Has your child or teenager ever had trouble concentrating, found it hard to sit still, interrupted others during a conversation, or acted impulsively without thinking things through? Can you recall times when your child or teen was lost in a seemingly endless train of daydreams or had difficulty focusing on the task at hand?
Most of us can picture our child or teenage son or daughter acting this way from time to time. But for some children and teens, these and other exasperating behaviors are uncontrollable, persistently plaguing their day-to-day existence and interfering with their ability to form lasting friendships or succeed in school and at home. Left untreated, such symptoms can even impact their ability to get into the college they want, or advance in their desired career.
Learn more: Frequently Asked Questions About Childhood ADHD
Learn more: ADHD Fact Sheet
Symptoms of ADHD
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ADD is characterized by a pattern of inattentive behavior, often combined with impulsivity and in some, hyperactivity. In children or teens, this pattern of behavior makes it difficult to focus on details, sustain attention in school (e.g., they will fidget in class or simply not pay attention), listen to others, and follow through on instructions or chores. Organizing an activity or task can be next to impossible, and the person is readily distracted by things going on around them. They may seem forgetful, misplacing or losing things needed in in order to complete a task that needs to get done.
A child or teen diagnosed with ADD may or may not also have hyperactivity, which is a set of behaviors characterized by unstoppable fidgeting, not staying seated while in class, climbing on furniture or running about when it’s not play time, talks excessively, and cannot seem to play quietly.
ADHD usually appears first in childhood, before age 12.
Learn more: Symptoms of Childhood ADHD
Learn more: Problems & Diagnoses Related to ADHD
Causes & Diagnosis of ADHD
The name ‘attention deficit disorder’ was first introduced in 1980 in the third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the reference manual for mental illness in the United States. In 1994 the definition was altered to include three different types of groups: the predominantly hyperactive-impulsive type; the predominantly inattentive type; and the combined type (in the DSM-5, these are now referred to as “presentations”).
The causes remain unknown, but ADHD can be diagnosed and effectively treated. Many resources are available to support families in managing ADHD behaviors when they occur. Many professionals and researchers believe neurobiological and genetic elements play an important role in the cause of this condition. In addition, numerous social factors such as family conflict and poor child-rearing practices — while not causing the condition — may complicate the course of ADHD and its treatment.
There is no medical or lab test that can assess this condition in your pediatrician’s or doctor’s office. Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD, also sometimes referred to as just plain attention deficit disorder or ADD) does not show physical signs that can be detected by a blood or other lab test*. Some ADHD symptoms can overlap or look like other physical and psychological disorders.
Childhood ADD is usually diagnosed by a pediatrician or a child psychologist, but can also be diagnosed by other mental health specialists, and less reliably, by a family physician. The most accurate and reliable diagnosis should only be made by a child specialist (such as a child psychologists or pediatrician). If in doubt about your child’s diagnosis, please seek out a second opinion
Learn more: Causes & Risk Factors of Childhood ADHD
Learn more: Getting Help for Your Child & ADHD Prognosis
If left untreated, the symptoms of this condition will generally not get better on their own. While some parents like to take the “wait and see” attitude, most children and teens will immediately see benefits at home, school, and in play with others when they get treatment. Not only can it help with academics, it can also help with your child’s or teen’s socialization skills.
Sometimes a child with ADD may be incorrectly diagnosed with a behavioral problem or a developmental disorder. It is vital that in the first step of treatment, your child or teen receives a reliable diagnosis from a child mental health specialist, such as a child psychologist or child psychiatrist.
ADD in children and teenagers is readily treatable, although finding the right treatment that works best for your child may be a bit of trial-and-error. The most common treatments for this condition include certain types of medications (called stimulants) and, for some, psychotherapy focused on behavioral interventions. Psychotherapy alone can also be an effective treatment, but many parents feel more comfortable having their child or teen take a daily medication. You should explore all your treatment options for your child, however, before you make a final decision.
