Does Your Child Have ADHD or Is It Just High Energy?

Two young boys floating in inflatable pool toy

Curtis Kim / Getty Images

While many children with ADHD are, in fact, very energetic, high energy alone is not enough to warrant a diagnosis. In fact, children with some forms of ADHD are not high energy at all. ADHD, Primarily Inattentive Type (historically known as ADD) for example, may manifest itself in low energy combined with inattentiveness and other symptoms.

So when might a child with lots of energy be diagnosed with ADHD? In order to qualify for the diagnosis, a child must have a chronic, pervasive problem with his or her ability to regulate activity level, as well as impairment in their ability to inhibit and control impulses.

Impairment of functioning or learning is key to differentiating ADHD from normal activity. If a child has high energy but is able to behave and perform well at school, they likely do not have ADHD.

Signs of ADHD

Hyperactivity and the other primary symptoms, impulsivity, and inattention, are really just the tip of the iceberg for kids who have ADHD. There can be additional impairments that may not be as obvious. For example some of the signs and symptoms of ADHD impact the following areas of development:

Information Processing

Children with ADHD often have difficulty processing information. With the hyperactive example, it may be that the individual has trouble slowing down enough to process information accurately. This can create problems in a classroom setting where students are expected to quickly and accurately make sense of and respond to instruction.

Emotional Regulation

Children with ADHD become frustrated and overwhelmed very easily and have trouble regulating their emotions. These symptoms can interfere with social relationships, leading to a sense of isolation and lowered self-esteem. 

Executive Function

Children with ADHD usually struggle with executive function issues like organizing, planning, prioritizing, paying attention and remembering details. These issues can become problematic in a range of settings. Even in after-school sports, team members are expected to come prepared, remember what they were taught, and show up on time.


Children with ADHD also tend to be less mature developmentally than their same-age peers. Thus, an 11-year-old with ADHD may think and behave more like a young child than like a rising teenager. This means that even as teens, kids with ADHD may lack the judgment they need to make smart choices about friendships, risk-taking, and potentially harmful activities.

Distinguishing ADHD From High Energy

If your child is energetic and finds it hard to sit still, they may be displaying some of the signs of ADHD. But if they are also able to control their impulses and emotions, pay attention, and respond appropriately in school and at home, they are probably just an energetic individual, and not affected by ADHD.

While the core symptoms that define ADHD can include hyperactivity, along with impulsivity and inattention, not all kids (or adults) with ADHD will have these symptoms in the same way or to the same degree. You will certainly see changes in the way the symptoms manifest or present as an individual moves through different stages of life.

A Word From Verywell

For a child with ADHD, there is much more involved than simply being active and full of energy. Any time you have concerns about your child's development, it's always a good idea to check in with your pediatrician.

4 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Kóbor A, Takács Á, Bryce D, et al. Children with adhd show impairments in multiple stages of information processing in a stroop task: an erp study. Dev Neuropsychol. 2015;40(6):329-47. doi:10.1080/87565641.2015.1086770

  2. Lugo-candelas C, Flegenheimer C, Mcdermott JM, Harvey E. Emotional Understanding, Reactivity, and Regulation in Young Children with ADHD Symptoms. J Abnorm Child Psychol. 2017;45(7):1297-1310. doi:10.1007/s10802-016-0244-7

  3. Pineda-alhucema W, Aristizabal E, Escudero-cabarcas J, Acosta-lópez JE, Vélez JI. Executive function and theory of mind in children with adhd: a systematic review. Neuropsychol Rev. 2018;28(3):341-358. doi:10.1007/s11065-018-9381-9

  4. Humphreys KL, Tottenham N, Lee SS. Risky decision-making in children with and without ADHD: A prospective study. Child Neuropsychol. 2018;24(2):261-276. doi:10.1080/09297049.2016.1264578

By Keath Low
 Keath Low, MA, is a therapist and clinical scientist with the Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities at the University of North Carolina. She specializes in treatment of ADD/ADHD.