ADHD affects millions of children and teens. These days, ADHD means more than just being ‘too hyper’ – it covers a wide range of behaviors.

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is one of the most common conditions diagnosed in children ages 2-17. It affects about 6 million (9.4%) children in the United States, according to the latest figures from 2016.

There’s a wide range of behaviors associated with ADHD. Many of which can look a lot like common childhood behaviors.

So, how do you know when your child’s symptoms are a sign they have ADHD?

Let’s take a deeper look at how ADHD looks in children and teens.

ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder, meaning it can affect the way a person behaves and learns. Its major symptoms are inattention, impulsivity, and hyperactivity.

Like with any condition, symptoms can look different from person to person. Every person with ADHD has different needs. Some may need more support, while others may need less.

And having any of these symptoms doesn’t necessarily mean that your child or teen has ADHD.

An evolving diagnosis

The term “attention deficit disorder” (ADD) was first introduced in 1980 in the third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders — the reference manual used to diagnose mental conditions in the United States.

In 1994, the definition was revised to include three 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”).

After this revision, ADD was considered outdated and no longer used.

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You can find out more about ADHD facts and statistics here.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (APP) has grouped ADHD into three types – predominately inattentive, predominately hyperactivity-impulsive, and a combination of both.

Predominately inattentive

This type of ADHD is characterized primarily by inattention and distractibility.

Children or teens with this type may be easily distracted and have difficulty staying organized, following directions, or completing a task.

Predominately hyperactive-impulsive type

Children or teens with this type of ADHD have symptoms of hyperactivity and impulsivity. They may fidget, feel restless, interrupt others, talk a lot, and have a hard time sitting still (e.g., for a meal or doing school work).

Due to a higher chance of impulsive behaviors, children or teens with this type may be more likely to have accidents and injuries.

Combined hyperactive-impulsive and inattentive

This is the most common type of ADHD. Children or teens with this combined type have both hyperactive and inattentive symptoms.

The type of ADHD your child or teen has will determine how they’ll be treated. The type can change over time, so treatment will likely change, too.

It’s normal for children to daydream in class, forget their homework, lose their toys, act without thinking, or have a hard time sitting still for long periods.

That’s why it can be challenging to tell whether your child has ADHD or if they’re acting like a “kid.” For some, these behaviors happen only in some situations and only occur every so often.

But for those with ADHD, these behaviors may be more severe and happen more frequently, often leading to problems at home, school, and with friends.

The impacts of ADHD on girls are different than boys, especially in peer relationships. The awareness of ADHD in girls is often missed as their symptoms generally are not as severe as they are in boys.

The symptoms of ADHD your child or teen has will depend on the type of ADHD they have. They may have some or all of these symptoms.

Some common ones include:

  • difficulty sitting still
  • easily distracted
  • trouble focusing or concentrating on tasks
  • forgetful in daily activities
  • loses things needed to complete a task/activity (e.g., school materials)
  • interrupts or intrudes on others (e.g., butts into conversations or games)
  • difficulty waiting their turn

You can find out more here about symptoms of childhood and teen ADHD.

Although ADHD is a common condition, the exact causes and risk factors for the condition are unknown. Many doctors and researchers believe a variety of factors may play a role in its development.

Genetics is one of those factors. A 2018 review of family, twin, and adoption studies shows that ADHD may run in families.

Research from 2008 suggests that low levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine – which is associated with pleasure and reward – may also contribute to symptoms of ADHD.

More recent research suggests that children born prematurely or with a low birth weight have an increased chance of being diagnosed with ADHD.

Researchers are studying possible causes and risk factors of ADHD, such as brain injury and exposure to substance use during pregnancy.

Want to know more? You can find out more about causes and risk factors of childhood ADHD here.

Parents are usually the first to notice signs of ADHD in their child. If you notice symptoms of ADHD in your child or teen, you can talk with your pediatrician about an evaluation for the condition.

There’s no medical or blood test for ADHD. But doctors will look at your child’s behavior to help them make a diagnosis.

Your doctor will likely gather information about their behavior in different settings – at school, home, or with friends – from teachers, family members, and any other adults involved in their care.

A rating scale and other sources, such as a checklist, may be used to document symptoms and make sure that specific guidelines for diagnosing ADHD have been met.

The average age of diagnosis is 7 years old. But severe ADHD can be diagnosed as early as 5 years old.

During the evaluation, the doctor will also work to determine if another condition may be causing the symptoms or if another condition is occurring simultaneously. Among children ages 2-17 diagnosed with ADHD, nearly two-thirds (64%) also had another co-existing condition, such as anxiety or depression.

If your doctor suspects ADHD, they may refer you to an ADHD specialist. Before your appointment, it may helpful to make a list of your child’s behaviors and gather any observations or notes from teachers and counselors to provide to your doctor.

If parents can, consider an independent evaluation by a psychologist who specializes in these conditions. Depending on the diagnosis, you may also be referred to a child psychiatrist or neurologist for additional testing.

Given the amount of information available about ADHD and its stigma, it’s not uncommon for parents to have concerns after their child receives an ADHD diagnosis.

But the good news is that ADHD is treatable, and with the right treatment plan, you can learn to manage those behaviors and improve symptoms.

The most common treatments for this condition include medication, behavioral therapies, or both.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends behavioral therapy as a first-line treatment for children younger than 6. For children 6 years and older, a combination of behavior therapy and medication is recommended.

Behavioral therapy is often used to help you and your child or teen learn to monitor and manage their behavior. It typically also involves parent training in behavior management.

Another type of therapy, psychotherapy or talk therapy, may also be used to help manage behavior. In talk therapy, you and your child or teen will talk about how ADHD affects your daily lives, and the therapist will give you tools to use to help manage it.

Medication, such as stimulants or non-stimulants, may also be helpful in managing behavior and improving symptoms. These medications work by acting on chemicals in the brain – dopamine and norepinephrine.

You can take a deeper dive into ADHD treatments in children and teens here.

After a diagnosis of ADHD, many parents can feel overwhelmed and unsure of what to do next.

And that’s OK. You’re not alone. If you work closely with your child’s doctor, you can learn to monitor your child’s behaviors and make changes along the way to help manage those behaviors.

Your child’s school may also be a part of your management plan. ADHD qualifies for a 504 plan, which schools developed to support kids with disabilities. In fact, the AAP recommends adding classroom intervention strategies and school support to a behavioral therapy plan for ADHD.

Finding the right management plan can take a little trial and error, but once you find one that works for you and your family, it will be worth it.

Remember, not every child with ADHD has the same needs and routines, and what works for one may not work for another.

For some, it may be helpful to make a daily to-do list to help them stay organized and on track throughout the day. For others, creating calendar reminders and alarms helps them stay on task.

It’s important to find the approach that fits you and your family and helps make managing daily tasks and activities easier for you.

If you want to know more, you can find more tips for living with ADHD here.

If you think your child or teen has ADHD, you’ve already taken the first step — educating yourself about the condition.

The AAP recommends talking with your child’s doctor as the next step. They can refer you to a specialist who will provide an in-depth evaluation and make a diagnosis.

There are also organizations that can provide additional information, support, and resources to help you and your family manage the tasks of everyday life.

Some organizations that can help include:

If you want to find out more about resources for ADHD, click here.