What Is ADHD?

By Sarah Fader |Updated September 22, 2022

Attention deficit hyperactive disorder, better known as ADHD and formerly, somewhat inaccurately called ADD (attention deficit disorder) is a chronic neurodevelopmental disorder. It affects millions of children and adults every year and is one of the most commonly diagnosed illnesses in kids and adolescents.

This is an extremely common disorder, which affects just over 10% of the children in the United States according to the CDC. While there is no known specific cause for why someone might develop ADHD, the science behind the disorder explains there may be a difference in brain chemicals (neurotransmitters) between those with and without ADHD. Additionally, some research suggests that people with this disorder may have differences in specific regions of the brain.

Symptoms of ADHD can vary from person to person, but in general, the condition is known to cause hyperactive, impulsive, inattentive, fidgety behavior. The affected child may have trouble focusing on any one thing and might often perform poorly in school.

ADHD is divided into three subtypes:

  1. Predominantly inattentive
  2. Predominantly hyperactive-impulsive
  3. Combined type

Approximately two-thirds of the time, other disorders can be present along with ADHD. While the disorder does not lead to psychological problems, research has shown that children with ADHD are more likely to experience other mental health problems; these include but are not limited to:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety disorder
  • Antisocial behavior
  • Substance abuse
  • Learning disorder
  • OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder)
  • Tourette’s syndrome

As the child with ADHD gets older, the symptoms tend to diminish. However, in some cases ADHD symptoms never go away and can continue on into adulthood. Although there is no cure for ADHD, it is a condition which can be successfully controlled and managed. Most affected adults go on to lead healthy, happy lives by using a combination of medication and coping strategies.

What Causes ADHD?

Although there is no known cause of the disorder, research indicates that boys are three times more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD than girls.

Some of the factors that may play a role in the development of ADHD are:

  • Genetics: the disorder often runs in the family and can be passed down through blood relatives who have the condition or other mental health disorders.
  • Environment: Prolonged exposure to a harmful or toxic environment (i.e., living in a very old building with exposure to lead) can have an impact.
  • Development: Central nervous system problems.

In addition, studies have shown a link between maternal health and ADHD. Premature birth and drug use, such as alcohol abuse or smoking during pregnancy are all big risk factors and can make the child more susceptible to developing the disorder after birth.

Some of the negative effects of ADHD can include and may lead to:

  • A decrease / lowered self-esteem
  • Trouble maintaining relationships
  • Difficulty socializing
  • Poor academic performance

Symptoms Of ADHD

Boys and girls typically display very different symptoms, and they can range from mild to severe. Some common general symptoms displayed by boys with the condition are:

  • Hyperactive or restless behavior
  • Difficulty concentrating or paying attention
  • Disruptive behavior
  • Impulsive behavior

It can often be hard to distinguish between symptoms of ADHD and a child who is neurotypical but has a very active and curious personality. This is why in order to get a diagnosis of ADHD, symptoms have to be present for at least six months and more than one symptom has to be present that negatively affects the child’s life in numerous settings, such as at home and at school.

Let's take a look now at the three different subtypes and the symptoms present within each of them.

  1. Predominantly Inattentive:

Some of the symptoms to watch out for which fall under this subtype are:

  • Lack of attention to detail i.e., making careless mistakes in schoolwork
  • Trouble with focusing on something, whether it's a task at school or during play time
  • Trouble listening and difficulty grasping instructions, often leading to unfinished school work, chores or tasks
  • Displaying poor organizational and management skills
  • Difficulty with any task (such as homework) which requires a strong focus mentally
  • Easily lose or misplace things i.e., toys, pencils, homework, etc.
  • Displays distracted and forgetful behavior
  1. Predominantly Hyperactive-Impulsive:

When a child is diagnosed as falling within the predominantly hyperactive-impulsive subtype, it means they are displaying one or more of the following symptoms:

  • Unable to sit still – the child fidgets, squirms and/or taps their hands or feet and the child is constantly on the go, in motion and restless
  • Has trouble sitting still at school or in a similar setting
  • Can't play quietly or stay engaged in quiet, low-key activities
  • Talks too much; interrupts people and says things without being asked
  • Is impatient
  • Displays intrusive behavior
  1. Combined Type:

This subtype is reserved for children who display a mix of characteristics and symptoms from the two previous subtypes.

ADHD Symptoms In Girls

As stated previously, the symptoms of ADHD in girls are often very different from what one might see in a boy. Girls tend to fall under the Predominantly Inattentive subtype, and instead of being hyperactive and overly energetic, girls with ADHD tend to be daydreamers, easily distracted, and have trouble focusing.

ADHD Symptoms In Toddlers

Toddlers, in general, are an active, energetic group, so it's hard to distinguish between what's considered typical and what is not. A good rule of thumb to watch out for is any type of extreme behavior.

For instance, normal behavior for a toddler is tottering around, and displaying curiosity towards things while also enjoying a quiet story time or some alone time. A toddler with ADHD, however, might physically be unable to sit still for any length of time, and their level of energy might seem over the top. They may be climbing the walls and the furniture and be continuously running around.

