Kids are often unmatched for their energy and spur-of-the-moment ideas. (Lemonade stand in the dead of winter? Why not!) They can get so wrapped up in their thoughts that homework and other responsibilities drop off their radar. It’s unique qualities like these that make kids kids — and not tiny adults. But if these same characteristics are excessive — either in their intensity or frequency — they may signal that something else is going on.
Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is one of the most common childhood behavioral health conditions, affecting nearly 1 in 10 kids and teens in the U.S. Whether you’re concerned your child may be one of them, or they’ve been diagnosed and you’re trying to better understand the condition, here’s what to know.
What is ADHD?
ADHD is a constellation of signs and symptoms that are grouped into two categories: inattention and hyperactivity/impulsivity.
Some characteristics you could see in a child with predominantly inattentive ADHD:
Easily distracted when doing repetitive or dull activities
Trouble planning, starting, and finishing projects
Often seem like they’re not listening or that their mind is elsewhere
Frequently forget or lose things
Can’t easily remember things (like their classroom rules)
Kids with this type of ADHD may also get hyper-focused on high-novelty activities, like video games.
A child with predominantly hyperactive-impulsive ADHD could have characteristics like:
Fidgeting and trouble staying seated
Always “on the go”
Excessive talking (including interrupting and blurting out answers to questions)
Trouble taking turns
Needing frequent breaks at school
Doing things without thinking through the consequences
A child with combined (inattentive/hyperactive-impulsive) ADHD will show signs of both types.
What causes ADHD
There’s no single cause of ADHD. It’s thought to have both genetic and environmental roots. So far, we know from clinical research that:
Kids with ADHD may have fewer brain chemicals that regulate memory, attention, and movement.
Having a parent or older sibling with ADHD can raise a child’s risk.
Exposures to things like lead or cigarette smoke in early childhood may play a part.
Being born prematurely or after a difficult pregnancy is also a risk factor.
Some scientists have also speculated that ADHD may be an adaptive trait that’s persisted through human history to promote survival in changing environments. It makes sense — after all, kids with ADHD are natural problem solvers and deeply inventive.
How ADHD affects kids differently
Although the signs of ADHD occur in more than one setting (for example, at home, as well as at school), they often go unnoticed until a kid starts school full-time and takes on more responsibilities. Still, the signs can look different across age ranges and also across genders. Before we get into the findings, it’s worth noting that many initial studies on ADHD take a binary approach to gender (studying differences between boys and girls). This excludes gender-expansive young people, who may be diagnosed with ADHD at higher than average rates.
Boys may be more likely to have outwardly disruptive behavior — for instance, jumping up from their seat during class or calling out an answer without raising their hand. Girls may show more subtle ADHD symptoms, like trouble focusing and being withdrawn. They may miss assignments, be forgetful, or be described as “spacey.”
Systemic racism also impacts diagnosis rates of ADHD. Evidence-based studies indicate that children who are Black or Latinx may be diagnosed with ADHD less often than white children, and may be given diagnoses like Disruptive Behavior Disorder more frequently.
Overall, we need more research to better understand how ADHD diagnosis rates vary across the gender spectrum and racial identity.
How is ADHD diagnosed?
Some parents find it difficult to seek help, but a diagnosis is the first step to getting treatment for your child.
There’s no one test that can confirm ADHD. A diagnosis requires a comprehensive, thoughtful review of information from medical, developmental, educational and psychosocial evaluations. A few important things to keep in mind:
Signs of ADHD can overlap with normal kid behavior. Sometimes a kid who’s literally climbing the walls is simply “acting their age.”
Some other conditions mimic ADHD. These range from hearing problems and learning disabilities to anxiety and depression. (Around 60% of kids with ADHD also have another BH issue which may need extra support.)
Only a doctor or other healthcare provider can diagnose ADHD. To start the process, you’ll need to have an open conversation with them about how your child’s behavior affects their daily life, and how long that’s been going on.
Think of this as a “win-win” situation: if your concern is unfounded, your doctor can reassure you that there’s nothing to be concerned about. If your hunch is right, your doctor will help you find the resources and support that your child needs.
How ADHD is treated
ADHD is a lifelong but highly manageable condition, especially with a personalized, family-centered approach. While medication for kids 6 years and up has been shown to be safe and effective, treatment should also include:
General wellness (making sure your child gets enough sleep, eats well, and is active)
Family education and support (like parent management training and organizational skills)
Care for any other conditions (like anxiety, depression, or oppositional defiant disorder)
School support (like addressing a learning difference, requesting a daily report card from teachers, or developing a 504 plan or Individualized Education Program)
While all this info may seem overwhelming, remember: a child with ADHD can thrive. Olympians Michael Phelps and Simone Biles, actress Emma Watson, and Senator Scott Kelly, a former astronaut, have all spoken out about having ADHD! It’s a different way of seeing, and moving through, the world. You and your child can learn strategies to help them succeed, and we’re here to help along the way.
At Brightline, we have coach-led programs, therapy, and medication support available to help your child. ADHD puts a unique stress on parents, so we’re here for you to lean on, too. If you have concerns about your child’s behavior or you’d like to learn more about the services that Brightline offers, message our care team any time.