How to Know If Your Child Has ADHD

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The terms ADD and ADHD are thrown around a lot in the media, and even in general conversations when someone is forgetful or having an "ADD moment." Some people are concerned that ADHD (attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder) is diagnosed too frequently, or that children are placed on stimulant medications too quickly to manage difficult behavior.

On the other hand, many people are concerned about the under-identification of ADHD, which can lead to delays in initiating treatment, or to no treatment at all. As a result, many kids and adults with ADHD may continue to struggle needlessly and are at significant risk for developing further problems.

Understanding the Signs and Symptoms of ADHD

If you are a parent of a child who seems to think differently, act differently, and learn differently from other children—and you are wondering if ADHD may be contributing to difficulties at home, in family interactions, at school or in peer relationships—be sure to talk with your pediatrician or other qualified healthcare provider. It's also important to understand some of the signs and symptoms of ADHD. Many parents aren't always aware that their child has ADHD, especially if their child isn't particularly overactive. It's easy to get caught in the inaccurate perception that all kids with ADHD are hyperactive—like the energizer bunny!

The truth is that children with ADHD (and adults with ADHD, as well) are a heterogeneous group. Symptoms of ADHD can affect people in varying ways, in varying combinations, and to varying degrees. Not only can ADHD be very different from person to person, but symptoms can also fluctuate significantly in response to situational demands.

On top of this, the way ADHD symptoms show up in everyday life can change as a child grows older and moves from elementary school to middle school, to high school, and then on to college and beyond. If you suspect your child may have ADHD, it's helpful to educate yourself about the defining features and traits often seen in those with ADHD.

Educating yourself about ADHD, and increasing your awareness of the ways ADHD can come into play in a child's daily life, will enable you and your child's doctor to more accurately assess whether or not ADHD is present, and to determine the best plan of action.

Inattention, Impulsivity, Hyperactivity

The three predominant features that characterize ADHD include problems with attention, impulsivity, and/or hyperactivity. All children display some degree of inattention, impulsive reactions, and hyperactive behaviors from time to time. For children with ADHD, however, the behaviors are not age-appropriate or typical of children the same age who do not have ADHD, and these behaviors can result in significant impairment of the child's ability to function successfully at home and at school.

Below are lists of the types of behaviors that often alert parents to the possible presence of ADHD. Keep in mind that there are different types of ADHD and that children may display various combinations of symptoms. There can also be other factors unrelated to ADHD that may be causing the problems. Again, if you have concerns that your child may have ADHD, be sure to talk with your pediatrician or qualified health care provider.

Signs of Inattention

A child who struggles with inattention:

  • Is easily distracted, has difficulty concentrating and staying focused on mundane tasks, shifts from activity to activity, and displays a lot of off-task behavior
  • On the other hand, the child may have trouble disengaging and shifting attention when necessary and can become "over-focused.” It may be that the child can focus for hours on video games, for example, because the games are stimulating and hold the child’s interest and shifting attention away from this activity is very difficult
  • Doesn’t seem to listen when spoken to directly, seems to “tune-out” at times, daydreams may appear as if “in a fog” or “spacey”
  • Is unusually forgetful, doesn’t follow through on instructions, loses things, is disorganized in thinking and other activities
  • Fails to give close attention to details, makes careless mistakes
  • Dislikes or avoids tasks that require close concentration
  • Has trouble getting started on and completing tasks, leaves projects or chores unfinished or only partially done, gets bored easily, procrastinates
  • Has a poor sense of time, is often late
  • Dawdles may process information slowly

Signs of Impulsivity

A child who struggles with impulsivity:

  • Has difficulty with self-control and with inhibiting responses and behaviors
  • Acts before thinking through the consequences of behavior
  • Blurts out answers to questions before they have been completed, talks out of turn, blurts out remarks with no regard for social consequences
  • Interrupts or intrudes on others, butts into conversations or activities
  • Is impatient, has trouble awaiting turn, has difficulty delaying gratification, "wants it now!"
  • Begins tasks before instructions are completely given, is careless - preferring speed over accuracy when completing school work, is too impatient to go back and check over work
  • May seek stimulation by being the class clown, takes risks without thinking through consequences, may be very accident prone
  • Has trouble working cooperatively with others, may be very reactive in situations, is easily provoked and may be quick to anger, has difficulty managing emotions, has a low tolerance for frustration

Signs of Hyperactivity

A child who struggles with hyperactivity:

  • Has difficulty regulating motor activity, has excess energy, is over-active
  • Fidgets, squirms, and can't sit still, may swing feet in the chair, tapping fingers on their desk, or rock back and forth on two legs of the chair
  • Runs or climbs excessively in situations in which it is inappropriate, frequently on the go, seems to be driven by a motor
  • Has difficulty playing or engaging in activities quietly, tends to be very loud and disruptive
  • Gets overstimulated and excited easily, has trouble settling down
  • May display hyperactivity in less physical ways such as being hyper-talkative, monopolizing conversations so that others can't get a word in edgewise, or maybe hyper-social, a “social butterfly,” may feel restless inside
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Article Sources

  • Arthur D. Anastopoulos and Terri L. Shelton, Assessing Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers, New York 2001.