Recognizing ADHD Symptoms in Children

There's a great deal that can be done to help kids adjust and work around the challenges of having ADHD.

Attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is currently the most commonly diagnosed behavioral disorder in children. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, ADHD in kids has grown. Nearly 10% of children ages 4 to17 have been diagnosed with ADHD, and diagnosis rates have risen sharply in recent years, with the percentage of children with parent-reported ADHD jumping 22% from 2003 to 2007. To make sense of the growing numbers of ADHD in kids, it helps to get a better understanding of the disorder itself and how it manifests in children.

ADHD in kids affects how a child's brain processes and organizes information and manages impulses, which in turn affects his or her behavior. The condition can vary from mild to severe and tends to be more common in boys than in girls. If left untreated, it can make succeeding in school much tougher for a child and traveling the path to responsible young adulthood much rockier. This underscores the importance of early diagnosis and intervention. Fortunately, there's a great deal that parents, teachers, family members, and doctors can do to help kids adjust and work around the challenges of having ADHD so they can grow and thrive in school, relationships, and other areas of their lives.

How to Spot ADHD Symptoms in Children

What does ADHD in kids look like? When gathering information to make a diagnosis, a healthcare provider will look for symptoms that fall into the following three main categories. Keep in mind that it's normal for any young child to display some of these behaviors from time to time, which makes diagnosing ADHD tricky.

Symptom 1: Inattention
What to watch for:

  • He has trouble staying focused on a lesson, a show, a story, or a game.
  • His interest in activities is short-lived, and he gets bored quickly.
  • You have to repeat instructions and reexplain yourself often. He seems to have trouble processing new information.
  • He's easily distracted by anything and everything -- even a fly on the wall.
  • He has a tendency to lose things, like his jacket, backpack, or lunch box.
  • He often makes careless mistakes with school work on things you know he knows.
  • You have to hound him to finish homework assignments or chores.
  • He has a hard time finishing school assignments and projects that require sustained concentration.
  • He seems to be off in his own little world a lot, not tuned in to what's going on. 

Symptom 2: Hyperactivity
What to watch for:

  • She's fidgety and has trouble sitting still, particularly when trying to read or do focused activities.
  • She rarely plays quietly by herself for long.
  • She's a constant narrator, always talking.
  • She springs into action at inappropriate times or places, such as running in stores and climbing on furniture. 

Symptom 3: Impulsivity
What to watch for:

  • He has very little patience.
  • He doesn't wait his turn when playing with others.
  • He interrupts others even though you've instructed him not to.
  • He frequently blurts out answers to questions in class instead of raising his hand. 

A child doesn't need to show all of these symptom types in order to have ADHD -- he or she may struggle with just one or two types. Most doctors and specialists recognize three main subtypes of ADHD categorized by the main type(s) of symptoms displayed:

  • Inattentive-type ADHD: Inattention symptoms listed above interfere with a child's daily functioning, mainly his or her ability to pay attention, follow instructions, remember details, and complete assignments and other tasks.
  • Hyperactive/impulsive-type ADHD: In these cases, children have a combo of symptoms 1 and 2, like having trouble sitting still, and are super active because of restlessness, which can lead to bursts of activity -- such as running, jumping, or climbing on things -- at inappropriate times. These children are often impatient and have trouble listening, waiting their turn, and not interrupting others. Impulsive tendencies may make them more reckless and more prone to accidents and injuries.
  • Combined-type ADHD: This is the most common type of ADHD, and in these cases, a mix of all the three types of symptoms interfere with a child's ability to function.

Kids Just Being Kids?

These behaviors might sound like pretty typical kid behavior, and to a certain extent, they are. It's normal for your child to daydream from time to time or to act out inappropriately now and then. All these things can be expected occasionally from a developing young child who's just starting to take on more grown-up behavior and social skills. Learning the ways of the world can take time. But at what point can you start to tell whether these behaviors are signs of a larger problem for your child?

How to Tell Whether It's Really ADHD

The short answer is that in kids with ADHD, these behaviors are more extreme, frequent, and persistent -- and noticeably interfere with their relationships and their ability to learn, function, and mature. Early elementary school -- around the age of 6 -- is often a good time to tell whether these behaviors might be caused by ADHD, because it's around the age that many kids begin outgrowing the behaviors associated with ADHD. They start getting used to being in a structured classroom setting, paying attention and listening to teachers, using self-control, and socializing more with others. While others start to mature and outgrow the behaviors listed above, kids with ADHD do not, and their actions start to stand out as problematic. At this point, it may become clear that these behaviors and habits are getting in the way of healthy development and learning and may also be causing problems at home.

If your child has shown symptoms of ADHD on a regular basis for longer than 6 months, talk with your doctor.

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