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Does Fatherlessness Lead to ADHD?

  • Matt Haviland, Dawn Walker Vanderwerf
  • 2015 21 Aug
  • COMMENTS
Does Fatherlessness Lead to ADHD?

The following is an excerpt from The Daddy Gap, written by Matt Haviland and Dawn (Walker) Vanderwerf:

From Dawn:

Even apart from every Biblical imperative that stresses the importance of fatherhood, there is evidence in the secular world to back up the fact that kids are dramatically affected physically and emotionally in the absence of a father in the home. Last summer, my son got the gift of going to a camp called Trooper Island. It’s a week-long camp experience that the Kentucky State Police puts on over multiple weeks for kids from underprivileged (mostly single parent) homes. The camp is completely free and supported through fundraisers and private donations. As we were waiting out in front of the State Police post on the morning he was to leave, I noticed one of the Troopers walking around with a large Ziploc bag collecting any medications that the kids would have to take at camp. I was shocked at what I saw. It seemed like nearly every child had some kind of prescription meds, some having several. This prompted me a few days later to research something that I had suspected but never followed up on: the connection between fatherlessness and the increasing number of kids now who are diagnosed with ADHD. What I found was both remarkable and sad. A German research team studied Octodon degus, a rodent related to chinchillas and guinea pigs, because they, like humans, are bi-parental creatures, meaning that both parents take part in raising their young. The German researchers’ intent was to see if the brains of degus that were raised without a father differed significantly from those raised with two parents. In an article entitled “Fatherlessness and ADHD,” one writer comments on the findings of this team’s study:

…Not surprisingly, fatherless pups exhibited significantly different neuronal growth patterns in parts of the brain that control decision making, reward, and control (amygdala and the orbitofrontal cortex). Why is this important to humans? Because human brains are wired very similarly to the degus in this region – the cells serve identical functions. As one author of this study, Dr. Braun says, “So on that level we can assume that what happens in the animal’s brain when it’s raised in an impoverished environment … should be very similar to what happens in our children’s brain.” While some differences minimized over time, long-term differences endured. Dr. Braun noted that a preliminary analysis of the degus’ behavior demonstrated that fatherless animals seemed to have a lack of impulse control. The fatherless pups also engaged in more play-fighting or aggressive behavior when they played with siblings. These are also hallmarks of ADHD. 

The research correlates with a report by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) published in September of 2009. The report cites that only 57% of US children live with both parents. The remaining 43% that live with one parent have an increased risk of delinquency, ADHD, and poorer scholastic performance according to the report.  It also makes you wonder when you look at the United States, where at least nine percent of school-aged children have been diagnosed with ADHD and are taking pharmaceutical medications in comparison with France, where the percentage of kids diagnosed and medicated for ADHD is less than .5 percent. Why such a difference among countries where pharmaceuticals are equally available? In a Psychology Today article entitled, “Why French Kids Don’t Have ADHD,” the writer explains:

“French child psychiatrists view ADHD as a medical condition that has psycho-social and situational causes. Instead of treating children’s focusing and behavioral problems with drugs, French doctors prefer to look for the underlying issue that is causing the child distress—not in the child’s brain but in the child’s social context. They then choose to treat the underlying social context problem with psychotherapy or family counseling.”

Very interesting, isn’t it? While we’re not claiming that there are not children who legitimately need ADHD medication for imbalances that affect their ability to succeed educationally, I think it’s fair to suggest that the real “learning impairment” many of these ADHD kids may be suffering from is called fatherlessness. It would be interesting to see how many of these kids could thrive and show improvements in school and in their overall attitude and behavior with consistent mentoring from godly men instead of their prescription medication.

From Matt: 

I recently read a Facebook post from a friend of mine asking if we think there is a correlation between fatherlessness and ADHD. Immediately my mind jumped back to the above passage from The Daddy Gap, and soon afterward I discovered this article that emphasizes our theory even more- sighting “trauma” as one possibility in the misdiagnosis of thousands of ADHD cases. While there is no direct evidence that a child growing up in a home without a father will develop symptoms of ADHD, we can make a pretty strong case that it may be a major contributing factor. As the article above points out, “children diagnosed with ADHD also experienced markedly higher levels of poverty, divorce, violence and family substance abuse. Those who endured four or more adverse childhood events were three times more likely to use ADHD medicine.” 

What is the Church doing about it?

The Bible tells us that God is a “Father to the fatherless” (Psalm 68:5) and a defender of the fatherless and weak (Psalm 82:3). It is also very clear that we are to stand in the gap on behalf of others (Ezek 22:30) and to serve the least of these (Matt 25:40). Our nation is in a fathering crisis and I believe the Church should be the first response team- not the State. I would encourage anyone whose heart is breaking for these traumatized boys and girls, ones we cannot ignore any further, to begin to pray about how you can help make a difference. Perhaps you are called to begin or strengthen a single parent ministry in your community. Or maybe you can designate one hour a week (yes, that’s all it takes!) to mentoring a fatherless youth. I realize not everyone may be able to get fully involved, but everyone can get involved in some way or another! Love, hope, encouragement, and stability are what these kids need the most. The Gospel is the answer to all of the above. They need it and we have it. By answering Jesus’ call to “father” the least of these, we are clearing a path to help all wounded sons and daughters discover the Father they’ve always wanted and who has always wanted them. 

Dawn (Walker) Vanderwerf is the founder and director of Single Parent Missions and the coauthor of The Daddy Gap. She lives with her husband, son, and step daughters in Hudsonville, MI. For more information please visit www.singleparentmissions.com.

Matt Haviland is the founder and president of A Father’s Walk single dad ministry and the author of two books, including co-authoring The Daddy Gap. He lives with his wife and daughter in Grand Rapids, MI. To learn more about his ministry, please visit www.afatherswalk.org

Publication date: August 21, 2015


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