What Is Inattentive ADHD?

Medically reviewed by Paige Henry, LMSW, J.D.
Updated May 10, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Many of us are familiar with the terms attention deficit disorder (ADD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), but did you know there's more than just one type of ADHD? One subset, inattentive ADHD, can often be overlooked because the outward signs aren't as obvious. 

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Life can be challenging with inattentive ADHD

Inattentive ADHD (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder)

One of the most common subtypes of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is the subtype called inattentive ADHD (ADHD-PI). ADHD-PI can be diagnosed less regularly than other types of ADHD and usually has different diagnostic criteria. For those diagnosed with the inattentive type, ADHD symptoms can vary depending on a few different factors. Inattentive ADHD (ADHD-PI) requires a specific treatment protocol, but symptoms can be managed.

ADHD is divided into three subsets: hyperactivity/impulsivity, inattentiveness, and a combination of these. While difficulty focusing and uncontrollable behaviors are synonymous with the hyperactive impulsive ADHD subtype, the ADHD inattentive type can be more difficult to grasp. That’s because many individuals who experience the predominantly inattentive type of ADHD show few or no symptoms and do not openly display signs of a mental health condition, such as impulsive symptoms.

Inattentive ADHD is commonly referred to as an internalizing disorder, wherein the afflicted person is easily distracted, strains to remember simple things, or becomes so focused on something that they fail to pay attention to anything else which may cause them to make careless mistakes. It may require mental effort to complete tasks like focusing on school materials when experiencing several symptoms of ADHD. Most of the time, this is an internal struggle that is not expressed outwardly like traditional 'ADHD' behavior. This is one of the reasons why inattentive ADHD is diagnosed far less often than the other subtypes. Since inattentive symptoms can’t always be seen from the outside like hyperactive, impulsive symptoms usually can, it can be more challenging to pick up on them.

It's thought that premature birth may increase an individual’s risk of developing ADHD. It may be possible that environmental toxins could also contribute to an increased risk of this disorder. Regardless of the cause of inattentive ADHD, it can be important to note that it can be successfully managed

Noticeable symptoms
Not all traits of inattentive ADHD remain hidden, however. Noticeable examples can include a person that makes careless mistakes such as the mother who forgets an important item at the grocery store, even though that particular thing is on her list; or the college student who continuously misplaces his keys and needs help from a roommate to find them. Although forgetting something every now and again is normal behavior, if persistent trouble remembering or paying attention is affecting one's daily life, predominantly inattentive ADHD may be the culprit.

A form of hyperfocus can exist for those people with inattentive ADHD as well. They may focus so intently on a single task or emotion to the point that they cannot switch their mindset or attention to a different task or activity. They may have trouble paying attention to anything other than the task they’re focused on, which may lead to significant problems in some cases. The severity of this type can vary from mild to severe, and the rates at which it affects males versus females are still under review.

A common example
Brian, a student with inattentive ADHD, does okay in school, but only because he puts forth a lot of effort during class. He's able to focus on his work most of the time, but distractions make it difficult to stay focused on activities he doesn't enjoy. The mental effort required to stay on task tends to be significant.
Although school is going okay, Brian has been getting in trouble at home lately because of what his therapist refers to as 'hyperfocus.' Brian loves playing video games, and when he puts on his headset and zones into the screen, it's like he can hear and see nothing else. He neglects his chores and is irritable when interrupted. Brian's parents think that he has a gaming addiction, but his doctor says it is ADHD-related and that he is living with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. 

Other ADHD symptoms: Careless mistakes, inattentive moments, and more

As with other mental health illnesses, the symptoms associated with inattentive ADHD aren't the same for everyone and differ from hyperactive, impulsive types of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. The signs of inattentive ADHD include the following nine symptoms:
  • Frequently daydreaming 
  • Being easily distracted
  • Trouble completing work assignments or schoolwork
  • Finding it difficult to listen when spoken to 
  • Losing focus during activities
  • Forgetful of daily tasks
  • Misplaces things often
  • Struggling with jobs that require strong mental focus
  • Trouble organizing tasks

Inattentive ADHD expression

Presently, research suggests that women and girls are more likely to develop inattentive ADHD when compared to the opposite sex. Males are more likely to exhibit the traits of the other two types of ADHD (i.e., hyperactive or combined type ADHD), according to the National Institute of Health.

