Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder is a condition that affects behavior. It causes people to be hyperactive and impulsive. They may also be easily distracted and have difficulty concentrating or sitting still.

Known as ADHD, the condition is a mental health disorder that affects both adults and children and is recognized by the American Psychiatric Association (APA).

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Signs of ADHD are different in adults and children. This article explains what to look for and how to source help and treatment.

What are the signs of ADHD in children?

Schoolboy with ADHD with backpack.
ADHD has a variety of potential symptoms, which may be mistaken for common childhood behaviour.

ADHD is thought to affect 1 in 10 children between 5 to 17 years old. Children are usually tested and diagnosed because they have problems at school.

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Signs in children include:

Inattention, such as:

  • not paying attention in class
  • making careless mistakes in schoolwork
  • appearing not to listen
  • being unable to follow instructions
  • being unable to finish schoolwork
  • having difficulty getting organizing
  • avoiding tasks that require focus, such as homework
  • losing or forgetting items
  • becoming easily distracted

Hyperactivity and impulsivity, such as:

  • fidgeting
  • being unable to remain in their seat
  • being constantly in motion
  • running or climbing on things when it is not appropriate or allowed
  • interrupting the teacher
  • talking too much
  • having difficulty playing quietly
  • intruding on other children’s games or interrupting them when speaking
  • finding it hard to wait their turn

A child who is diagnosed with ADHD will often have symptoms for more than 6 months and behave in ways not considered normal for a child of their age.

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What are the signs of ADHD in adults?

As many as 60 percent of people diagnosed with ADHD as children continue to have symptoms as adults. For many, these symptoms become less intense with age.

Treatment to manage symptoms is essential as the condition can negatively impact someone’s life without it.

ADHD in adults can affect relationships, careers, and day-to-day functioning. Symptoms affect aspects of daily life, such as time management and can cause forgetfulness and impatience.

Does your child have ADHD?

Schoolgirl bored in class
An inability to concentrate may be an early symptom of ADHD.

It is difficult to diagnose ADHD in children under 4 years old because their behavior continually changes. They may be very energetic and distracted one day and calmer and focused other days.

Toddlers with ADHD may show early signs, including:

  • restlessness
  • running, climbing, and jumping on everything
  • nonstop chattering
  • the inability to concentrate
  • difficulty settling for naps
  • difficulty sitting still at mealtimes

It is important to note that many young children have short attention spans, may have tantrums, and can be full of energy during different developmental stages.

A parent should make an appointment with their doctor if they are concerned about their child’s behavior and feel it is having a negative impact on family life.

Are signs different in boys and girls?

Boys are three times more likely than girls to be diagnosed with ADHD, which may be because boys display classic signs of hyperactivity more obviously than girls.

Research has shown boys with ADHD are more likely to show externalized signs, such as hyperactivity, where girls are more likely to display internalized signs, such as low self-esteem. Boys are also more likely to be physically aggressive where girls are more often verbally so.

Girls with ADHD may exhibit signs of hyperactivity. In many cases, symptoms are subtler. Girls with ADHD may:

  • daydream
  • display symptoms of anxiety
  • display symptoms of depression
  • be extremely talkative
  • appear not to listen
  • be emotionally sensitive
  • underachieve academically
  • be withdrawn
  • be verbally aggressive

It can be difficult to notice that girls have the condition while recognizing ADHD in boys may be easier due to more obvious signs.

However, not all boys with the disorder are diagnosed. Boys are traditionally considered to be more energetic and boisterous. Their behavior could be dismissed as ‘boys being boys.’

Boys with ADHD may:

  • be impulsive or “act out”
  • run around at times when it is inappropriate
  • be unable to focus
  • appear not to listen
  • be unable to sit still
  • become physically aggressive, such as hitting objects or others
  • talk excessively
  • interrupt conversations and activities

Prompt diagnosis is vital even though boys and girls may display different symptoms of ADHD.

This is because ADHD can affect schoolwork, home life, and relationships.

Children who remain undiagnosed are also more likely to develop:

  • anxiety
  • depression
  • learning difficulties

Prompt diagnosis and appropriate treatment can improve symptoms and help prevent additional complications.

What is the treatment?

Boy with child psychologist
A child may be observed in order to diagnose and plan treatment for ADHD.

Doctors and researchers are still uncertain about what causes ADHD. It is thought to be associated with chemicals in the brain and may have links to genetics.

A doctor will ask about the child’s symptoms and assess their behavior to diagnose ADHD.

There is no single test for ADHD. A doctor will instead gather evidence from parents, teachers, and family members. They will then base their diagnosis on the answers and information given about behavior over the previous 6 months.

A physical examination will also be carried out to check for any additional or underlying health problems.

Medication

Treatment can be medication or behavioral therapies or a combination of the two.

The two types of medications used to help people with ADHD are stimulants and nonstimulants.

Central nervous system (CNS) stimulants, such as methylphenidate (Ritalin) and amphetamine-based stimulants (Adderall), are the most commonly prescribed medications to treat ADHD.

These drugs work by increasing the amount of the dopamine and norepinephrine in the brain.

Nonstimulant medications, such as atomoxetine (Strattera), and antidepressants, such as nortriptyline (Pamelor), are also sometimes used. These drugs work by increasing levels of norepinephrine in the brain.

Lifestyle changes

Parents can help their child manage ADHD symptoms. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend changes, including:

  • encouraging children to eat a nutritious, balanced diet
  • getting at least 1 hour of physical activity each day
  • getting plenty of sleep
  • limiting screen time each day, including phones, computers, and television

Days that are structured and where children understand what they will be doing may help to reduce symptoms.

Takeaway

ADHD cannot be prevented. However there are ways to support children and adults to enable them to manage the condition, so it has a minimal impact on their day-to-day lives.

Organizations like Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder or the Attention Deficit Disorder Association provide information about the disorder and tips to manage it.

The more parents educate themselves about the condition, the better equipped and more able to deal with it they will feel.