Of course, all children (especially younger ones) act this way at times, particularly when they're anxious or excited. But the difference with ADHD is that symptoms are present over a longer period of time and occur in different settings. They impair a child's ability to function socially, academically, and at home.
The good news is, with proper treatment, children with ADHD can learn to successfully live with and manage their symptoms.
What Are the Symptoms?
ADHD used to be known as attention deficit disorder, or ADD. In 1994, it was renamed ADHD and broken down into three subtypes, each with its own pattern of behaviors:
1. an inattentive type, with signs that include:
inability to pay attention to details or a tendency to make careless errors in schoolwork or other activities
difficulty with sustained attention in tasks or play activities
apparent listening problems
difficulty following instructions
problems with organization
avoidance or dislike of tasks that require mental effort
tendency to lose things like toys, notebooks, or homework
forgetfulness in daily activities
2. a hyperactive-impulsive type, with signs that include:
fidgeting or squirming
difficulty remaining seated
excessive running or climbing
difficulty playing quietly
always seeming to be "on the go"
blurting out answers before hearing the full question
difficulty waiting for a turn or in line
problems with interrupting or intruding
3. a combined type, which involves a combination of the other two types and is the most common
Although it can often be challenging to raise kids with ADHD, it's important to remember they aren't "bad," "acting out," or being difficult on purpose. And children who are diagnosed with ADHD have difficulty controlling their behavior without medication or behavioral therapy.
How Is It Diagnosed?
Most cases of ADHD are treated by primary care doctors. Because there's no test that can determine the presence of ADHD, a diagnosis depends on a complete evaluation. When the diagnosis is in doubt, or if there are other concerns, such as Tourette syndrome, a learning disability, or depression, a child may be referred to a neurologist, psychologist, or psychiatrist. Ultimately, though, the primary care doctor gathers the information, makes the diagnosis, and starts treatment.
To be considered for a diagnosis of ADHD:
a child must display behaviors from one of the three subtypes before age 7
these behaviors must be more severe than in other kids the same age
the behaviors must last for at least 6 months
the behaviors must occur in and negatively affect at least two areas of a child's life (such as school, home, day-care settings, or friendships)
The behaviors must also not be linked to stress at home. Children who have experienced a divorce, a move, an illness, a change in school, or other significant life event may suddenly begin to act out or become forgetful. To avoid a misdiagnosis, it's important to consider whether these factors played a role in the onset of symptoms
First, your child's doctor will perform a physical examination of your child and ask you about any concerns and symptoms, your child's past health, your family's health, any medications your child is taking, any allergies your child may have, and other issues. This is called the medical history, and it's important because research has shown that ADHD has a strong genetic link and often runs in families.
Your child's doctor may also perform a physical exam as well as tests to check hearing and vision so other medical conditions can be ruled out. Because some emotional conditions, such as extreme stress, depression, and anxiety, can also look like ADHD, you'll probably be asked to fill out questionnaires that can help rule them out as well.
You'll also likely be asked many questions about your child's development and his or her behaviors at home, at school, and among friends. Other adults who see your child regularly (like teachers, who are often the first to notice ADHD symptoms) will probably be consulted, too. An educational evaluation, which usually includes a school psychologist, may also be done. It's important for everyone involved to be as honest and thorough as possible about your child's strengths and weaknesses.
What Causes ADHD?
ADHD is not caused by poor parenting, too much sugar, or vaccines.
ADHD has biological origins that aren't yet clearly understood. No single cause of ADHD has been identified, but researchers have been exploring a number of possible genetic and environmental links. Studies have shown that many children with ADHD have a close relative who also has the disorder.
Although experts are unsure whether this is a cause of the disorder, they have found that certain areas of the brain are about 5% to 10% smaller in size and activity in children with ADHD. Chemical changes in the brain have been found as well.
Recent research also links smoking during pregnancy to later ADHD in a child. Other risk factors may include premature delivery, very low birth weight, and injuries to the brain at birth.
