It’s normal for children to occasionally forget their homework, daydream during class, act without thinking, or get fidgety at the dinner table. But inattention, impulsivity, and hyperactivity are also signs of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD or ADD). ADHD can lead to problems at home and school and affect your child’s ability to learn and get along with others. The first step to addressing the problem and getting your child the help he or she needs is to learn to recognize the signs and symptoms of ADHD.
What is ADHD or ADD?
We all know kids who can’t sit still, who never seem to listen, who don’t follow instructions no matter how clearly you present them, or who blurt out inappropriate comments at inappropriate times. Sometimes these children are labeled as troublemakers, or criticized for being lazy and undisciplined. However, they may have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), formerly known as attention deficit disorder, or ADD. ADHD makes it difficult for people to inhibit their spontaneous responses—responses that can involve everything from movement to speech to attentiveness.
The signs and symptoms of ADHD typically appear before the age of seven. However, it can be difficult to distinguish between attention deficit disorder and normal “kid behavior.”
If you spot just a few signs, or the symptoms appear only in some situations, it’s probably not ADHD. On the other hand, if your child shows a number of ADHD signs and symptoms that are present across all situations—at home, at school, and at play—it’s time to take a closer look.
Once you understand the issues your child is struggling with, such as forgetfulness or difficulty paying attention in school, you can work together to find creative solutions and capitalize on strengths.
The primary characteristics of ADHD
When many people think of attention deficit disorder, they picture an out-of-control kid in constant motion, bouncing off the walls and disrupting everyone around. But this is not the only possible picture.
Some children with ADHD are hyperactive, while others sit quietly—with their attention miles away. Some put too much focus on a task and have trouble shifting it to something else. Others are only mildly inattentive, but overly impulsive.
The three primary characteristics of ADHD are inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity. The signs and symptoms a child with attention deficit disorder has depend on which characteristics predominate.
Children with ADHD may be:
- Inattentive, but not hyperactive or impulsive.
- Hyperactive and impulsive, but able to pay attention.
- Inattentive, hyperactive, and impulsive (the most common form of ADHD).
Children who only have inattentive symptoms of ADHD are often overlooked, since they’re not disruptive. However, the symptoms of inattention have consequences: getting in hot water with parents and teachers for not following directions; underperforming in school, or clashing with other kids over not playing by the rules.
Because we expect very young children to be easily distractible and hyperactive, it’s the impulsive behaviors—the dangerous climb, the blurted insult—that often stand out in preschoolers with ADHD.
By age four or five, though, most children have learned how to pay attention to others, to sit quietly when instructed to, and not to say everything that pops into their heads. So by the time children reach school age, those with ADHD stand out in all three behaviors: inattentiveness, hyperactivity, and impulsivity.
Inattentiveness signs and symptoms of ADHD
It isn’t that children with ADHD can’t pay attention: when they’re doing things they enjoy or hearing about topics in which they’re interested, they have no trouble focusing and staying on task. But when the task is repetitive or boring, they quickly tune out.
Staying on track is another common problem. Children with ADHD often bounce from task to task without completing any of them, or skip necessary steps in procedures. Organizing their schoolwork and their time is harder for them than it is for most children.
Kids with ADHD also have trouble concentrating if there are things going on around them; they usually need a calm, quiet environment in order to stay focused.
Symptoms of inattention in children:
- Has trouble staying focused; is easily distracted or gets bored with a task before it’s completed
- Appears not to listen when spoken to
- Has difficulty remembering things and following instructions; doesn’t pay attention to details or makes careless mistakes
- Has trouble staying organized, planning ahead, and finishing projects
- Frequently loses or misplaces homework, books, toys, or other items
Hyperactivity signs and symptoms of ADHD
The most obvious sign of ADHD is hyperactivity. While many children are naturally quite active, kids with hyperactive symptoms of attention deficit disorder are always moving.
They may try to do several things at once, bouncing around from one activity to the next. Even when forced to sit still which can be very difficult for them their foot is tapping, their leg is shaking, or their fingers are drumming.
Symptoms of hyperactivity in children:
- Constantly fidgets and squirms
- Has difficulty sitting still, playing quietly, or relaxing
- Moves around constantly, often runs or climbs inappropriately
- Talks excessively
- May have a quick temper or “short fuse”
Impulsive signs and symptoms of ADHD
The impulsivity of children with ADHD can cause problems with self-control. Because they censor themselves less than other kids do, they’ll interrupt conversations, invade other people’s space, ask irrelevant questions in class, make tactless observations, and ask overly personal questions.
Instructions like “Be patient” and “Just wait a little while” are twice as hard for children with ADHD to follow as they are for other youngsters.
Children with impulsive signs and symptoms of ADHD also tend to be moody and to overreact emotionally. As a result, others may start to view the child as disrespectful, weird, or needy.
Symptoms of impulsivity in children:
- Acts without thinking
- Guesses, rather than taking time to solve a problem or blurts out answers in class without waiting to be called on or hear the whole question
- Intrudes on other people’s conversations or games
- Often interrupts others; says the wrong thing at the wrong time
- Inability to keep powerful emotions in check, resulting in angry outbursts or temper tantrums
Is it really ADHD?
Just because a child has symptoms of inattention, impulsivity, or hyperactivity does not mean that he or she has ADHD. Certain medical conditions, psychological disorders, and stressful life events can cause symptoms that look like ADHD.
Before an accurate diagnosis of ADHD can be made, it is important that you see a mental health professional to explore and rule out the following possibilities:
Learning disabilities or problems with reading, writing, motor skills, or language.
Major life events or traumatic experiences (e.g. a recent move, death of a loved one, bullying, divorce).
Psychological disorders including anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder.
Behavioral disorders such as conduct disorder and oppositional defiant disorder.
Medical conditions, including thyroid problems, neurological conditions, epilepsy, and sleep disorders.