Can You Prevent ADHD?

Medically Reviewed by Smitha Bhandari, MD on September 13, 2023
5 min read

Though there is no way to prevent ADHD, there are ways to help all children feel and do their best at home and at school.

Complications of pregnancy are linked to ADHD. A healthy diet and regular doctor visits are important. So is avoiding the use of alcohol and drugs.

Children whose mothers smoked while they were pregnant are twice as likely to develop ADHD. Some studies suggest a pregnant woman's exposure to lead, as well as lead exposure in early childhood, may be linked to ADHD. Other studies are exploring the possible connection between premature birth and ADHD.

Giving your child a healthy, balanced diet from an early age is good for all children, whether or not they have ADHD.

Some experts believe that altering a child's diet may reduce hyperactive behavior. Ben Feingold developed a popular diet designed to lessen hyperactivity. It is an elimination diet that targets artificial colorings, flavorings, and preservatives. The medical community hasn't accepted the diet, and some studies have disproved Feingold's theory. Still, many parents who have tried the diet reported an improvement in their child's behavior.

There is no scientific proof linking ADHD to sugar. Processed sugars and carbohydrates may affect a child's activity level by rapidly raising blood sugar levels. This blood sugar spike may produce an adrenaline rush that could cause a child to become more active, followed by a "crash" in activity and mood as the adrenaline levels fall.

Parents are encouraged to try cutting certain foods from their children's diet if they feel the foods affect behavior negatively. It’s usually best to eliminate one food or category at a time so that you can be certain the effect you are seeing can be attributed to the category you are eliminating. Some experts, though, think that behavioral changes may be due to the way the families interact with each other while they're on an elimination diet. The child's behavior may improve -- not because of the diet, but as a result of getting more attention from the parents.

It's important not to go too far. Being too restrictive with your child's diet can lead to nutritional deficiencies. Dietitians and doctors can help you make a healthy eating plan for your children.

It’s important to weigh the risks and benefits of elimination diets, particularly for children who may be experiencing decreased appetite as a side effect of many medications commonly used to treat ADHD.

All children, and especially those with ADHD, can benefit from structured routines and clear expectations.

Post a daily schedule where your child can see it, so they know what to expect. This daily schedule should include specific times for such activities as:

  • Waking up
  • Eating meals
  • Playing
  • Doing homework
  • Doing chores
  • Watching TV
  • Taking part in after-school activities
  • Going to bed

Once the schedule is set, follow it as closely as possible each day. If there are going to be any disruptions in the schedule, explain them in advance to your child. Though posting a schedule doesn't prevent ADHD, it should help improve your child's ability to stay on task.

For older children, with or without ADHD, having a homework routine in place can make the after-school time more effective. Set aside an area away from distractions for doing homework. Taking small breaks during homework time can also help, especially if your child is hyperactive and has difficulty staying focused.

Many therapists believe you can impact your child's behavior by using behavior management.

The first step is to foster a positive parent-child relationship. Therapists say this can be done by spending quality time with your child each day -- your child's "special time." During this time, let them pick an activity. Then simply focus on enjoying your child and their interests.

The next step in behavioral management is to use positive reinforcement when your child behaves well. Praise and reward them for it. Your child may behave well more often. Experts encourage parents to notice their child's good behavior at least five times a day and offer simple praise for it.

Keep your expectations reasonable. Base them on what's appropriate for your child's age and focus on only a few tasks at a time. Clearly explain what type of behavior you expect from your child in order to be rewarded. If you think of several appropriate rewards and let your child pick from among them, they may take more ownership in the program. That will make success more likely.

It's important for your child to know what you expect. One way to do that is to look into their eyes when you talk to them. Then make all directions very specific, simple, and concise, and explain them in a calm voice. You can have your child repeat the directions back to you to make sure they understand.

Finally, it is very important that you be consistent. If you don't always reward good behavior, for example, it sends your child mixed messages.

If your child’s teacher is using a behavior or reward system at school, try to implement a similar system at home. Many teachers use points, stickers, or color-level systems to reward good behavior.

The last step in behavioral management is providing negative consequences for bad behavior.

Once again, it is important to explain bad behavior to your child clearly. That way you can make sure they understand what is expected.

Start by explaining what's acceptable and what the reward is for that behavior. Then explain the negative consequences for bad behavior.

Be consistent. Don't be too harsh. Using negative consequences for unacceptable behavior is controversial, and negative consequences should never be cruel, abusive, or a reflection of your own emotions, no matter how frustrated you may feel.

For behavior therapy to work, give children with ADHD frequent reminders of expected behavior and consequences. One way to do this is to write down the rules, consequences, and rewards. Then put them in a place where your child can see them. For younger children you can draw pictures or print images for a more visual reminder.

Children with ADHD also need frequent feedback about their progress. They may do better with short-term goals rather than long-term ones. Keep changing the reward system so they don't get bored.

If you have a preschooler, play games, build with blocks, and do puzzles together. It's good practice for building attention skills. Reading to your child is another good way to teach them how to pay attention. Showing them lots of affection can also help a child calm down and pay attention.

Not everyone agrees, but some experts think that television watching can hinder a child's ability to learn to pay attention. Regardless of whether or not TV causes attention deficiencies, the American Academy of Pediatrics says children younger than 18 months should watch very little TV. The academy also says that between the ages of 2 and 5, they should watch no more than 1 hour a day. Video chatting for toddlers/babies is generally considered to be OK at any age.