Parenting

Why Can't My Child Sit Still? Look At This Top Reason

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Is your child always on the move? Are you constantly telling your child “sit down,” “don’t touch that,” “walk, but don’t run, please”? This might be overwhelming for you, but as a parent, you are not alone.

Sitting still is not considered to be a natural state for many young children. You might be wondering if your child has attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) because they cannot focus for longer than a few minutes, struggle to get organized, and are hyperactive. But these signs don’t necessarily point toward ADHD.

There are several possible reasons a child is unable to sit still. Learn more in this article.

What Age Should a Child Be Able to Sit Still?

As we know, children are expected to sit still for extended periods of time in school.

In pre-school, when the teacher is reading a story, how many children will actually sit still until the end? In elementary school, how many children are able to sit still during a math lesson?

Sitting still for extended periods of time is a skill that your child will develop as they grow older. Notably, not every child will develop at the same rate.

These are the typical ages when children are capable of sitting still for extended periods of time:

  • 3-year-olds: 5-10 minutes
  • 5-year-olds: 15 minutes
  • 7-year-olds: 25 minutes
  • 10-year-olds: 40 minutes

Possible Reasons Your Child Has Trouble Sitting Still

Some children might have more difficulty sitting still than their peers, and that is not unusual. It is important to take a closer look at why, so you can develop strategies for managing these behaviors.

When children have difficulty with concentration, sitting still, hyperactivity, and organization, we are quick to assume that they might have a type of ADHD. However, there can be other causes for these behaviors that are more basic than a diagnosis of ADHD and are often overlooked. This can include a lack of sleep, poor nutrition, vision or hearing issues, anxiety, and even an extremely busy schedule. 

Take a Closer Look at Your Child’s Eating Behaviors & Sleep

Clinical psychologist at St. Louis Children’s Hospital, Kimberly Sirl, Ph.D., says that a lack of sleep can mimic behaviors that are commonly attributed to ADHD. 

Research states that many children do not get enough sleep, or their quality of sleep might be poor. Therefore, it is important for parents to set a consistent bedtime schedule, ensuring that their child is getting an adequate amount of sleep. Also, parents are encouraged to take notice if their child snores or grinds their teeth at night, as this might need to be further evaluated by a medical professional. 

 Additionally, what your child eats can impact their ability to focus and pay attention in school. It is important to set your child up for a successful day and make sure they have a good quality breakfast. 5

Other Behaviors That Can Look Like ADHD

It is important to consider other possible factors that can cause your child to have difficulty sitting still. For instance, a child might be having difficulty sitting still in school because they are bored or under-challenged with class material. 

They could be “tuning out” and unable to stay on task because they have a language processing deficit or learning disability. If those who interact with your child suspect this, it is crucial to meet with your child’s pediatrician and potentially get your child psychoeducational testing to rule out any intellectual disabilities. 

 Your child might be having difficulty sitting still because of anxiety. Dr. Sirl indicated how children who have experienced traumatic events might have difficulty processing information and filtering out thoughts. This could result in your child not paying attention as their mind tends to drift elsewhere. In this case, Dr. Sirl recommends treating the anxiety first as ADHD medications can often make anxiety symptoms worse. 

What's Normal and What's Not?

As we know, there are many reasons why a child might be having difficulty sitting still in various environments. It could be due to lack of sleep, poor nutrition, anxiety, lack of exercise, and potentially ADHD. 

Also, it is important to remember that you can only expect so much of kids at certain ages. More than likely a nine-year-old is going to be better at sitting still than a three-year-old. 

For a diagnosis of ADHD, these problem behaviors are typically observed in multiple settings and over an extended period of time. There is more to a diagnosis of ADHD than just “hyperactivity.” Impulsivity is an important aspect of the diagnosis. For instance, does your child frequently interrupt conversations? Do they have difficulty taking turns? Do they call out answers before the question is fully explained? 

A child with ADHD might have difficulty sitting still, but they will also have difficulty remaining on task with activities that they enjoy. “Young children with ADHD are incredibly active all the time. Most 4-year-olds are very active in general, but they settle down to take naps and sit for meals. A child with ADHD is on the go all the time,” states James Perrin, MD, a pediatrics professor at Harvard Medical School. 

If this sounds a lot like your child, it may be worth seeking out medical advice. 

When to See a Medical Provider

After trying the recommended strategies and you still believe that your child cannot sit still during non-preferred tasks or moves around more than their peers, it might be beneficial to seek out advice from a medical professional. 

Consulting with your child’s pediatrician is a great start in helping your child manage behaviors. They may refer you to child behavioral specialists and/or a child psychologist to rule out any other diagnosis and determine if ADHD is a possibility.

There are many resources, exercises, and programs available online to help you and your child cope with these difficulties.

Takeaway

When children have trouble sitting still, it can be related to a multitude of factors. It could just be “normal” kid energy, or it can be a result of a larger problem. When supporting your child and managing their behaviors, it is crucial to take notice of how old they are (and the seated expectations for a child that age), what they are eating, quality and quantity of sleep, mental health, scheduled activities, and daily exercise. 

If it comes to a point where you believe your child’s inability to sit still is impacting their learning or behaviors in school, it might be helpful to seek professional advice from your child’s pediatrician.