ADHD Symptoms

The core symptoms of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, are difficulty regulating attention and controlling impulses, and hyperactivity. However, these core symptoms can present themselves in many different ways.

ADHD symptoms can:

  • Vary from person to person
  • Change with age and through the lifespan of one person
  • Change depending on the situation or environment a person is in
  • Differ depending on the gender of the individual
  • Range in severity, from mild to severe
  • Increase in severity during times of stress

The type (or presentation) of ADHD that a person is diagnosed with depends on the combination of symptoms the person has.

There are three presentations of ADHD:

  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, combined presentation
  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, predominantly inattentive presentation
  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, predominantly hyperactive-impulsive presentation

Official ADHD Symptoms

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) is the official diagnostic guide for mental health issues used in the United States. It identifies nine symptoms of inattentive ADHD and nine symptoms for hyperactive/impulsive ADHD.

Inattentive ADHD Symptoms
Here is an adapted version of the DSM’s symptom list for people who have inattentive ADHD:

  • Make seemingly careless mistakes when performing schoolwork or projects in the workplace.; paying close attention to the details is difficult.
  • Have problems sustaining attention on tasks, even fun ones.
  • Do not seem to be listening when someone is speaking to them, whether it is a teacher, friend, parent, or boss. Might look out of the window or glance at a clock.
  • Following instructions is hard. Completing a task from start to finish is challenging; motivation may be lost; getting-side tracked can happen.
  • Organizing tasks and activities is challenging. Working out a logical step-by-step process can feel overwhelming.
  • Resist, avoid and procrastinate starting tasks that require mental energy.
  • Lose belongings frequently. Glasses, cell phones, and umbrellas need to be replaced regularly.

Hyperactive/Impulsive ADHD Symptoms
Here is an adapted version of the DSM’s symptom list for people who have hyperactive/impulsive ADHD:

  • Sitting still is extremely difficult. Will continually squirm and move feet and hands.
  • Remaining in the seated position is challenging. Will constantly stand up and move, even when being seating is the socially accepted thing to do.
  • Will run or climb at inappropriate times. Adolescents and adults might be physically still but will experience an internal restlessness that feels painful at times.
  • Rarely take part in leisure or play activities quietly.
  • Will often be described as always ‘on the go’ or ‘driven by a motor.’ This can be fatiguing for parents of young children. In adulthood, others can be envious or admiring of this energy.
  • Talks constantly, which can cause problems at school, work, and in social settings/interactions.
  • Can appear selfish because has a hard time taking turns.
  • Will interrupt other people who are speaking or doing an activity.​

Unofficial ADHD Symptoms

In addition to the official symptoms, there are additional ADHD symptoms that many children and adults experience. Sometimes these are called secondary symptoms or soft symptoms.

While they are not taken into account during the diagnosis process, they frequently affect the quality of people's lives. When people who live with ADHD realize that these behaviors are connected with ADHD, they can experience a sense of relief or have ‘aha’ moments. It helps to explain why they are the way they are, and why they feel different from other people.

  • Tasks, homework, a project at work, or a household chore seem to take them longer than other people.
  • They are often accused of not trying, or not appearing to care.
  • They seem to underachieve in areas of life where they have a lot of potential and talent, such as in academics, in their profession, in athletics, or in managing finances.
  • They can be very forgetful of things ranging from important people's birthdays, taking out the trash, or handing in homework (even when it has been completed).
  • They may hyper-focus on tasks that interest them, to the detriment of important activities like sleep and social interaction.
  • They have a low tolerance for boredom.
  • They miss important pieces of information because they ‘zone out’ for a minute or two.
  • They may have trouble reading a book from cover to cover, even if it seemed interesting at first.
  • They may get a lot of traffic tickets for parking incorrectly and speeding.
  • They love extreme sports and roller coasters, no matter what age. They may have frequent injuries and often break bones.
  • They face financial problems, even if they earn an above average wage. Impulsive spending and forgetting to pay bills can cause problems. Taxes are rarely filed on time.
  • They love caffeine. It might be a standing joke among friends how much coffee or energy drinks they consume.
  • A lack of motivation can cause problems in school, work, home, and relationships.
  • They struggle with time management and arriving on time to appointments.
  • They have great problems with sleep. Getting to sleep, staying asleep, and waking up on time does not happen easily.
  • They do not trust themselves to do what they say they will.
  • They worry about many things, including things they might have forgotten to do.
  • They often have low self-esteem after years of not meeting their own and other people's expectations.