That coupled with restless, fidgety behavior and the inability to focus on anything for very long can be strong indicators that ADHD might be a possibility.

ADHD Symptoms In Kids

Most ADHD symptoms show up or “blossom” during the early school-going years, typically between six and twelve years of age. Some things to watch out for in addition to hyperactive, inattentive, distracted behavior are how a child interacts with others around them.

When they are with other kids, do they:

  • Refuse to share toys, snacks, games?
  • Appear unwilling to wait their turn?
  • Let others talk without interrupting or do they jump into the conversation?
  • Listen to instructions and finish their tasks?
  • Have good social skills?
  • Behave in an impulsive manner?

ADHD Symptoms In Teens

ADHD symptoms in teenagers are very similar to the ones exhibited by children. However, hormonal changes and puberty can potentially aggravate those symptoms.

Parents of teens with ADHD are encouraged to explain the risks of stopping treatments and reinforce why it's important to keep taking any prescribed medications and combine it/them with counseling. Behavioral therapy becomes even more important for teenagers because it allows them to understand their condition and provides them with coping methods and mechanisms during a time that is understandably difficult for most teenagers even without the addition of ADHD.

ADHD Symptoms In Adults

Generally, as children and teens with ADHD get older and enter adulthood, their symptoms may begin to fade. In adults, some ADHD symptoms include:

  • Losing things
  • Being disorganized and unfocused
  • Prone to risky, impulsive behavior i.e., quitting a job, having reckless sex, spending lots of money, etc.
  • Alcohol or drug overuse
  • Inability to maintain lasting relationships

In most cases, as long as the person continues to work closely with their doctor, there is no reason why they can't lead a healthy, fulfilled life.

An important point to note is that in some cases people are only diagnosed with ADHD in adulthood. If you are an adult and have been experiencing any of the symptoms mentioned so far over a prolonged period of time (greater than six months), it's worth having a conversation with your doctor.

How Is ADHD Diagnosed?

Attention deficit hyperactive disorder can be tricky to diagnose, as many of the listed symptoms can be considered perfectly normal behaviors expected from a child. Some kids tend to be more energetic and hyper than others while others may have shorter attention spans. This does not automatically mean that they have ADHD.

While it can be easy to dismiss concerning behavior or symptoms and blame it on an energetic child, it's equally as easy to label a forgetful child with the disorder. Because children are typically not able to analyze their own behavior, it's imperative for parents to watch their child, note their personalities and behaviors and seek help if and when they notice certain symptoms.

Verbal and written tests may be administered to rule out a learning disability, and a medical evaluation will be conducted to rule out other causes and conditions, which may be impacting the child's behavior.

Once the medical exam is complete, the next step is gathering information about the child, the family, and their life through a series of interviews or questionnaires. Diagnosis is based on the fulfillment of ADHD criteria outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. A rating scale is used to evaluate the child and decide which subtype (if any) they belong to.

Self-testing tools are also available online. It's important to note that these tests and quizzes cannot take the place of a medical diagnosis from a professional.

How Is ADHD Treated?

The disorder is often treated using a combination of medication and behavioral therapy.

Like any kind of illness or mental health condition, early intervention is always better, and ADHD is no different. It is better managed when diagnosed early, and it can have a significant impact on the affected child's life and play a role in how well they do in their formative years, thus impacting who they become as adults.

Because there is no known cure, there is no one-stop “fix” for ADHD; instead, the disorder is treated via a combination of:

  • Medications (stimulant drugs)
  • Counseling/therapy
  • Education and training

Stimulant drugs are most often prescribed since they help to balance the chemicals in the brain and tone down the symptoms of inattention and hyperactivity. These medications are available for short-term boosts or long-term action.

The dosage is determined on a case-by-case basis. Like most medication, ADHD drugs can have side effects, such as nausea, mood swings, headaches, trouble sleeping and loss of appetite. But these can be minimized with the right type and dosage of medication alongside some positive lifestyle changes. But if the side effects persist for a long period of time, it's important to bring it up with the doctor.

Providing therapy and counseling to children is another great (and highly recommended) treatment option with or without medication. Some of the different types of therapy available are:

  • Behavior Therapy
  • Psychotherapy
  • Family Therapy

It's on the parents, the doctors, and the child/individuals themselves to figure out what combination of treatment works best to give the child as normal a life as possible.

In Closing

As parents, it can be a frustrating and difficult experience to watch your child struggle with a condition. If you suspect your child may have a form of attention deficit hyperactive disorder, make an appointment with your pediatrician or family doctor and be frank in your concerns and discussions.

As discussed earlier, it can be difficult to differentiate between a naturally active or energetic child and one with ADHD, but if you have suspicions, it's a good idea to speak to a healthcare professional.

If your child has ADHD, there are numerous resources that can be found online and in your community to help you better understand the disorder and provide you with coping mechanisms and strategies, including online therapy to help you navigate the challenges that come with parenting children. By getting a grasp on the disorder early on, you and your child will be the ones in control of the condition, not the other way around.

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