Attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is mental health condition that can cause more than just having trouble paying attention. If you’re a parent whose child struggles with ADHD, it can be difficult to manage daily activities – especially those that require organization, planning and focus. ADHD is challenging. But once you understand the condition, and how it affects your child’s life, you can learn to help your child compensate for areas of weakness and take advantage of his or her strengths and talents.
ADHD in Children
Would it surprise you to know that ADHD is one of the most common childhood conditions? In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 11 percent of children 4 – 17 years old have been diagnosed with ADHD, and about 13 percent of boys are diagnosed with ADHD compared to 5 percent of girls. As many as 50 percent of children who are diagnosed with ADHD experience symptoms into adulthood.
But what does ADHD look like, exactly?
Your child may sometimes forget his or her homework, or have difficulty focusing in class. He might occasionally act without thinking. Or, perhaps she becomes fidgety at the dinner table. It’s normal for your child to exhibit these behaviors from time to time – almost all children act this way now and again.
But knowing whether it’s normal “child behavior” or ADHD can be difficult. The key difference is that for children who have ADHD, problems with inattention, impulsivity and hyperactivity are much more persistent, severe and intense. There’s a difference between an energetic child and one whose activity level causes persistent problems. Or a friendly, talkative child and one whose excessive talking is an ongoing source of difficulty.
If your child exhibits only a few symptoms in certain situations, he or she probably does not have ADHD. However, your child may have ADHD if he or she:
- Consistently shows five or more symptoms, with symptoms beginning before age 7
- Has symptoms that are regularly present for six months or more
- Has symptoms in all situations (at home, at school and at play)
- Has symptoms that cause impairment in at least two situations (at home and at school, or at school and at play, for example)
There are many misconceptions about ADHD. This can make it hard to know what’s true and how to support your child. Here, we’ve identified common myths and followed them up with facts to help you feel more confident in you ADHD knowledge:
Myth: All children who have ADHD are hyperactive.
While hyperactivity is the most common symptom of ADHD, it is possible for a child to suffer from the disorder without being hyperactive. Children who have ADHD and are inattentive, but not overly active, may appear to be “daydreamy” or in their own world.
Myth: Children who have ADHD cannot pay attention.
Children living with ADHD do struggle to focus on repetitive, mundane activities. However, they can easily engaged in, and focus on, activities they find interesting and challenging. In fact, their focus is stronger than that of most other children. It’s about finding the right combination of interest and challenge that makes paying attention effortless for children who have ADHD.
Myth: Children who have ADHD can behave better if they wanted to.
Children living with ADHD may to their best to behave appropriately, but they may still be unable to control impulses or pay attention. They may appear to be disobedient, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re acting out on purpose.
Myth: Children will eventually grow out of ADHD.
Approximately 70 out of 100 children who have ADHD continue to experience symptoms during their teen years, and about 50 out of 100 children have symptoms into adulthood. Don’t wait for your child to outgrown the condition. Instead, help your child find appropriate treatment so he or she can learn to manage, and minimize, symptoms.
Myth: Medication is the best treatment option for ADHD.
Although medication is often prescribed for ADHD, it may not be the best option for your child. Effective treatment also includes education, behavior therapy, support at home and at school, exercise and proper nutrition.
Subsets and Symptoms
Because everyone is different, no two children who have ADHD will experience the same symptoms in the same way. For example, some children may be hyperactive, while others sit quietly with their attention miles away. Still others might put too much focus on a task, while some are mildly inattentive but overly impulsive.
There are three subsets of ADHD. Your child’s strongest, most frequent symptoms determine which subset of ADHD he or she has.
- Predominately inattentive presentation
- Predominantly hyperactive-impulsive presentation
- Combined presentation
Your child may have a predominately inattentive presentation of ADHD if at least six of these are his or her strongest, most frequent symptoms:
- Doesn’t pay attention to details
- Makes careless mistakes in schoolwork
- Has trouble staying focused, or is easily distracted
- Appears not to listen when spoken to directly
- Has difficulty remembering things and following instructions
- Has trouble staying organized, planning ahead and finishing tasks
- Often avoids, dislikes or is reluctant to complete tasks that require sustained focus
- Frequently loses or misplaces homework, books, toys or other items
Your child may have a predominately hyperactive-impulsive presentation of ADHD if at least six of these are his or her strongest, most frequent symptoms:
- Often very impatient
- Acts without thinking
- Blurts out answers during class without being called on or hearing the whole question
- Doesn’t wait for his or turn
- Often interrupts others conversations and/or games
- Has difficult keeping emotions in check
- Constantly fidgets and squirms
- Often leaves his or her seat in situations when remaining seated is expected
- Constantly moves around, often running or climbing in inappropriate situations
- Is often unable to quietly play or take part in leisure activities
- Has difficulty playing quietly or relaxing
- Is often “on the go,” as if driven by a motor
Your child may have a combined presentation of ADHD if he or she experiences at least six symptoms each of inattention and hyperactivity-impulsivity.
It’s important to remember that for an ADHD diagnosis, your child’s symptoms must:
- Begin before age 7
- Be consistently present for six months or more
- Be present in all situations (at home, at school, at play)
- Cause impairment in at least two situations (at home and at school, or at school and at play, for example)
Is it really ADHD?