This statistic highlights the growing risk women and girls face of experiencing other health issues when their inattentive ADHD goes undiagnosed. Cases of females with eating disorders, anxiety, and depression have been documented at higher rates for those with ADHD than those without. ADHD is also linked to other mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder, which can rarely occur in children but most commonly develops in adults. 

How attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is diagnosed

According to the American Psychiatric Association, symptoms of ADHD are typically identified in school-aged children. Being assessed for inattentive ADHD can be a complex process for a child. When a parent or individual is concerned about possible symptoms, the first step is to discuss the person's health with trained, certified medical practitioners. Observation of their symptoms is followed by medical examinations to rule out other potential health concerns that may or may not appear in conjunction with ADHD. This may include blood work, medical scans, and hearing and vision tests to check for abnormalities.

Questionnaires are then administered. Mental healthcare providers in the U.S. refer to the American Psychiatric Association's diagnostic manual to evaluate someone seeking a prognosis. The American Psychiatric Association or APA can be an excellent resource if you’re interested in learning more about ADHD.
The doctor or specialist bases their findings upon the most current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) to evaluate and assign a rating for the patient. The rating and questionnaire assess various factors. These include when a person's symptoms first manifested and how those symptoms affect mood, behavior, daily habits, and interactions. This is in addition to the practitioner interviewing family, friends, and others in close contact with the individual.
Primarily, younger children are examined upon the recommendation of a teacher or caregiver, as they generally have the most amount of contact with the child and take notice of the signs. Testing will also focus on the child's learning ability, memory, and other cognitive functions. After testing, a treatment plan may be more convenient.
Many adults diagnosed with ADHD, especially inattentive type, only learn of their mental health condition after their child has been evaluated. The parent then recognizes they are experiencing similar symptoms. Study figures estimate that nearly 10% of children are affected by ADHD, and, it is present in approximately 4% of adults.

Of those diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, those with the inattentive type have been known to create coping methods to help themselves remain alert, be focused, and behave well. This means doctors must be thorough in their assessment before ruling on the person's condition and recommending possible treatment options. An inattentive adult, in particular, has likely developed various coping strategies, such as organizational skills, to help them get through day-to-day activities without treatment options like ADHD medications.

Help for Inattentive ADHD

What do you do when you or someone you care about routinely displays inattentive ADHD symptoms? The first step is to be open and honest about your concerns so you can address them from a position of empowerment.

 It's challenging to hear that you or someone you love may have a mental illness, but inattentive ADHD is manageable, and many people successfully learn to treat and live with the condition. When an inattentive child is provided with treatment from a young age, it can enable them to thrive throughout their middle school years, high school years, and beyond.
Behavioral therapy and therapeutic medicines are commonly prescribed to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder but also are beneficial in treating a comorbid condition or a mood disorder like depression or anxiety. If you suspect that you or your child may have ADHD, it can be best to talk to your healthcare provider about the primary symptoms you’ve noticed.

For those who desire a course of action without medication to treat inattentive ADHD, there are several forms of behavioral therapy that provide effective results. Counseling and therapy work well for children and adults alike, as do education and personalized alternative options. Working with an ADHD coach may be helpful as well.

Life can be challenging with inattentive ADHD

Support options 
Talking through the aspects of inattentive ADHD with a therapist can bring a better understanding of common behavior patterns, making them easier to address and change. Similarly, parents often establish a reward system to help their child focus on traits of good behavior. Because dealing with ADHD day in and day out can be overwhelming, many parents of children with inattentive ADHD seek help from a mental health professional as well.

Traditional therapy can have its disadvantages for people experiencing symptoms of inattentive ADHD, though. After all, there are many steps to remember in order to make and keep an appointment for an in-person office visit. Online platforms like BetterHelp offer a viable alternative. With online counseling, individuals with ADHD can speak to a licensed therapist from the comfort of home and at a time that’s most convenient for them. 

Those who elect online therapy need not worry about its effectiveness, either. In 2022, researchers found that internet-based treatments are effective in reducing attention deficit and social impairment for individuals diagnosed with inattentive ADHD. 


If you or someone you know exhibits signs of inattentive ADHD, know that help is available. Life with ADHD can be manageable and even fulfilling once you identify a treatment protocol. If traditional therapy isn’t an option or you just desire something more convenient, reach out to our experienced and caring therapists at BetterHelp for effective online interventions.

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