Q: My son’s teacher has raised some concerns about his behavior in class and suggests that we test him for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. She tells us that he interrupts her a lot, has trouble finishing tasks, never waits his turn and fidgets all the time. We see some of these things at home, but have always chalked them up to normal behavior for a child in grade school. But now we’re wondering if we should be worried.
What are the signs of ADHD?
ADHD is common in childhood
One study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 9.4%, or more than 6 million children, ages 2 to 17, have been diagnosed with the neurodevelopmental disorder in the United States. And nearly two-thirds of those children have another mental, emotional or behavioral issue, including depression, anxiety and autism.
Early intervention is especially important for kids who may be struggling with ADHD, and treatment can help them develop and improve social skills. Without it, lives can spiral out of control.
“For kids, [not treating ADHD carries] all the risks that parents worry about,” said Ari Tuckman, a psychologist and author of “More Attention, Less Deficit: Success Strategies for Adults with ADHD,” in a Healthline article. “Doing badly in school, having social struggles, greater substance use, more car accidents, less likely to attend and then graduate college. For adults, untreated ADHD also affects job performance and lifetime earnings, marital satisfaction, and likelihood of divorce.”
The signs of ADHD are easier to pick up on than attention deficit disorder, where attention issues are mostly happening inside a child’s head, said Melissa DeRosier, clinical psychologist and CEO of 3C Institute.
ADD “comes in the form of daydreaming, difficulty focusing on one thing at a time and sustaining attention,” DeRosier said. “And it, oftentimes, will come out when they start having academic issues because they’re not retaining information and they’re not able to pay attention to presented information in the classroom.”
With ADHD, kids face the same hurdles associated with ADD, but add hyperactivity to the mix.
“Children with hyperactivity are much easier to identify and can be identified younger just simply because their difficulties, especially the hyperactivity, is very visible,” she said.
What are the signs of ADHD?
Kids with ADHD, said DeRosier, often move excessively, can’t sit still, fiddle with things all the time and may be clumsy.
Other signs of ADHD, according to Stanford Children’s Health, include:
- A short attention span
- Poor study skills
- Excessive talking
- Trouble engaging in quiet activities
- Regularly interrupting others or blurting out answers
Of course, most people are forgetful or full of energy at some point. What specialists are looking for before they diagnose a child with ADHD is how they behave compared to a typical child their age.
“It’s a matter of magnitude relative to the norms of their age group,” DeRosier said. “That’s why, oftentimes, parents aren’t the best to diagnose. They may be concerned about something, but they need to see a psychologist and someone who knows what would be expected by a child of his age.”
ADHD diagnosis and treatment
If you’re concerned that your child may have ADHD, DeRosier recommends seeing a child psychologist who is familiar with the different tools to assess for the disorder. Input from parents and teachers is critical to determine if ADHD is an issue, she said.
“In order to diagnose ADHD or ADD, it needs to occur across settings,” she said. “It can’t be something that only occurs at school or only occurs at home. … It may be worse in some situations, but it’s present throughout.”
Treatment options for ADHD include both medication, but also behavioral therapies that can have big impacts on a child’s life even without the aid of a pharmaceutical. If a child is ultimately diagnosed with ADHD, DeRosier reminds parents that it’s not the end of the world.
“There are advantages to some of these symptoms and behaviors,” she said. “A lot of [emergency room] doctors have attention deficit. It’s a rapidly changing environment where you have to multitask and move quickly. That’s a great place for a kid with ADHD. It doesn’t mean they’re not going to have incredibly great lives and livelihoods. It’s just a matter of learning how to manage your own behavior.”
Children with ADHD “seem to struggle academically, socially and psychologically. They forget things, can’t slow down, find it hard to focus, space out regularly. They are disorganized; they feel overwhelmed; they can’t control their emotions; they miss the nuances of peer interactions. While they like their creativity, their ‘out of the box’ thinking, and their energy, they are usually ashamed of their shortcomings, want to avoid dealing with them and often feel powerless to change them.”
Dr. Sharon Saline, a psychotherapist, in her book, What Your ADHD Child Wishes You Knew
Inability to persist
“Our research shows that children with ADHD do not have trouble filtering information—distinguishing the important from the irrelevant in what they are asked to do. They seem to pay attention to the same things that children without ADHD would when asked to look at or listen to something. It’s just that children with ADHD cannot sustain this effort for as long as other children. They look away from the task more frequently than others. They are also more readily drawn to more rewarding activities. So, children with ADHD are not really overwhelmed by information or stimulation … Instead, they cannot persist in their effort and attention, and they find themselves being drawn away by anything that might be more stimulating or interesting.”
Russell A. Barkley, researcher and clinician, in his book, Taking Charge of ADHD:The Complete, Authoritative Guide For Parents
Trouble learning from mistakes
“Children with ADHD have a difficult time learning from their mistakes—they are slow to internalize the concept of cause and effect. They may understand, in theory, that if they interrupt there will be a punishment, but in that moment, when their impulsive brain is blurting out, they are not processing that their behavior will lead to negative consequences. They are acting from one part of their brain without having access to the part of their brain that remembers the action may not be a good idea.”
Elaine Taylor-Klaus and Diane Dempster, in their book, Parenting ADHD Now!: Easy Intervention Strategies to Empower Kids with ADHD