What is ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder)?

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a long-term chronic condition that affects millions of children and can continue into adulthood. However, since there is no single authoritative test for ADHD, experts disagree on its prevalence, fueling a debate about whether ADHD is under-diagnosed or over-diagnosed.

Nevertheless, ADHD is one of the most commonly diagnosed childhood disorders and is diagnosed much more often in boys than in girls. Symptoms of ADHD include problems with paying attention, over-activity (hyperactivity), impulsive behaviors, or some combination of the three. While it is normal for children to exhibit these behaviors on occasion, when it is out of the normal range for children of the same age and development level, a child should be evaluated. Children with ADHD can suffer from low self-esteem, poor school performance and difficulty in relationships.

Treatment won’t cure ADHD, but it can help a great deal to manage the symptoms of ADHD. Treatment typically involves both ADHD counseling (psychotherapy) and medication. With proper intervention and child counseling, children with ADHD can grow up to be happy, successful adults. If you suspect your child, or an adult, may be struggling with ADHD, the best thing you can do is take steps to understand the condition, recognize the symptoms, and learn about the ADHD treatment options that may help.

Symptoms of ADHD?

It is normal for young children to be inattentive, hyperactive, or impulsive at times – but for children with ADHD, these behaviors are more severe and occur more often. To be diagnosed with ADHD, a child should exhibit symptoms for 6 or more months and to a greater degree than other children their same age.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-IV) lists three sub-types of ADHD:

  1. Predominantly hyperactive-impulsive:
    – Child exhibits six or more symptoms of hyperactivity and impulsiveness
    – Child exhibits less than six symptoms of inattentiveness
  2. Predominantly inattentive:
    – Child exhibits six or more symptoms of inattentiveness
    – Child exhibits less than six symptoms of hyperactivity or impulsiveness
  3. Combined (hyperactive-impulsive and inattentive):
    – Child exhibits six or more symptoms of hyperactivity and impulsiveness
    – Child exhibits six or more symptoms of inattentiveness

Symptoms of hyperactivity include:

  • Squirms in their seat or fidgets with their hands or feet
  • Has trouble remaining seated when it’s expected (dinner, story time, etc.)
  • Runs about or climbs in inappropriate situations
  • Has difficulty playing quietly or doing calm activities
  • Is always on the go, constantly touching or playing with everything in sight
  • Talks nonstop, even when asked to be quiet

Symptoms of impulsiveness include:

  • A high level of impatience
  • Blurting out inappropriate comments or answers before the question is asked
  • Shows their emotions without restraint and acts without regard for consequences
  • Has difficulty waiting for things they want and waiting their turn
  • Often interrupts conversations or others’ activities

Symptoms of inattention include:

  • Lack of attention to detail or careless mistakes in schoolwork
  • Difficulty sustaining attention during tasks or play
  • Boredom with a task after only a few minutes, and frequently switching from one activity to another
  • Does not seem to listen when spoken to directly
  • Daydreams, becomes easily confused, and moves slowly
  • Does not follow through on instructions and fails to finish schoolwork, chores, or duties in the workplace
  • Has problems organizing and completing a task or learning something new
  • Avoids or dislikes tasks that require sustained mental effort (such as schoolwork)
  • Often loses toys, assignments, pencils, books, or tools needed for tasks or activities
  • Is easily distracted and struggles to follow instructions
  • Has difficulty processing information as quickly and accurately as others

In general, ADHD, if not treated, can have a significant negative effect on school performance and interpersonal relationships. In addition, parents of children with ADHD are often exhausted and frustrated; ADHD can be the cause of much stress in a family. Every child suspected of having ADHD deserves a careful evaluation.

What Causes ADHD?

There is no agreement in the scientific community regarding the cause ADHD, but studies suggest it may be a combination of factors including genetics, environment, brain trauma, nutrition, and social environment that contribute to ADHD. Recent areas of study include: genetics, cigarette and alcohol use during pregnancy, brain injury, and food additives such as artificial colors or preservatives. In addition, neuro-imaging studies suggest that the brains of children with ADHD operate differently from their peers, specifically with their handling of neurotransmitters, such as dopamine, serotonin and adrenalin. But whatever the cause, we do know it is set in motion early in life while the brain is still developing – between the ages of 3 and 6.

