ADHD in children can significantly impair their progress at home and school, so parents should understand the signs and treatments available.
Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a commonly diagnosed mental health condition that affects children, adolescents and adults. Although many know about ADHD in kids, some continue to misunderstand the disorder.
Parents can become aware of the signs of ADHD in children to help identify the issues early on in their child’s life. With a solid understanding of ADHD causes and symptoms, proper treatment can reduce the condition’s impact on their kids and help them to live better lives.
Symptoms of ADHD in Children
Experts at the American Psychiatric Association (APA) separate ADHD symptoms in children into two categories:
There are nine inattentive ADHD symptoms a person can show:
- Failing to pay close attention to work or making careless mistakes
- Struggles to sustain attention and focus on tasks or activities
- Does not listen to others when they speak
- Fails to complete the needed steps for instructions or assignments
- Often appears disorganized
- Avoids and dislikes activities that require strong attention or effort
- Frequently loses important items
- Easily distracted at work, school or other settings
- Forgets information, even when it is repeated to them
Similarly, the APA has established nine hyperactive-impulsive ADHD symptoms:
- Frequently fidgets with objects, clothing and body or squirms while sitting
- Gets out of their seat and wanders around the room
- Runs, climbs and jumps in situations where sitting is expected
- Struggles to play or complete activities quietly
- Seems to have endless energy and cannot slow self down
- Speaks loudly or excessively
- Yells or speaks out of turn
- Struggles to stand in line and grows impatient
- Frequently interrupts others or struggles with conversations
By studying the signs and symptoms of ADHD in children, parents can rely on valuable information from professionals and take proper action to care for their children.
Distinguishing Normal Behavior vs. ADHD
Many people look at these 18 symptoms of ADHD and believe that their child or another child they know could have the conditions. After all, many children will interrupt, struggle to pay attention and fidget in their chair.
It is extremely challenging for a person without training to distinguish ADHD vs. normal behavior. Because of this, it can seem confusing to know when to see a doctor for ADHD. The decision to seek treatment for ADHD may feel overwhelming, but the process does not have to be.
Parents thinking about a professional evaluation should ask themselves:
- Does my child have several inattentive symptoms linked to ADHD?
- Does my child have several hyperactive-impulsive symptoms associated with ADHD?
- Are the symptoms occurring only in some settings or in a variety?
- Do these symptoms seem out of line with the typical kids in their age group?
- Do these symptoms greatly impact their life by interfering with school, sports and life at home?
- Is ADHD the only possible explanation for these symptoms?
If the person answers “yes” to any of these questions, it might be time to seek an assessment from a medical or mental health professional. Since ADHD is a common complaint, people can contact a variety of providers like pediatricians, psychiatrists and therapists for more information.
Causes of Childhood ADHD
Like with other mental health issues, the exact causes of ADHD in children are challenging to identify and fully grasp. Rather than being just one factor causing the disorder, there are several contributors, which influence the presentation.
Some variables connected to ADHD in children include:
- Brain injuries
- Exposure to harmful elements in the environment, like lead, from a young age
- Use of alcohol, tobacco or other drugs by the mother during pregnancy
- Being born prematurely
- Low weight at birth
Evidence shows that the most significant factor influencing the presence of ADHD in children is genetics. It seems that the biological information passed by mothers and fathers to the children could predispose the child to ADHD.
Although there is no way to change a person’s genetic makeup, there may be methods to reduce the risk of ADHD by improving their environment at home and school.
Diagnosing ADHD in Children
Diagnosing ADHD in children is something that friends, family and other loved ones should not even try to attempt. This process is best left to a professional with the education and experience to recognize the symptoms and separate expected behaviors from the dysfunction that comes with ADHD.
For ADHD, the diagnosis is straightforward. The professional will ask the child and parent about the nine signs of inattention and the nine signs of hyperactivity-impulsivity. Children 16 and under need to endorse six or more symptoms in a category to receive an ADHD diagnosis. People 17 and older only need to report five or more symptoms.
The number of present symptoms in each category dictates which variety of ADHD a child has.