- Child ADHD Treatment
- Comprehensive Treatment of Childhood ADHD
- ADHD Behavioral Interventions for the Home
- Setting Up a Behavior Management Plan for an ADHD Child
- When Your Child’s ADHD Treatment Stops Working
- Medications Used in the Treatment of Attention-Deficit / Hyperactivity Disorder
Talking to Your Child
It’s not always easy trying to talk to your child or teenager about this condition. Invisible illnesses can be hard for a young child to understand, and may be stigmatized by a teenager as just calling out one more thing that they perceive is wrong with them. In some cases, your efforts may fall on deaf ears. For others, the conversation may be instead met with relief that school problems may have a ready solution.
In any case, your child or teen needs to become a willing participant in their own treatment and care. The more they understand that this is not a personal failing of their own or some sort of character flaw, the easier it will be for them to maintain the gains they achieve while in treatment.
Learn more: How to Talk To Your Kids About ADHD
Learn more: 8 Tips to Tell Your Child They Have ADHD
Living With & Helping Your Child Manage Their ADHD
Your teenager or child is going to have a lot of challenges in living with and managing their condition. You should look at yourself like a supporter to help them be as successful as possible with this. If they want to talk to someone, like a therapist, that should be an option available to them. And keep in mind — their treatment is a personal, private matter. Don’t pry into their lives under the guise of “just trying to be helpful” unless they ask for your assistance.
Here are 10 of our very best articles you may find useful in the journey:
- Helping Your Child With ADHD
- Helping Your Kids Keep Organized with Childhood ADHD
- 21 Tips for Raising Kids with ADHD When You Have ADHD Too
- Parenting Kids with ADHD: 16 Tips to Tackle Common Challenges
- ADHD & Kids: 9 Tips to Tame Tantrums
- How to Handle Hyperactivity in Kids with ADHD
- Motivational Strategies for Children with ADHD
- 10 Strategies for Helping Kids with ADHD Build Self-Confidence
- 9 Surefire Strategies That Don’t Work for Kids with ADHD
- The Biggest Myths About Girls with ADHD
Getting help for this condition isn’t always easy, as your child or teen may not want to acknowledge that there’s something wrong with their ability to concentrate and focus. Some people may see it as a weakness, and taking a medication as a “crutch.” None of this is true. ADD is simply a mental disorder, and one that is readily treated.
There are many ways to get started in treatment. Many people start by taking the child or teen to see their pediatrician or family doctor in order to make an initial diagnosis. While that’s a good start, you’re encouraged to also consult a mental health specialist right away too. Specialists — like child psychologists and psychiatrists — can more reliably diagnose a mental disorder than a family doctor can.
Some people may feel more comfortable reading more about the condition first. While we have a great library of resources here, we also have a set of recommended ADD/ADHD books and a peer-led, online ADD support group just for this condition.
Take action: Find a local treatment provider
Watch Our Recommended Video on What Families Need to Know About Childhood ADHD
* – Note: Some practitioners claim there are brain scan tests like SPECT that can “diagnose” ADHD; however these tests are experimental and used for research purposes only. No insurance company reimburses for such brain scan tests, and no research has demonstrated they are any more accurate or reliable than traditional diagnostic measures for ADHD.
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.
Barkley, R.A., Murphy, K.R. & Fischer, M. (2010). ADHD in Adults: What the Science Says. New York: Guilford Press.
Hallowell, E.M. & Ratey, J.J. (2011). Driven to Distraction (Revised): Recognizing and Coping with Attention Deficit Disorder. Anchor Press.
Millichap, J.G. (2011). Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder Handbook: A Physician’s Guide to ADHD (2nd ed.). New York: Springer.
National Institute of Mental Health. (2019). Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Retrieved from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/attention-deficit-hyperactivity-disorder-adhd/index.shtml on February 22, 2019.
Nigg, J.T. (2017). Getting Ahead of ADHD: What Next-Generation Science Says about Treatments That Work—and How You Can Make Them Work for Your Child. New York: Guilford.