You likely have a slew of questions after your child’s recent ADHD symptoms or diagnosis. We’re answering common concerns and busting myths.

ADHD, or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, is one of the most common neurodevelopmental disorders in kids — meaning that it affects how the brain works.

The terms “ADHD” or “ADD” get thrown around as a synonym for “easily distracted.” But it’s so much more.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 10.8% of kids between ages 5 to 17 were diagnosed with ADHD in the United States, within a 2-year period.

Q: Short attention span is part of childhood. Is ADHD even a real disorder?

A: While it’s true that many kids are easily distracted and have a hard time sitting still, ADHD goes beyond both symptoms. ADHD is a complex condition that affects how kids think and act.

Several reputable organizations recognize ADHD as a legitimate disorder, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Psychological Association, American Psychiatric Association, National Institutes of Health (NIH), and National Institutes of Mental Health (NIMH).

ADHD tends to run in families, as demonstrated by twin, adoption, and family studies. Other research has found that the brains of people with ADHD look and function differently than those who are neurotypical.

For example, a 2018 study found that 4- and 5-year-olds who showed ADHD symptoms had smaller brains overall, along with reductions in specific brain regions, such as the frontal lobes. The greater the reductions, the more severe the kids’ symptoms.

A 2020 article in The Lancet delves deeper into the research on other possible brain variations related to ADHD.

Q: Can childhood stress cause ADHD?

A: Actually, childhood stress doesn’t cause ADHD. But they can co-occur and feed each other in a cycle. Kids with ADHD often have additional conditions. In some cases, they can experience traumatic stress after going through or witnessing a scary event, such as a car accident or a loved one’s death.

Oftentimes, children may experience more stress because of ADHD challenges with sleep, organization, and restlessness. This also impacts how your kids may cope with stress.

ADHD and traumatic stress’ co-occurrences can get confusing because both share similar symptoms. According to The National Child Traumatic Stress Network, kids with ADHD or traumatic stress can also experience changes with:

  • concentrating
  • listening
  • sleeping
  • organizing
  • feeling restless

To distinguish between childhood stress and ADHD, your child’s doctor needs to do a comprehensive evaluation (more on that below).

Q: Whatever happened to just ADD?

A: In the past, the term “ADD” (attention deficit disorder) described someone who had the inattentive type of ADHD, meaning they generally struggled with focusing but weren’t hyperactive.

Today, the overarching term ADHD has replaced the narrower ADD.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) features these three types of ADHD:

Predominately inattentive type

Symptoms of the inattentive type of ADHD include:

  • being easily distracted
  • missing details
  • having difficulty following directions
  • losing things
  • generally struggling with completing tasks
  • daydreaming

Predominantly hyperactive-impulsive type

Symptoms of the hyperactive-impulsive type of include:

  • fidgeting or squirming
  • talking a lot
  • making noise excessively
  • interrupting others
  • generally struggling with self-control
  • acting as if “driven by a motor

Combined type

This is the most common type of ADHD, where kids experience both inattentive and hyperactive symptoms.

Q: Are there symptoms of ADHD I might not know about?

A: Even though there’s been progress over the years, ADHD is still misunderstood and tends to get oversimplified. Stereotypes also overshadow the condition.

So, it’s very likely that you haven’t gotten completely accurate information about ADHD and what it looks like.

For example, ADHD isn’t a problem with paying attention. Kids with ADHD can often lose focus on some things — such as complex or what they consider boring tasks. But you might’ve noticed your kid can focus fully — sometimes for hours — on the things that interest them.

Hyperactivity can also look different in girls and boys, but not always. While boys might run around and struggle to sit still, girls might internalize their restlessness, sometimes struggling with decision-making and motivation.

Kids with ADHD often have a tough time:

What’s more, ADHD includes issues with executive function — skills that help us plan, prioritize, and complete complex tasks. Kids with ADHD tend to be behind their peers in these skills.

Overall, symptoms vary among kids with ADHD based on the type of ADHD, the level of severity, and co-occurring disorders.

In fact, the DSM-5 now requires mental health and healthcare professionals to specify whether symptoms are mild, moderate, or severe.

So, usually, no two kids with ADHD will look the same.

Q: How does ADHD affect a child’s schooling?

