What Is ADHD Like for Children?

distracted boy in class

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In general, young children tend to be active, rambunctious, and impulsive. They often play loudly and love to climb and run. They squirm and fidget and love to be up and out, exploring the world around them. It is not unusual for kids to have trouble listening, remembering, and following directions. This is all a normal part of being a child.

For a child with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), however, normal childhood behaviors and challenges are amplified. The symptoms of ADHD are pervasive, chronic, and disruptive, and they cause significant problems for the child at school, at home, and with friends.

Children with ADHD can become frustrated and overwhelmed very easily. They have trouble regulating their emotions and struggle with executive function issues. They may, for example, have great difficulty:

  • Planning
  • Prioritizing
  • Paying attention
  • Remembering details

They also tend to be less mature developmentally. Some children with ADHD are very charismatic, personable, and popular. For many others, however, behavior problems result in rejection, isolation, and plunging self-esteem.

ADHD in Children

About 9.4% of children ages 2 to 17 in the United States have ever been diagnosed with ADHD, according to information from the 2016 National Survey of Children's Health. The median age of ADHD diagnosis in children is 7 years old.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), it's difficult to diagnose a child younger than 4 years old with ADHD because of how quickly they change.

There are three subtypes of ADHD, and each has corresponding symptoms. For a diagnosis, symptoms must be present for at least six months, disruptive, and inappropriate for the child’s developmental level. In other words, the impairments are far greater than in other children of the same age.

  • Inattentive: Difficulty paying attention and finishing tasks, easily distracted, forgetful, disorganized, doesn't appear to be listening when spoken to
  • Hyperactive/impulsive: Difficulty sitting still and waiting for their turn, excessive talking and interrupting, difficulty staying in seat
  • Combined: Symptoms of both inattentive and hyperactive/impulsive types

Combined type is the most common form of ADHD, while hyperactive/impulsive is the least common. Hyperactivity tends to subside as a child gets older.

The likelihood of being diagnosed with ADHD is greater for boys than girls. However, this could be because girls more commonly have the inattentive type of ADHD, which can be harder to notice, while boys more commonly exhibit hyperactive/impulsive symptoms.

Effects of ADHD in Kids

It can be tough living with ADHD. Children may experience a broad spectrum of emotions, including:

  • Frustration
  • Feeling lost
  • Disconnection
  • Confusion
  • Overwhelm
  • Restlessness
  • Feeling out of control

Children with ADHD are often labeled with inaccurate, negative terms. They may begin to feel like “the bad kid” or “lazy” or “dumb” when this is not true at all.

Living with ADHD can mean challenges for children in all areas of their life. It is hard for them to cope with their big feelings and lack of executive function, and they face difficult consequences.

  • School: Inattentive behaviors can result in difficulty finishing schoolwork, while hyperactive behaviors can disrupt classroom activity and lead to disciplinary actions.
  • Relationships: Children with ADHD can experience struggles in their peer relationships and friendships.
  • Development: ADHD is classified as a neurodevelopmental disorder, and children with it exhibit developmental delays.

A 2013 study published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience examined cognitive performance (attention, timing, impulsivity, and hyperactivity) in a group of children ages 6 to 11. It found that those with ADHD were mostly comparable to those without the disorder who were 1 to 3 years younger, except for hyperactivity, in which the gap was wider.

Effects of ADHD Medication

Stimulant medications are most commonly prescribed for ADHD. While these can be helpful in reducing ADHD symptoms, they may also come with side effects, including:

  • Sleep disturbances
  • Decreased appetite
  • Anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Stomachache
  • Headache

Common side effects of non-stimulants, which may be prescribed if a child is not tolerating a stimulant, can vary depending on the medication. The first non-stimulant to be approved for the treatment of ADHD was Strattera (atomoxetine). Common side effects of Strattera in children and adolescents include:

  • Decreased appetite
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Fatigue
  • Somnolence
  • Abdominal pain

If your child's doctor has prescribed medication, they will monitor how it is affecting your child. They will look for a medication regimen that is effective and doesn't produce uncomfortable side effects. For example, if a stimulant medication is making it difficult for a child to sleep, their doctor may change the dosage of the stimulant or prescribed a non-stimulant medication instead.

Behavioral interventions, specifically parent training behavior management, are recommended as a first-line treatment in young children, ages 4 and 5. These children may be too young for medication; the effects of some ADHD medications on developing brains are poorly understood.

The Importance of Understanding ADHD

It can be empowering when a child understands more about ADHD, what it is and is not, and how it affects them. With understanding, they can work with parents and teachers to develop coping strategies and to find their areas of strength and build upon them.

When children see themselves as having both challenges and strengths and receive support and recognition, self-esteem grows. Instead of seeing themselves as damaged, they can see themselves in a more positive, capable, and accurate light.

Similar Conditions

Some conditions have similar symptoms to ADHD, such as bipolar disorder. This can get in the way of a proper diagnosis and, therefore, proper treatment. It's important for ADHD to be distinguished from conditions including:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Learning disabilities
  • Autism
  • Seizures
  • Sleep disorders

Myths

Myths about ADHD also may create an obstacle to treatment, and be detrimental to a child's self-esteem. These include believing:

  • The symptoms are just a form of laziness.
  • A child is too young to have ADHD.
  • The child's behavior is the parents' fault.
  • The child will outgrow it.
  • It's not a real condition.
  • It's just seen in boys.

Stigma

Another potential obstacle to treatment adherence and the well-being of children diagnosed with ADHD is the stigma that surrounds it. Skepticism regarding diagnosis and symptoms, along with negative perceptions about medication have contributed to this stigma.

Both adults and peers have been found to stigmatize children with ADHD in different ways. A 2020 review in The ADHD Report summarized that peers perceived their classmate with ADHD to be more violent, more likely to get in trouble, and less caring than others. Teachers perceived their academic performance more negatively, and parents' internalized stigma played out in criticism and irritability.

How You Can Help

If you are a parent or caretaker of a child with ADHD, there are steps you can take to help them manage their condition and reduce frustration for everyone. Learn as much as you can about ADHD. Work with their teacher and other school personnel to make sure they have the accommodations they need to succeed. At home, focus on:

  • Organization: Help your child stay organized by keeping their things in consistent places.
  • Structure and routine: Stick to a regular schedule and create predictable routines.
  • Clear communication: Provide clear directions when communicating with them.
  • Rewards: Ensure they know when they're doing the right thing. Praise them or offer rewards.
  • Positivity: Encourage and support your child in the areas where they show strength and help them recognize their abilities in themselves.

Parent training may be a part of behavior therapy treatment for your child if they are younger than 12 years old. This training teaches parents skills they can use to help improve a child's behavior.

A Word From Verywell

ADHD is the most common behavioral disorder in children. With proper treatment, however, symptoms can be managed.

It's also important to remember that children with ADHD have strengths and positive attributes that should be celebrated. Some characteristics, like being more high-energy, can be an asset and help them in life and certain professional settings.

To improve your child's quality of life, recognize their strengths, dispel myths, and help them get the treatment and accommodations they need. Along with your love and support, this will help provide an environment for them to succeed.

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Article Sources
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