ADHD Symptoms in Adults

ADHD symptoms typically change in adulthood. Hyperactivity becomes less visible to the observer. An adult can sit relatively still, even though feeling an internal restlessness.

Inattentive symptoms of ADHD usually remain consistent. However, adults typically have more control over their environment than children do. Adults can design a life that works with their ADHD symptoms. For example, many people with hyperactive ADHD are careful to choose a career that does not involve sitting at a desk for long. They might work at a hospital in a job that involves lots of walking, or become a sales person who uses their car as a traveling office. This freedom is not available to a child in school, and so childhood ADHD symptoms tend to appear worse than adult symptoms.

In children, ADHD symptoms typically cause problems in school, such as low grades or getting into trouble for disruptive behavior. In adults, ADHD symptoms can result in more diverse problems like losing a job, bankruptcy, marriage problems, and addictions. This is why it is important to recognize possible ADHD symptoms and seek help.

ADHD Symptoms in Girls

Girls are more likely to have inattentive ADHD, which often can go unnoticed and undiagnosed. A hyperactive young boy is much easier to detect than a quiet, day-dreamy girl.

If a girl has hyperactivity-impulsivity, she might be considered a ‘tomboy’ because she is more physically active than other girls her age. She might also be very talkative and impulsively interrupt others who are speaking. Because of this, it can be hard for her to make friends with other girls.

Unlike the way ADHD symptoms are seen in boys, ADHD symptoms in girls are often attributed to a girl's character. For example, a girl might be thought of as a 'drama queen,' a 'tomboy,' or a 'chatterbox.'

One of the benefits of girls being formally diagnosed with ADHD is that the diagnosis lifts the shame and guilt they might have about their symptoms. It also frees them from the labels they have been given.

Girls with ADHD are more likely to have an eating disorder than girls who don't ADHD.

ADHD Symptoms in Women

The hormone changes women experience through their life—puberty, pregnancy, menopause, and monthly hormone fluctuations—can increase the severity of their ADHD symptoms. In the past, women living with ADHD were often misdiagnosed with anxiety or depression. Thanks to increased knowledge and research about ADHD symptoms, more women are being diagnosed correctly.

Treating ADHD Symptoms

After reading about the wide variety of ADHD symptoms noted above, you might be feeling discouraged. Know that ADHD symptoms can be treated and managed successfully. The first step is to get a formal diagnosis. You will learn what presentation of ADHD you have (inattentive, hyperactive-impulsive, or combined) and whether you have any coexisting conditions that also need treating.

From there you can work with your doctor and other health professionals to find the best combination of treatments to help your ADHD symptoms. The same goes for you if you are a concerned parent; diagnosis can empower you with information you need to take action and help your child.

ADHD Discussion Guide

Get our printable guide for your next doctor's appointment to help you ask the right questions.

Mind Doc Guide

Positive ADHD Characteristics

The word symptom often means that something unpleasant is going on. However, people who have ADHD have many positive characteristics. The following are 10 common ones:

  • They have lots of energy, which can be channeled into work projects, sports, hobbies, and charity events.
  • They are highly creative. Many successful and famous entrepreneurs have ADHD.
  • They are excellent problem solvers, due to out-of-the-box thinking.
  • They perform random acts of kindness because they are generous, have a big heart, and are not restrained by what is socially acceptable.
  • They 'walk to the beat of their own drum' and are often described as free spirits.
  • They have an excellent sense of humor and fun, which makes people gravitate toward them.
  • They are very curious about the world and are lifelong learners.
  • They seem younger than their biological age, thanks to their energy, enthusiasm for life, and curiosity about the world around them.
  • They are sensitive, understand how other people are feeling, and can respond accordingly.
  • They are forgiving, trusting and loving, which, with the right person, can mean a long and happy relationship or friendship.

As you absorb the potential or confirmation of an ADHD diagnosis, it can be quite helpful to keep this in mind.

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Article Sources
  • American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC:
  • Diederman,J., S. W.Ball, M. Monuteaux, C. B. Surman, J. L. Johnson, and S. Zeitlin. 2007. Are Girls With ADHD at Risk for Eating Disorders? Results from a controlled five year prospective study. Journal of developmental and Behavioural Pediatrics. 28(4): 302-307