A: Depending on the severity of your child’s ADHD, they can have issues in school. Because of their inattention or inability to sit still, they can miss important information or make careless mistakes.

Other classmates’ responses to social disruptions from kids with ADHD can make what’s called “playground politics” even more difficult for your kid.

They might have a hard time concentrating on and completing homework assignments.

Your child’s tendency to get distracted may make it harder to tune out their environment to focus on taking a test. Their lack of organization may lead to lost assignments.

While ADHD causes academic impairments, your child can absolutely succeed and achieve great things with the right supports in place.

Q: Is there a specific test to diagnose ADHD?

A: There isn’t one test that definitively shows someone has ADHD. To make a diagnosis of ADHD, doctors need to conduct a comprehensive evaluation that includes interviews, screening tools, and other testing.

The guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommend your child’s doctor:

  • interview you about your child’s symptoms
  • talk with your kid about their symptoms
  • get information about your child’s symptoms from their teacher, school staff, and anyone else involved in their care
  • use rating scales to ensure DSM-5 criteria for ADHD is met
  • rule out conditions that may mimic ADHD symptoms
    (such as thyroid disease and hearing issues)
  • screen for other conditions that might accompany ADHD, including behavioral disorders (such as anxiety), developmental disorders
    (such as a learning disorder), and physical conditions
    (such as sleep disorders)
  • refer your child to a specialist for any co-occurring disorders the doctor doesn’t specialize in

Also, there is a long-standing “gold standard” of neuropsychological assessment that is used for ADHD, dementia, and a host of other conditions that affect the brain. It includes tests of attention, memory, executive functioning, and much more.

Q: What should we ask our doctor about our child’s ADHD? And how should we prepare for our first visit?

A: When going to your first appointment — or any appointment —remember that you have every right to ask questions. Beforehand, you can spend some time going over what you’d really like to know.

Here are some questions to get you started:

  • What severity and type of ADHD does my child have?
  • What are the best treatments for their ADHD?
  • If you recommend my child take medication, what specific symptoms does the medication reduce?
  • How will I know the medication is working?
  • What are the side effects? How can we minimize those side effects?
  • What behavioral treatments are best?
  • Does my child have any other conditions?
  • If so, how should we treat those conditions?
  • What is neuropsychological testing, and do we need it?

Q: Is Ritalin overprescribed? I heard your body continually becomes resistant, needing more and more over time.

A: When thinking about Ritalin or other ADHD meds, the question is really whether taking medication is the right choice for your child.

First, it’s critical to make sure you have an accurate diagnosis — did your child’s doctor do a comprehensive evaluation using interviews and screening tools, plus observing your child?

If you’re unsure about your child taking medication, try behavioral treatments first. See if symptoms improve without medication. And talk with your doctor about types of ADHD medication, including non-stimulant options.

On the question of resistance, it depends. There’s no universal answer or one-size-fits-all approach with ADHD meds. Some people may need a higher dose of their ADHD meds to achieve the same benefits, or they might need a different medication — while others won’t.

Again, this is an important question to discuss with your child’s doctor.

Q: We don’t want to medicate our child. Can we just use supplements?

A: For many kids and teens between 6 and 18 years old, medication is the mainstay of treatment, helping to enhance focus and reduce hyperactivity and impulsiveness.

Contrary to stigma, medication can greatly improve social functioning for children with ADHD. Meds can have a cascade of positive effects on school performance and engagement, emotional health, social belonging, and more.

Even so, medication is only one part of treatment.

Besides medication, for kids older than 6 years old, the AAP also recommends parent training in behavior management and/or behavioral classroom interventions.

Here’s more on behavioral treatments to try at home.

Some research suggests that certain supplements may help. A 2018 study found that kids with ADHD were deficient in vitamin D, and taking a vitamin-D supplement improved inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity.

A 2017 review found that kids and young adults who took supplements with essential fatty acids (which include omega-3 and omega-6) showed improvements in attention, short-term memory, hyperactivity, and impulsivity.

A different 2017 review on supplements found that zinc, iron, and magnesium may reduce ADHD symptoms in kids who have a deficiency of these minerals or are at risk for deficiencies.

But this research is still in its early stages. The Food and Drug Administration, unlike with medication, doesn’t approve or monitor supplements to ensure their safety and effectiveness.

