What is ADHD?
Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder that starts in childhood and can continue into adulthood. It affects around 5 to 7% of children and is the most commonly diagnosed neurodevelopmental disorder. Children with ADHD may struggle with attention, focus, and impulsivity, which can affect their performance in school and relationships with teachers, parents, siblings, and peers.
There are three types of ADHD: inattentive, hyperactive-impulsive, and combined types. For a child to have ADHD, they must show at least six signs of a specific type for at least 6 months.
Signs of inattentive type in children include:
- Being easily distracted.
- Not listening when spoken to.
- Difficulty keep attention on tasks or while playing.
- Easily losing things, like schoolwork, toys, and electronic devices.
- Not paying close attention to details and making careless mistakes.
- Difficulty organizing.
- Not following directions or finishing tasks or chores.
- Avoiding or resisting tasks that require mental effort, like homework.
Signs of hyperactive-impulsive type in children include:
- Fidgeting, squirming, or tapping hands or feet more than what is age-appropriate.
- Running or climbing in situations where it is inappropriate.
- Trouble remaining seated in places where it is required, like school.
- Always “on the go” and running around.
- Unable to complete tasks or play quietly.
- Difficulty waiting their turn.
- Talks more than other children.
- Blurts out answers before a question has been asked.
- Interrupts others without realizing.
Children may show signs of both types, but their diagnosis will depend upon if they show more signs of one type. If children show an equal combination of both types, then they may have the combined type.
What if I suspect my child has ADHD?
If you think that your child may have ADHD, you can start by speaking with your child’s pediatrician. Explain the behaviors that you are seeing and how it is negatively affecting them in different parts of their life, like at home, school, and in their relationships with adults and peers. Your child’s pediatrician may provide a referral to a psychiatrist, psychologist, or neurologist, who can conduct an evaluation.
An ADHD evaluation may take place over one or more visits and typically takes several hours. The evaluator may have parents, teachers, coaches, and other adults who interact with the child complete different questionnaires and rating scales. This can help give the evaluator a better sense of the child’s behavior. An evaluator will gather information about a child’s developmental history, school performance, and physical and mental health. The child will also be given different tests to measure intelligence, achievement, and behavior.
It can be very difficult to hear that your child has ADHD, but fortunately there are many different options for help. You can take steps to help your child cope with their inattention or impulsivity, support their strengths, and help them thrive.
Parenting and ADHD
Parenting a child with ADHD is challenging. You may find that what works with one of your children does not work with another. Here are some tips to guide you:
When you discipline your child, explain why your child’s behavior is bad and redirect them to something better. For example, if your child is jumping on the bed, you would provide a brief explanation of why their behavior is dangerous and guide them toward an activity where they can be active without the risk of harm. Note that this approach is different from punishment, where you take away something from your child. Punishment is necessary in some cases if your child continues to not listen. However, punishment should never involve physical harm or name-calling.
Don’t always assume your child is misbehaving.
Some symptoms of ADHD, including difficulty focusing and controlling impulses, are normal for certain age groups. It can be helpful to read up on different developmental stages, so you can have a better understanding of what is age-appropriate behavior. For example, temper tantrums are common among toddlers and may not be an indication of a behavioral problem. Refrain from assuming that all negative behaviors are related to ADHD.
Encourage participation in sports, hobbies, and other recreational activities.
Try to make an effort to encourage your child’s strengths, whether it is sports, art, technology, or something else. When you have to implement punishment, try to avoid restricting these activities. Children with ADHD can especially benefit from staying active, which may help release their energy and allow them to develop connections with other kids.
Point out their successes.
You may be so focused on correcting your child’s misbehaviors, that you forget to praise and reward their good behaviors. Try to take an inventory of how many negative versus positive comments you make toward your child. Make an effort to express more positive than negative, which can help your child build healthy self-esteem and pride.
Model appropriate behavior.
Remember that your child is watching and modeling your behavior. Make an effort to display the self-control that you expect of them. This means dealing with your own frustration and anger when your child misbehaves, rather than exploding.
Don’t take your child’s behavior personally.
When your child is misbehaving, it’s normal to feel frustrated and angry. However, remind yourself that they are not doing it intentionally to upset you. ADHD is a condition that affects your child’s ability to control their behavior. The next time you feel overwhelmed, take a deep breath and remind yourself that you’re doing your best.
Treatment for childhood ADHD
In some cases, you or your child may need more support to deal with ADHD. Medication and therapy are two popular options for helping families learn to live and function effectively with ADHD.
Depending upon the severity of your child’s ADHD, their psychiatrist or neurologist may suggest medication. Stimulants are the most widely prescribed medication for ADHD. They work by increasing dopamine levels in the brain, which is a chemical that is linked to attention, motivation, and movement. Stimulants are available in immediate-release and extended-release forms.
There are also non-stimulant options for ADHD medication. Non-stimulant ADHD medications alter different neurotransmitters in the brain. They may be an option for children who don’t respond well to stimulants.
It is important to note that medication does not permanently treat ADHD. It can relieve some of the symptoms while the medication is present in the bloodstream. However, once the medication wears off, the symptoms can return. Combining medication with therapy is beneficial because it allows the child and family to work on changing the negative behavior.
Therapy for childhood ADHD can help children and their families function more effectively. Behavior therapy is the treatment of choice for children with ADHD. This type of therapy can help parents better understand their child’s behavior, increase positive and reduce negative behaviors, and improve their performance in school.
Behavior therapy teaches parents how to discipline their children effectively through implementing structure, positive reinforcement, punishment, and withdrawing attention. Parents have the opportunity to practice these skills in front of a therapist, who can provide the parent with feedback. Families may be given “homework” to help them implement skills at home. Parents can learn how to implement these techniques consistently and may gradually see an improvement in their child’s behavior.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that children under age 6 with ADHD participate in behavior therapy before trying medication. Behavior therapy is as effective as medication in young children. Children under 6 may also be more likely to experience side effects and long-term effects from ADHD medications. The AAP also suggests that children ages 6 and over who are receiving medication also participate in behavior therapy.
When seeking behavior therapy for your child, look for a mental health provider that specializes in working with children with behavioral issues. For more information on local providers, you can speak with your child’s pediatrician or see Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD), which offers an online directory of ADHD treatment providers.
- Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD) offers information for people with ADHD and their families. The organization publishes a blog, magazine, weekly newsletter, and podcasts with the latest information on the condition. You can also access online support and a directory of local resources.
- ADDitude provides information on ADHD symptoms, treatment, and parenting tips from experts. You can access downloads, newsletters, discussion forums, webinars, and a podcast. They also publish a seasonal magazine on how to live and function with ADHD.
- Child Mind Institute offers an in-depth guide for parents on understanding and caring for a child with ADHD.
- The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) is a resource for anyone with a mental health condition and their loved ones. The organization provides information on ADHD and ways to cope with the condition, as well as access to discussion groups.