What Is ADHD?

Updated November 23, 2022by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, better known as ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder. It affects millions of children and adults every year, although not every case is accurately diagnosed. We’re going to cover the symptoms of ADHD, its causes, how it’s diagnosed, and treatment options.

ADHD Basics

ADHD is a common disorder that affects just over 10% of children in the United States. While there isn’t one specific cause for why someone might develop ADHD, research suggests there may be a difference in brain chemicals (neurotransmitters) between those with and without ADHD.

Symptoms of ADHD can vary from person to person, but in general, the condition is known to cause hyperactive, impulsive, inattentive, and fidgety behavior.

ADHD is divided into three subtypes:

  1. Predominantly inattentive

  2. Predominantly hyperactive-impulsive

  3. Combined type

Approximately two-thirds of the time, other disorders occur 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

  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)

  • Tourette’s syndrome

As a child living with ADHD gets older, their symptoms often diminish. However, in some cases, ADHD symptoms continue into adulthood. Although there is no cure for ADHD, it 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, data from the Center for Disease Control shows that boys are more than two times as 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, maternal drug use, and high stress during pregnancy may all increase the likelihood that a child develops ADHD.

Symptoms Of ADHD

It can often be hard to distinguish between symptoms of ADHD and an individual who is neurotypical but has a very active and curious personality. This is why symptoms have to be present for at least six months in at least two different settings. Additionally, the symptoms must impair the individual's ability to properly function in school, work, or relationships. Finally, symptoms must have started before age 12, even if an individual is diagnosed after this age.

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

Predominantly Inattentive

Adolescents 16 and younger must display at least six of the following symptoms, while those 17 and older must display only five symptoms.

  • Lack of attention to detail, sometimes resulting in careless mistakes

  • Trouble remaining focused on tasks

  • Trouble listening when directly spoken to

  • Difficulty following instructions and completing tasks

  • Trouble organizing time and/or physical objects

  • Avoids or dislikes starting activities that required long periods of intense concentration

  • Easily lose or misplace things i.e., toys, pencils, homework, etc.

  • Distracted by external stimuli or internal thoughts

Predominantly Hyperactive-Impulsive

Adolescents 16 and younger must display at least six of the following symptoms, and those 17 and older must experience at least five symptoms.

  • Fidgeting or squirms while seated

  • Has trouble remaining seated is situations where this is expected

  • Runs, climbs, or is generally restless in inappropriate situations

  • Cannot quietly engage in leisure activities or play

  • Acts as if “driven by a motor” with constant restlessness and energy

  • Talks excessively

  • Is impatient waiting their turn

  • Displays intrusive behavior, often interrupting to answer a question before it’s complete

Combined Type ADHD

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

ADHD Symptoms In Toddlers

Toddlers, in general, are an active and energetic group, so it's sometimes difficult to distinguish between what's considered typical behavior and what is not.

Neurotypical toddlers may totter around, displaying curiosity towards things while also enjoying a quiet 15-minute story time or some solitary play 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 unable to focus on any play activity for more than a few minutes at a time.

ADHD Symptoms In Children

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, and distracted behavior are how a child interacts with others around them.

When they are with other kids, do they:

  • Refuse to lend toys, snacks, and games?

  • Appear willing or unable 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 impulsively?

Answering these questions can be helpful in determining whether or not a child is displaying symptoms of ADHD.

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 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

ADHD symptoms in adults appear differently than they do in children. However, they may appear in the following ways.

  • Constantly things

  • Being disorganized and unfocused

  • Unable to start projects that require concentration or sitting still

  • Trouble completing work tasks, housework, or other responsibilities

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 (greater than six months), it's worth having a conversation with your doctor.

How Is ADHD Diagnosed?

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder can be tricky to diagnose, as many of the listed symptoms can be considered normal childhood behaviors, in moderation. 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 behavior, it's imperative for parents to watch their children, 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

How Is ADHD Treated?

The disorder is often treated using a combination of medication and behavioral therapy. Like with any kind of illness or mental health condition, early intervention is suggested. 

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

Therapy can help individuals of all ages recognize their ADHD symptoms and also learn management techniques. However, individuals living with ADHD may find it difficult to stick with in-person therapy appointments. Online therapy provides some flexibility, as it allows individuals to attend therapy sessions from anywhere they have a strong internet connection.

A recent review of online interventions for ADHD showed that online therapy can help with attention deficit and social function. Therefore, online therapy may be a good alternative for individuals unable or unwilling to attend in-person therapy.

Takeaway

ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by prolonged symptoms involving hyperactivity and/or inattention. While the symptoms are the same in individuals of every age, they can appear differently depending on age. If you think you or someone you know is experiencing symptoms of ADHD, connect with a mental health professional.

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