Your best bet is to talk with your child’s doctor. Before your appointment, you may want to target your concerns. Consider:

  • What are my specific reservations about my child taking medication?
  • Why would I prefer my child take supplements?
  • What supplements am I interested in trying?

If it’s available to you, see a psychiatrist or pediatrician who specializes in working with kids with ADHD.

Q: My teen doesn’t want to continue medications any longer. What should I do?

A: If your teen refuses to take their ADHD medication, know you’re absolutely not alone. Doctors see this all the time.

However, this isn’t a hopeless situation. The key is to not gloss over your teen’s desire to discontinue. Taking medication can be difficult. Validate that.

Talk with your teen about why they’d like to stop their medication. What are their concerns? Can you come up with solutions together?

For example, if specific side effects are suppressing their appetite or shortening their sleep, you can collaborate with your teen and their doctor on ways to eat more and sleep better. Maybe they can switch to a different medication that works better and has fewer issues for them personally.

Or, maybe you agree to take a monthlong break, followed by an appointment with their doctor to review how they felt. Either way, try to work as a team.

Q: What could, and should, my child’s school be doing to help?

A: Your child’s teacher and school or district psychologist are an important part of their academic success. Because of this, it’s important everyone work together to support your child’s challenges and strengths.

Here are some specific options (which research backs):

Behavioral classroom management: Together with the school’s or district’s staff psychologist or behavior analyst — plus your child’s teacher — you can develop specific behaviors to encourage and discourage in the classroom using a reward system or daily report card.

Here’s more about setting up a behavior management plan for your child.

Organizational training: Kids with ADHD learn skills to manage their time, plan, and keep track of their materials.

Children and teens with ADHD can also receive special education services and accommodations under two federal laws:

  • The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, Part B (IDEA), which provides an individualized education program (IEP) to meet the unique needs of your child
  • Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, called a 504 Plan, which provides for augmentations of the learning environment

Under these laws, your child might get accommodations like:

  • sitting in a different, less-distracting area of the classroom
  • having extra time to complete an assignment or test
  • getting both written and verbal instructions
  • taking a test in a different room
  • getting breaks to move around

You can explore 504 Plans and IEPs here.

A note on IEP/504 plans

The difference between an IEP and a 504 plan is the amount of accommodation your child will need for success.

It’s important to weigh the pros and cons of this decision for your child. These programs tend to stick with the child’s record as they move from school to school.

Also, it may create some headaches for parents should the school remove an IEP or you change your mind and decide you’d no longer like your child to be in an accommodation plan or program.

You can learn more about your child with ADHD’s rights here.

Also, check out these resources from CHADD, along with this fact sheet on sample classroom accommodations.

Q: Can my kid outgrow ADHD?

A: For years, experts assumed that ADHD affected only kids. Some ADHD symptoms do indeed decline with age. But in general, ADHD tends to follow kids into adolescence and then adulthood.

For example, while hyperactivity can wane, inattention and impulsivity can persist. This means that teens may experience academic and social challenges. Teens with ADHD are also likely to angle impulsivity toward substance use and sexual behavior.

One study found that teen drivers with ADHD had a 62% higher crash rate in their first month after getting a license and a 37% higher rate in their first four years of driving.

Multiple research studies show that most adults have lingering ADHD symptoms, particularly inattentive ones, that can complicate their day-to-day life. Adults with ADHD can have a tough time completing tasks, paying bills, and performing at work.

Curious if you, or another adult you know might have yet undiagnosed ADHD? Here’s an article about adult ADHD.

But there’s good news.

Research also shows that treating ADHD significantly improves outcomes. A 2015 review of 51 studies found that different treatments, including medication treatment, alternative therapies, and a combination of both, improved self-esteem, social function, academic achievement, and driving.

In the studies, medication treatment referred to meds for ADHD, while non-medication treatments included a wide range of interventions, such as behavioral therapy, psychotherapy, parent training, and academic mentoring.

ADHD is a common neurodevelopmental disorder that affects each child differently. Symptoms may be mild, moderate, or severe and come in one of three types: inattentive, hyperactive/impulsive, or a combination.

Though symptoms vary greatly, kids with ADHD often experience issues in different settings, including school. But with treatment, kids and teens with ADHD absolutely thrive.

You can learn more about treatment here.

Plus, you have options if your child’s ADHD treatment doesn’t seem to be working anymore.