Some studies have even suggested a link between excessive early television watching and future attention problems. Parents should follow the American Academy of Pediatrics' (AAP) guidelines, which say that children under 2 years old should not have any "screen time" (TV, DVDs or videotapes, computers, or video games) and that kids 2 years and older should be limited to 1 to 2 hours per day, or less, of quality television programming.
What Are Some Related Problems?
One of the difficulties in diagnosing ADHD is that it's often found in conjunction with other problems. These are called coexisting conditions, and about two thirds of all children with ADHD have one. The most common coexisting conditions are:
Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) and Conduct Disorder (CD)
At least 35% of all children with ADHD also have oppositional defiant disorder, which is characterized by stubbornness, outbursts of temper, and acts of defiance and rule breaking. Conduct disorder is similar but features more severe hostility and aggression. Children who have conduct disorder are more likely get in trouble with authority figures and, later, possibly with the law. Oppositional defiant disorder and conduct disorder are seen most commonly with the hyperactive and combined subtypes of ADHD.
Mood Disorders (such as depression)
About 18% of children with ADHD, particularly the inattentive subtype, also experience depression. They may feel inadequate, isolated, frustrated by school failures and social problems, and have low self-esteem.
Anxiety disorders affect about 25% of children with ADHD. Symptoms include excessive worry, fear, or panic, which can also lead to physical symptoms such as a racing heart, sweating, stomach pains, and diarrhea. Other forms of anxiety that can accompany ADHD are obsessive-compulsive disorder and Tourette syndrome, as well as motor or vocal tics (movements or sounds that are repeated over and over). A child who has symptoms of these other conditions should be evaluated by a specialist.
About half of all children with ADHD also have a specific learning disability. The most common learning problems are with reading (dyslexia) and handwriting. Although ADHD isn't categorized as a learning disability, its interference with concentration and attention can make it even more difficult for a child to perform well in school.
If your child has ADHD and a coexisting condition, the doctor will carefully consider that when developing a treatment plan. Some treatments are better than others at addressing specific combinations of symptoms.
How Is It Treated?
ADHD can't be cured, but it can be successfully managed. Your child's doctor will work with you to develop an individualized, long-term plan. The goal is to help your child learn to control his or her own behavior and to help families create an atmosphere in which this is most likely to happen.
In most cases, ADHD is best treated with a combination of medication and behavior therapy. Any good treatment plan will require close follow-up and monitoring, and your child's doctor may make adjustments along the way. Because it's important for parents to actively participate in their child's treatment plan, parent education is also considered an important part of ADHD management.
Several different types of medications may be used to treat ADHD:
Stimulants are the best-known treatments - they've been used for more than 50 years in the treatment of ADHD. Some require several doses per day, each lasting about 4 hours; some last up to 12 hours. Possible side effects include decreased appetite, stomachache, irritability, and insomnia. There's currently no evidence of any long-term side effects.
Nonstimulants were approved for treating ADHD in 2003. These appear to have fewer side effects than stimulants and can last up to 24 hours.
Antidepressants are sometimes a treatment option; however, in 2004 the FDA issued a warning that these drugs may lead to a rare increased risk of suicide in children and teens. If an antidepressant is recommended for your child, be sure to discuss these risks with your doctor.
Medications can affect kids differently, and a child may respond well to one but not another. When determining the correct treatment for your child, the doctor might try various medications in various doses, especially if your child is being treated for ADHD along with another disorder.
Research has shown that medications used to help curb impulsive behavior and attention difficulties are more effective when they're combined with behavioral therapy.
Behavioral therapy attempts to change behavior patterns by:
reorganizing your child's home and school environment
giving clear directions and commands
setting up a system of consistent rewards for appropriate behaviors and negative consequences for inappropriate ones
Here are some examples of behavioral strategies that may help a child with ADHD:
Create a routine. Try to follow the same schedule every day, from wake-up timeto bedtime. Post the schedule in a prominent place, so your child can see where he or she is expected to be throughout the day and when it's time for homework, play, and chores.
