Guess I don't quite understand why the answer to being stressed out is to work even harder! And 5 AP classes is a very heavy load. Hope you can figure out ways to feel less stressed. Vigorous physical exercise like running helps some high school kids, for example.

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