Many children have trouble paying attention, act without thinking or move around when they should be sitting still. But these symptoms don’t always mean children have ADHD. ADHD symptoms can often look very similar to symptoms of other conditions. Before an ADHD diagnosis is made, it’s important talk with your family physician to explore and rule other possibilities, which may include:
- Learning disabilities. Children with learning disabilities may have difficulty understanding certain sounds or words, or they might struggle with reading, spelling, writing or math. And they may become frustrated with these struggles, and exhibit symptoms that look like ADHD. These symptoms may include not paying attention, focusing or acting appropriately.
- Major life events. Children who have experienced a major life event like a recent move, the loss of a loved one, bullying or divorce may show symptoms of ADHD. It’s not uncommon for children’s behavior to change to act out their fears, losses, anger and stress. However, these disruptions may pass if children are given a chance to talk about, and receive support for, their feelings and concerns.
- Hearing problems. It may be difficult to diagnose hearing problems in young children who do not know how to fully express themselves. Children who have hearing impairments have a hard time paying attention because they cannot hear properly. Missing details of conversations may appear to be caused by children’s lack of focus, when they simply cannot follow along. Children who have hearing problems may also have difficulty in social situations and have underdeveloped communication skills.
- Sleep disorders. Children living with ADHD tend to have difficulty calming down and falling asleep. However, some children who suffer from sleep disorders may display symptoms of ADHD during waking hours without actually having the disorder. Lake of sleep causes difficulty concentrating, communicate and following directions. It can also create a decrease in short-term memory.
- Bipolar disorder. It can be very hard to tell the difference between ADHD and bipolar disorder. These two conditions share several symptoms, including outbursts, restlessness, talkativeness and impatience. Bipolar disorder is also characterized by dramatic changes in mood. And while bipolar disorder is a mood disorder, ADHD affects attention and behavior.
The exact cause of ADHD is unknown, although researchers continue to study the brain for clues. They suspect there are several factors that may contribute to the condition, including:
- Heredity. ADHD tends to run in families, which suggests that children may inherit a tendency to develop the condition from their parents.
- Chemical imbalance. Experts believe an imbalance of brain chemicals may play a role in the development of ADHD symptoms.
- Brain changes. Areas of the brain that control attention are less active in children who have ADHD than in children who do not have the condition.
Helping Your Child Cope with ADHD
Life with a child who has ADHD can be overwhelming. But, as a parent, there is much you can do to help control and reduce your child’s symptoms. The earlier, and more consistently, you address your child’s behavior, the greater their chance for success.
Here are a few things you can try:
- Keep a positive attitude. It’s better to focus on your child’s successes in overcoming ADHD, and less on the challenges of the condition. Make sure your child’s strengths, goals and interested help determine the way you provide support. For example, if your child is always moving, consider engaging him or her in running, martial arts, dance or other activities in which ADHD symptoms much help your child excel. It’s helpful to create experiences that build on your child’s strengths. And, keeping a positive attitude is a great tool in helping your child cope with ADHD.
- Create and maintain structure. Children living with ADHD are more likely to succeed when they have a regular daily schedule. They can experience serious problems if their daily schedule changes, of if they are forced to make a big change. So, creating and maintaining supportive structure is very important. Here are some ways you might create and maintain structure for your child:
- Establish and follow a routine for doing homework, socializing, eating meals and sleeping. Make sure you set a time and place for each activity your child needs to complete during the day.
- Use clocks and timers throughout your home. Set a specific amount of time for each activity, including getting ready for school in the morning or completing homework. You can also use a timer for transitional times like between finishing playtime and getting ready for bed.
- Do your best to be neat and organized. Set up your home in an organized way, and make sure your child know that everything has its place. This may include color coding items for your child, or using labels to assign specific areas for your child’s belongings.
- Set clear expectations and rules. Children who have ADHD do well with clear, simple rules and expectations they can easily understand and follow. Write down your rules and expectations, and post them somewhere your child can easily read them. Children living with ADHD also respond well to an organized, consistent system of rewards and consequences. It’s important to explain the consequences when the rules are broken, and the consequences should only punish the behavior – not the child. You should also praise your child when he or she obeys the rules. Rewards should be immediate experiences or activities with you or your spouse to encourage bonding.
- Encourage movement and sleep. Children who have ADHD have energy to burn. Organize sports and activities can help them increase their self-esteem and unleash their energy in a safe, productive way. Children living with ADHD who exercise regularly get more sleep, which can reduce ADHD symptoms. Establish a bedtime routine that encourages healthy sleep.
- Focus on your child’s social skills. Children living with ADHD often have difficulty making friends. They may have trouble reading social cues, talking too much or interrupting. Their emotional immaturity may cause them to stand out among their peers, which can contribute to lower self-esteem. You can help your child learn appropriate social skills by talking to your child about any challenges with peers, and coming up with positive solutions. You can also allow your child to invite a classmate over to play. This is a great opportunity for you to watch your child’s behavior closely, and correct any negative behavior or praise any positive behavior.
- Work with your child’s school. Make sure you communicate with your child’s school nurse, teacher(s) and other educators about your child’s ADHD symptoms, as well as their observations of your child’s behavior at school. It’s important to work together to develop common rewards, behavioral interventions and language to be used at home and at school. This will help create a sense of structure and consistency.
You can read more about ADHD on the National Resource Center on ADHD website.
For professional help, call the Parkview Behavioral Health HelpLine at (260) 373-7500 or (800) 284-8439, anytime 24 hours a day. Our dedicated assessment specialists are available to guide you to the appropriate level of care – or resources – for your situation.