What causes ADHD in children?

At this time, most scientists all agree that it’s hard to say what causes ADHD in children. Many studies have been made which suggests that genes are an important factor, and that the disorder is most likely hereditary.

These discoveries does point science in the medical direction, but at the same time some are also looking at factors such as how environmental and social situations could cause or worsen ADHD in a very young age. When it comes to medicine, Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS), cigarette smoking and other reckless behavior by the mother during the pregnancy could very well cause ADHD, since it has been proven to cause other intellectual disabilities. On the other hand, social factors like high stress, feelings of insecurity and trauma in the early years of life could cause a child to develop ADHD symptoms.

The National Institute of Mental Health has published a booklet called Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), in which these theories are explained in more detail.

Genetic causes

Researchers have been tracking specific genes looking for a cause of ADHD for years. Finding a genetic cause would enable the scientists to one day preventing the symptoms of ADHD before they show up.

Unfortunately, the results of several studies suggest that while there are physical differences in the brain which are specific among children with suspected ADHD, as many of these children grow up the abnormalities in the brain improved. This suggests that the reduced thickness of brain tissue, which is what the studies found, may not actually be the cause of the disorder, but actually a cause of some of the symptoms which will not be noticeable later in life.

Dietary causes

It has been suggested that the diet could be a part of why children develop attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Mostly, the criticized components of a child’s diet is sugar and food additives.

Sugar has been largely ruled out as the cause of ADHD, since a study was carried out in which children were fed both regular sugar and sugar substitutes each day, and did not show any unnatural signs of attention problems. However, since the disorder consists of so many symptoms, leaving the affected very sensitive to outside factors, less sugar could very well help the development of the child.

Recently, a study was made which indicates that food additives could have an impact on children which causes ADHD. A multitude of food these days contains preservatives and artificial colors. These substances have been tested on animals and humans alike for short term effects, but the long term effects are harder to pin down.

Some books have been written which claim that a healthy diet can not only still the symptoms of the disorder, but also prevent it from showing up altogether. While this is not scientifically proven, most would agree that feeding your child healthy food would in any way provide better chances for the child. Since researchers are unsure of what is the exact cause of ADHD and the learning disabilities it causes, why take any chances? The health care industry unanimously state that a healthy diet is always preferable to a child, rather than high fat food with sugar additives and unnatural preservatives.

Environmental factors

During the pregnancy, the fetus is especially sensitive to anything the mother is subjected to. While it is widely known that a pregnant woman should neither drink nor smoke, approximately one in every 1000 children in the western world (Europe and the USA) are born with birth defects due to alcohol or other substance abuse, including cigarette smoke.

Another factor which has been linked to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder is children who are exposed to lead, from paint or pipes in the plumbing systems of old buildings. As it turns out, this could mean ADHD is also a socioeconomic factor, since poor families have problems making sure the environment in which their child grows up is suitable for them.


So what causes ADHD in children? As we can see, this is a highly disputed subject, and unfortunately frustrated parents of hyperactive or inattentive children will have to wait for science to figure that out. As is the case with many disorders, it could take many years still before we have an answer to this question. Granted, testing theories to rule out the ones which are incorrect is the only way to find a cure to help people live with their disorder, and it would be unwise to jump to conclusions when dealing with millions of people who feel and perform differently from others.

Tim Fawcett

Meet the author

Dr. Tim Fawcett has a Ph.D in behavioral sciences and works at the Institute of Biological and Environmental Sciences at the University of Aberdeen, in Scotland. He has conducted and co-authored several scientific studies regarding child health, ADHD and bipolar disorder. He also publishes articles for AllAboutADHD.com, to reach a wider audience.