The Three Types of ADHD:
- Combined presentation: Present when a child has six or more symptoms from both the inattentive and hyperactive-impulsive categories
- Predominantly inattentive: Present with a child has six or more symptoms from only the inattentive group
- Predominantly hyperactive-impulsive: Present when a child has six or more symptoms from only the hyperactive-impulsive category
In the latter diagnoses the child may still have symptoms from both categories, just not enough to meet the standard of six or more symptoms.
Along with these symptoms, to have ADHD, the person must:
- Have symptoms before age 12
- Show symptoms in a variety of settings like school, home and community
- Be negatively influenced by the ADHD symptoms
- Show no other explanations for their ADHD symptoms
Based on this, a person who never displayed ADHD symptoms until age 13 cannot have ADHD. There may be another mental health disorder triggering their symptoms.
Treating ADHD in Children
The specific ADHD treatments will vary depending on the child and the family, but generally, the most helpful treatments for ADHD in children are medication and therapy. As always, parents should work with their child’s treatment team to arrive at the best combination.
Though there are many ADHD medications for children, they are separated into two groups – stimulants and nonstimulants. Each has unique benefits and drawbacks.
Stimulant medications like Adderall and Concerta are good options for people looking for symptom relief immediately as these begin working quickly. The medications help by increasing certain chemicals in the brain, which aids communication between brain cells.
The drawbacks of stimulant medications are:
- Loss of appetite and weight loss
- Increased anxiety
- Poor sleep
- Slow growth
Stimulant medications wear off during the day, where nonstimulant medications last for 24 hours. Nonstimulants may take weeks of consistent use to begin showing effects, though. Additionally, nonstimulants for ADHD have only existed since 2003.
Nonstimulants like Strattera and Intuniv help to adjust brain chemicals to improve attention and energy. They may cause some side effects, but these drugs do not carry the same risk of addiction and misuse as stimulants.
As many as 80% of kids on ADHD medications use stimulants over nonstimulants.
ADHD therapy for children is a great option before or during medication treatment. Some kids and families respond so positively to therapy that medications are not needed.
Possible therapy treatments for ADHD include:
- Parent training to provide caretakers with the education and skills needed to manage behaviors
- Peer interventions that reinforce and shape desirable social interactions
- Skill-building to improve organization
- Behavioral modification to reinforce periods of attention and desired levels of energy
ADHD therapy may occur in a therapist’s office, in the home or in the community.
Helping a child with ADHD in the classroom will be vital, since many kids with ADHD struggle in the school setting. Parents should consult with the school to address the child’s need for ADHD special education to explore possible classroom modifications.
Teachers can help students by structuring some activities that allow for movement and creativity. Asking a child to stay seated and quiet for an extended period is problematic, so flexibility and consistency are needed.
What Parents Can Do to Help
Parents may not be able to eliminate the ADHD symptoms from their child, but they can do much to manage behaviors at home and in the community. Those wondering how to help a child with ADHD should consider ADHD tips for parents:
- Establish routines: Consistency, routines, structure and schedules are important in the classroom and home environment. They teach the child what to expect next.
- Pay attention to diet: Some parents find success following an ADHD diet for kids. All parents should pay attention to foods and drinks that trigger ADHD symptoms and consider reducing or eliminating them.
- Limit screen time: Kids with ADHD love screen time because playing video games or watching videos on a tablet are very stimulating experiences. Unfortunately, it can make it more difficult to pay attention to other tasks. Limiting screen time can improve focus elsewhere.
- Give rewards: Too often, kids with ADHD are only taught what NOT to do. Finding small but desirable rewards for wanted behaviors to teach children with ADHD what they should be doing.
Perhaps the most important step parents can take is getting their child a professional evaluation and expert treatment for ADHD. Parents should always work with the treatment team to establish a plan for school and the home.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Symptoms and Diagnosis of ADHD.” August 26, 2019. Accessed October 16, 2019.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Treatment of ADHD.” October 8, 2019. Accessed October 16, 2019.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “What is ADHD?” August 26, 2019. Accessed October 16, 2019.
The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.