ADHD in Children

ADHD is a condition that affects your child's behavior. Your child may be overactive and have a short attention span. ADHD may make it difficult for him or her to do well at home or in school. He or she may also have problems getting along with other people. ADHD usually starts before age 12 and is more common among boys. The exact cause of ADHD is not known.

What increases my child's risk for ADHD?

  • Being born prematurely or with a low birth weight
  • A family history of ADHD
  • His or her mother smoked cigarettes or used alcohol or illegal drugs during pregnancy
  • Exposure to toxic chemicals, such as lead in paint
  • A head injury, possibly during his or her birth
  • Learning and memory problems, depression, or another condition that affects how he or she thinks

What are the signs and symptoms of ADHD in children?

ADHD has 2 main types, inattention and hyperactivity (including being impulsive). Each type has 9 possible symptoms. Your child may have more symptoms of one type, or a combination of the 2 types. A combination is most common. Your child may do any of the following:

  • Inattention:
    • Not pay attention to details
    • Not keep his or her focus
    • Seem like he or she is not listening when spoken to
    • Not finish tasks or follow instructions, such as not finishing homework
    • Have trouble getting or staying organized
    • Avoid or not like activities that need full attention
    • Lose items
    • Get easily distracted
    • Forget things
  • Hyperactivity and impulsivity:
    • Fidget or squirm
    • Have trouble sitting still and often leave his or her chair when sitting is required
    • Run or climb all the time
    • Have trouble playing quietly
    • Always seem to be on the go or driven by a motor
    • Talk more than other children his or her age
    • Start to give answers even before the question has been asked fully
    • Have trouble waiting and taking turns
    • Interrupt others who are talking

How is ADHD diagnosed?

Healthcare providers use a guide to diagnose ADHD. The guide contains the signs and symptoms of ADHD from the 2 types. You, your child's teachers, or your child may be given a rating scale that contains all 18 symptoms. The scale has a place to mark if each symptom has been noticed in your child. It can also be used to record how much each symptom stops your child from doing his or her daily activities. Your younger child must have at least 6 out of 9 symptoms from at least one of the types. Your adolescent must have at least 5 out of 9 symptoms from at least one of the types. At any age, your child must have symptoms for at least 6 months that are not caused by other problems. These symptoms must be severe enough to cause problems in 2 or more settings, such as home and school. Some symptoms must be present before the age of 12.

How is ADHD treated?

The goal of treatment is to help your child learn how to control his or her behavior.

  • For your child 4 years old until 6 years old: Parent Taught Behavior Modification (PTBM) helps parents learn what to expect from your child at his or her age. It includes development and behaviors. PTBM also includes learning tips to help change problem behaviors. PTBM is not just for parents with children that have ADHD. It is also for parents whose child has problem behaviors and has not been diagnosed with ADHD.
  • For your child 6 years old until 12 years old: Providers will first suggest PTBM and help from your child's school. Help includes classroom placement, tutoring, and help from the school counselor. Your child may also need medicine to help with his or her behaviors.
  • For your child 12 years old to 18 years old: Your adolescent's provider will ask for information from at least 2 teachers to make a diagnosis of ADHD. The provider will look for other conditions that can look like ADHD. These conditions can include substance use, depression, and anxiety. Your adolescent may receive medicine. He or she may need behavior therapy to teach your adolescent how to control behaviors.

What can I do to support my child?

  • Be patient with your child. Try to stop his or her behavior problems quickly so they do not get out of control. It will not help to yell at your child to get him or her to behave. Stay calm and be direct. Always give him or her eye contact and explain why the behavior needs to stop. Try to be patient as your child learns new ways to behave well.
  • Praise your child for good behavior. Children often respond better to praise than to criticism. It may be helpful to set up a reward system with your child. For example, your child can earn points or tokens for good behavior to exchange for something he or she wants.
  • Help your child understand tasks he or she needs to do. Make eye contact with your child and give him or her 1 task. Let your child complete the task before you give him or her a new task. Work with his or her teachers to make sure you know what homework is assigned and when it is due. Your child may need to start working on assignments well before they are due. He or she may need to work for short periods at a time. A homework notebook can help your child keep track of assignments and make sure he or she turns in the work.
  • Help your child manage stress. Stress may make your child's ADHD worse. Teach your child how to control stress. Ask about ways to calm his or her body and mind. These may include deep breathing, muscle relaxation, music, and biofeedback. Have your child talk to someone about things that upset him or her.
  • Feed your child healthy foods. These include fruits, vegetables, breads, dairy products, lean meat, and fish. Healthy foods may help your child feel better. Your child's healthcare provider may want your child to follow a special diet or one that is low in fat. Your child should drink water, juices, and milk. Limit the amount of caffeine your child drinks. Limit foods that are high in sugar, such as candy. Sugar and caffeine may make ADHD symptoms worse.
  • Create a schedule for your child. Put the schedule in a place where your child can see it. The schedule should include a regular time to go to bed and get up in the morning. Do not let your child watch TV, use the computer, or play video games before bed. Electronic devices can make it hard for your child to go to sleep or stay asleep. During the day, create homework, play, chore, and rest times for your child. Your child may have an easier time remembering to do things if he or she follows a schedule. Try not to schedule too many activities for a day or week. Your child needs quiet time along with scheduled activities.

Call your local emergency number (911 in the US) for any of the following:

  • Your child has hurt himself or herself, or someone else.
  • You feel like hurting your child.

When should I call my child's doctor?

  • You feel you cannot help your child at home.
  • Your child's ADHD prevents him or her from doing most of his or her daily activities.
  • Your child has new symptoms since the last time he or she visited the healthcare provider.
  • Your child's symptoms are getting worse.
  • You have questions or concerns about your child's condition or care.