By Ian Kennedy, The True Wellness Center
While there has been extensive research on the causes of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder(ADHD)such as genetics, brain dysfunctions, and environmental issues, researchers have yet to figure out the precise factors that determine why a child develops ADHD.
However, Dr. Gabor Maté theorizes that "tuning out" or the inability to focus or pay attention, including poor impulse control, is neither a disease nor an inheritable syndrome by itself, but rather in many cases a coping mechanism caused by a stressful environment and perhaps even parental interactions that fail to nurture the child’s developing brain.
According to Maté, best-selling author of the book, Scattered Minds: A New Look at the Origins and Healing of Attention Disorder, ADHD originates in early childhood mostly due to parental stresses during the first years of crucial brain development in highly sensitive children.
Research shows the most important feature of the environment that influences the circuits of the childhood brain is the relationship with the parents. And if the parents are present and emotionally attuned and available, the child’s brain develops normally. When a child is encouraged to play, explore, and express themself, the mind functions at its best. If the parents deal with stress well and have a cooperative and loving relationship, the child will naturally thrive.
But if the parents are stressed, or the living environment is chaotic, the child will internalize the stress. To adapt to this they “tune out”. The child will naturally disconnect if the early environment is not supportive or joyful and has high emotional stress. Dr. Maté refers to this as a coping mechanism.
When an adult is under stress, they have two options to relieve it. They can either remove themselves from the stressful environment, or they can fight back: our natural stress response of “fight or flight”. And what does the brain do when it can neither deal with stress through “fight or flight”? The brain disengages from the stressful moment. It loses the ability to focus and the ability for critical thinking. It becomes jittery and fidgety and tunes out its surroundings - which will present as ADD/ADHD.
Researchers have also discovered other clues that may explain the effects of stress on young children. During the developmental ages of two to six years of age, the brain is rapidly growing and developing, and theta brain waves are the dominant wave state. Theta waves are normally associated with deep relaxation, meditation, and light sleep, but in young children, they are associated with important functions such as learning, creating, and consolidating memories. However, studies have shown that children who experience chronic stress often have a disruption of the normal development of theta waves in early childhood, which can last into adolescence or even adulthood. This can lead to attention and memory issues, and emotional dysregulation.
Another consideration in the “tuning out” theory is that many schools are not designed to meet the needs of a child’s developing mind. It has become apparent that John D. Rockefeller was greatly responsible for establishing the current learning system; he created the General Education Board (G.E.B.)at $129 million. The G.E.B. provided significant funding for schools across the nation and was very influential in shaping the current school system of education. He said he needed the educational system to "produce workers, not thinkers." He and Carnegie applied this same concept to medicine and medical schools regarding the financial need for long-term patients instead of promoting healthy diets and exercise that might keep people healthy without the need for pharmaceuticals.
Once a child goes off to school, there are new challenges and stressors, and the old compensation mechanism of “tuning out” kicks in. It appears that they can not concentrate or listen in class. A child can spend six or seven hours under artificial conditions in schools, emphasizing memorization instead of learning how to learn. The old model of reading, memorizing, and repeating is outdated. Albert Einstein said to never remember that which you can look up, and today we can look up anything at the touch of a phone screen.
Some schools today, such as the Acton Academy schools, encourage children to discover how they learn and what they find interesting. Many classes are outdoors, and the children take responsibility for success and failure. These schools lack assigned seats. There is no forced memorization and no social indoctrination. They offer cooperation, expression of ideas, and learning from mistakes. Decompressing school experiences must become a focal point in future educational settings.
ADD/ADHD later in life becomes a holdover coping skill that is no longer supportive in life. What is the remedy? What can heal the brain and remove the trauma response that keeps us disconnected? First, recognizing that it is a coping response brings it from an unconscious reaction to a level of conscious awareness. Second, creating a flexible and supportive environment and schedule will also lessen stress—taking breaks and shifting the mind from active beta waves to alpha or theta brain waves through conscious breathing and relaxation techniques.
Perhaps with a change in environment and a shift in focus from academic excellence to emotional intelligence, self-discovery, self-expression, and an enthusiastic passion for learning, we may see the symptoms of ADD/ADHD drop off dramatically. Removing ADD/ADHD as a diagnosis helps lessen the stigma that can come with the label of a learning disability. Understanding that ADD/ADHD is a child's natural compensation for stress gives room for other avenues to be investigated with techniques to help children manage the pressure from home and in their learning journey.
Maté, G. (1999). Scattered Minds: A New Look at the Origins and Healing of Attention Disorder. Plume.
"NHA Health: Brainwaves - The Language." NHA Health,
Setyanisa, A., Setiawati, Y., Fithriyah, I., & Prabowo, S. A. (2022). Relationship between Parenting Stress and Risk of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) in Elementary School Children. Malaysian Journal of Medical Sciences, 29, 10.21315/mjms2022.29.4.14.
"What Is the Function of Theta Brain Waves?" Scientific American, 22 Dec. 1997
Ian Kennedy, The True Wellness Center