Attention Deficit Disorder (ADHD) is a common condition affecting nearly 3% of children. ADHD causes "hidden" symptoms such as hyperactivity, impulsivity, and distractibility. Oftentimes, the condition goes undiagnosed until later childhood or adolescence.
Symptoms include difficulty focusing, paying attention, controlling impulsive behavior, and being easily distracted. In this article, we’ll walk through common symptoms of ADHD in kids, how ADHD is diagnosed, and treatment options.
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What is ADHD?
ADHD is a condition where children experience difficulty focusing their attention, controlling impulsive behavior, and regulating emotions. In addition to these symptoms, children with ADHD may also have low self-esteem, have trouble sustaining relationships with others and experience poor performance in school.
While it’s possible for symptoms of ADHD to lessen with age, some may never completely outgrow their ADHD symptoms. There are medications, strategies, and therapies that can help manage ADHD symptoms, such as medication, behavioral therapy, and lifestyle changes.
Comparing ADHD to Typical Developmental Behavior
It’s important to understand that many children experience some levels of hyperactivity and impulsivity. Children typically have shorter attention spans when compared to adults, and their attention depends on what they are interested in.
If you are concerned about your child's behavior, you can see a family doctor or pediatrician. They may refer you to a specialist to conduct medical tests (read more about ADHD evaluation costs).
Symptoms of ADHD in Kids
There are several ways to diagnose ADHD in children. Your doctor might ask questions about your child's behavior, such as whether they get angry or upset easily, or act impulsively. They'll also look at their medical history, family history, educational history, and developmental milestones. Keep an eye out for these symptoms of ADHD in kids:
Inattentiveness is also known as having difficulty concentrating or focusing. Although intense concentration or hyperfocus is seen in people with ADHD, it is not an official symptom.
Some of the main signs of inattention include:
● Making careless mistakes
● The inability to stick to tasks that take more effort and time
● Being easily distracted
● Being unable to carry out instructions from others
● Needing to constantly change the activity or task
● Having trouble with organization
● Losing and forgetting things
Impulsivity and hyperactivity
Impulsiveness impacts an ADHD person’s awareness of consequences or actions.
Some of the main signs include:
● Having trouble sitting still
● Being unable to concentrate
● Excessive talking and physical movement
● Lacking a sense of danger
● Not being able to wait their turn
● The need to constantly fidget
● Acting without considering the outcome
● Interrupting conversations
● Becoming quickly angry or frustrated
Not all of these symptoms can be seen as a negative. Read more on the benefits of ADHD.
ADHD may occur with other conditions as well. This is not always the case, but you may notice your child displaying symptoms of:
● Oppositional defiant disorder (ODD): Children with ODD may lose their temper and get angry often. They may also blame others for their mistakes and become easily annoyed.
● Conduct disorder (CD): Children with CD show aggressive behavioral patterns toward others, and serious violations of rules and social norms at home, in school, and with others.
● Anxiety and depression: Children who have fears that interfere with their lives or persistent hopelessness and sadness, may be experiencing anxiety and depression. ADHD could be related to anxiety and depression among children.
● Difficulty with peer relationships: While this is not the case for all children with ADHD, some may have trouble developing peer relationships and withdraw from their peers.
● ADHD paralysis - Someone with ADHD may feel extremely overwhelmed when making decisions, which may hinder their ability to finish activities. This is called ADHD paralysis.
How is ADHD Diagnosed in Children?
While the cause of ADHD is not clear, you need to be familiar with the symptoms. To diagnose ADHD, your healthcare provider will use the guidelines in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, Fifth Edition (DSM-5)1. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that an evaluation for ADHD cannot be made until a child is 4 years old.
This is a diagnostic standard that helps ensure that people are appropriately diagnosed and treated for ADHD. Using the same standard across communities can also help determine how many children have ADHD, and how public health is impacted by this condition.
Treatment for ADHD in Kids
There are several treatments for ADHD, including medication, behavioral therapy, and lifestyle changes.
Parents may consider medication for their children to manage their ADHD symptoms in their everyday life. It can also help children control the behaviors that cause difficulties with family, friends, and at school. There are several different types of medications that are FDA-approved to treat ADHD in children:
● Stimulants: Stimulants boost the levels of certain brain chemicals, like dopamine and norepinephrine by using methylphenidate or amphetamine. There are short-acting, intermediate-acting, and long-acting forms.
● Non-Stimulants: Non-stimulants do not include methylphenidate amphetamine, they use different active ingredients that have similar effects on the symptoms of ADHD and do not work as quickly as stimulants.
Recommended reading: review our list of natural remedies for ADHD.
Behavior therapy is a treatment option that can help reduce disruptive behaviors; it is often helpful to start behavior therapy as soon as a diagnosis is made. The goals of behavior therapy are to learn or strengthen positive behaviors and eliminate unwanted or problem behaviors. Some parents find that behavioral therapy helps their children manage their behaviors effectively without using medication, while others may use behavioral therapy alongside medication.
Oftentimes, parents and families are involved in the behavioral therapy process and support the child in goal setting, as well as learning techniques and tools from the therapist, so they can use them at home and in school. Parents may also learn how to effectively respond to their child’s negative behaviors. Many parents notice a clear impact of cognitive behavioral therapy for ADHD.
Therapists will work to provide support and new ways the child can successfully:
● Complete their homework
● Pay better attention in school
● Complete their chores
● Keep their room clean
Recommended reading: Tips for Giving Effective Consequences for Your Child with ADHD
While it’s important to take the proper medical steps in order to best support your child with ADHD, a study showed that lifestyle changes can impact a child with ADHD. It’s important to support your child in these healthy lifestyle habits:
● Aim for one hour of physical activity per day. There are numerous benefits related to ADHD and exercising. Regular physical activity can help children with ADHD improve their focus, avoid distraction, and have better performance in school according to studies.
● Limit screen time. People with ADHD run a much higher risk of Internet addiction than those who are neurotypical. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends discouraging electronic media use by children under two years old, limiting entertainment screen time to less than one to two hours per day, and keeping TV and other internet devices out of the child’s bedroom.
● Encouraging healthy sleep habits. Up to 70% of children with ADHD suffer from problems with their sleep. Not getting enough sleep (even if your child doesn’t qualify for a sleep disorder) can cause or worsen ADHD symptoms. Support your child in getting a good night’s sleep by keeping to a daily routine, limiting screen time before bed, and making sure the room is dark and comfortable.
What are the different types of ADHD?
There are three main types of ADHD:
● Inattentive presentation: Children with this presentation may experience more symptoms of inattention than those of impulsivity and hyperactivity.
● Hyperactive-impulsive presentation: This presentation may display more symptoms of impulsivity and hyperactivity.
● Combined presentation: With the combination presentation, a child’s symptoms may show a combination of the other two types of ADHD.
What treatment is best for my child?
The best treatment for your child will depend on the age, and symptoms your child is displaying. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends parent training in behavior management as the first line of treatment in children 6 years of age or younger before medications are tried. However, with any treatment, it’s important your child is monitored in order to evaluate the effectiveness of treatment.