Help your child organize. Put schoolbags, clothing, and toys in the same place every day so your child will be less likely to lose them.
Avoid distractions. Turn off the TV, radio, and computer games, especially when your child is doing homework.
Limit choices. Offer your child a choice between two things (this outfit, meal, toy, etc., or that one) so that he or she isn't overwhelmed and overstimulated.
Change your interactions with your child. Instead of long-winded explanations and cajoling, use clear, brief directions to remind your child of his or her responsibilities.
Use goals and rewards. Use a chart to list goals and track positive behaviors, then reward your child's efforts. Be sure the goals are realistic (think baby steps rather than overnight success).
Discipline effectively. Instead of yelling or spanking, use timeouts or removal of privileges as consequences for inappropriate behavior. Younger children may simply need to be distracted or ignored until they display better behavior.
Help your child discover a talent. All kids need to experience success to feel good about themselves. Finding out what your child does well - whether it's sports, art, or music - can boost social skills and self-esteem.
Currently, the only ADHD therapies that have been proven effective in scientific studies are medications and behavioral therapy. But your child's doctor may recommend additional treatments and interventions depending on your child's symptoms and needs. Some kids with ADHD, for example, may also need special educational interventions such as tutoring, occupational therapy, etc. Every child's needs are different.
A number of other alternative therapies are promoted and tried by parents including: megavitamins, body treatments, diet manipulation, allergy treatment, chiropractic treatment, attention training, visual training, and traditional one-on-one "talking" psychotherapy. However, the scientific research that has been done on these therapies has not found them to be effective, and most of these treatments have not been studied carefully, if at all.
Parents should always be wary of any therapy that promises an ADHD "cure," and if they're interested in trying something new, they should be sure to speak with their child's doctor first.
Parenting any child can be tough at times, but parenting a child with ADHD often brings special challenges. Children with ADHD may not respond well to typical parenting practices. Also, because ADHD tends to run in families, parents may also have some problems with organization and consistency themselves and need active coaching to help learn these skills.
Experts recommend parent education and support groups to help family members accept the diagnosis and to teach them how to help their child organize his or her environment, develop problem-solving skills, and cope with frustrations. Parent training can also teach parents to respond appropriately to their child's most trying behaviors and to use calm disciplining techniques. Individual or family counseling may also be helpful.
ADHD in the Classroom
As your child's most important advocate, you should become familiar with your child's medical, legal, and educational rights. Children with ADHD are eligible for special services or accommodations at school under the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA) and an anti-discrimination law known as Section 504. Keep in touch with your child's teachers and school officials to monitor your child's progress and keep them informed about your child's needs.
In addition to using routines and a clear system of rewards, here are some other tips to share with teachers for classroom success:
Reduce seating distractions. Lessening distractions might be as simple as seating your child near the teacher instead of near the window.
Use a homework folder for parent-teacher communications. The teacher can include assignments and progress notes, and you can check to make sure all work is completed on time.
Break down assignments. Keep instructions clear and brief, breaking down larger tasks into smaller, more manageable pieces.
Give positive reinforcement. Always be on the lookout for positive behaviors. Ask the teacher to offer praise when your child stays seated, doesn't call out, or waits his or her turn, instead of criticizing when he or she doesn't.
Teach good study skills. Underlining, note taking, and reading out loud can help your child stay focused and retain information.
Supervise. Check that your child goes and comes from school with the correct books and materials. Ask that your child be paired with a buddy who can help him or her stay on task.
Be sensitive to self-esteem issues. Ask the teacher to provide feedback to your child in private, and avoid asking your child to perform a task in public that might be too difficult.
Involve the school counselor or psychologist. He or she can help design behavioral programs to address specific problems in the classroom.
Being Your Child's Biggest Supporter
You're a stronger advocate for your child when you foster good partnerships with everyone involved in your child's treatment - that includes teachers, doctors, therapists, and even other family members. Take advantage of all the support and education that's available, and you'll be able to help your child with ADHD navigate his or her way to success.