How is ADHD diagnosed?

ADHD child spacing out
“Assessing what is “normal” can be very difficult because maturity level, temperament and energy level vary based on a child’s personality and level of self awareness.”

All children get distracted, act impulsively, and struggle to sit still at one time or another. These normal behaviors can easily be misappropriated as ADHD symptoms. Assessing what is “normal” can be very difficult because maturity level, temperament and energy level vary based on a child’s personality and level of self awareness.

Parents may be the first to notice if their child is developing differently from other children their age. Or, teachers may notice a child has trouble following rules, or frequently “spaces out” in the classroom or on the playground.

Unfortunately there is currently no authoritative test to diagnose a child with ADHD. A licensed health professional or ADHD specialist will need to fully evaluate the child, his or her behavior and environment. In addition, a health professional will need to rule out any medical condition that may cause or contribute to ADHD-like symptoms. Depression, sleep deprivation, learning disabilities, tic disorders and behavioral problems may be confused with, or appear along with, ADHD. In fact, most children with ADHD also have at least one other developmental or behavioral problem.

ADHD Counseling and Treatments

ADHD is a chronic condition. Half of children diagnosed with ADHD will continue to have trouble paying attention or act impulsively as adults. However, with the help of medication, psychotherapy, and behavioral training, individuals (children and adults) can learn to manage their symptoms and lead productive lives.

Children with ADHD require extra guidance and understanding from their parents and educators. However, by the time a child is diagnosed, feelings of blame, frustration, even anger may have built up within a family or classroom environment. Parents may need to participate in parenting therapy or anger management therapy in order to develop new skills, attitudes, and ways of relating to a child with ADHD.

ADHD Help: Tips to Help Kids Stay Organized and Follow Directions

  • Keep a schedule in the center of the home that shows time for homework, sports, TV, family time, etc. Try to follow the same routine daily – from wake-up to bedtime.
  • Keep the house neat. Have a specified place for everything including everyday items such as clothing, backpacks and toys.
  • Spend time helping your child organize their school material and supplies. Stress the importance of writing down their homework assignments.
  • Be clear. Be consistent. Speak to your child in clear specific language and keep the rules of the home consistent.
  • Look for good behavior and reward it. Children with ADHD often receive and come to expect criticism. Praise will get their attention.

Adult ADHD Symptoms

Many adults with ADHD aren’t aware they have the disorder. Symptoms of adult ADHD tend to be more varied and not as clear cut as those seen in children. Adult ADHD symptoms can lead to a number of problems, including unstable relationships, poor work or school performance, and low self-esteem. Some examples of adult ADHD symptoms include:

  • A history of difficulty at school, problems at work, or failed relationships
  • Problems with organization, sticking to a job, or keeping appointments
  • Difficulty with daily tasks such as getting out of bed, leaving for work and arriving on time
  • Suffers from excessive procrastination and difficulties being productive on the job
  • Restlessness and failed attempts to do several things at once
  • A need for “quick fixes” rather than taking the steps needed to achieve greater rewards
  • Difficulty focusing on driving and a history of traffic accidents
  • Frequent mood swings or a hot temper
  • Trouble coping with stress

For some people, adult ADHD has been a source of significant problems in life and a diagnosis of ADHD may bring a sense of relief. Receiving a diagnosis allows them to understand the reasons for their problems, and receive some relief through treatment.

The best treatment for ADHD is still a matter of debate. Current treatment methods for adult ADHD are similar to treatments for childhood ADHD, including stimulant drugs or other medications, psychological ADHD counseling (psychotherapy) and treatment for any mental health conditions that occur along with adult ADHD. A combination of therapy and medication is often the most effective treatment. While not the cause, a number of mental health disorders frequently occur along with ADHD:

  • Mood disorders. Many adults with ADHD also struggle with depression issues, bipolar disorder or another mood disorder. Mood disorders are not directly caused by ADHD, but repeated frustrations due to ADHD can make matters worse.
  • Anxiety disorders. Anxiety issues are common in adults with ADHD. The overwhelming worry and nervousness caused by anxiety disorders must be managed in conjunction with ADHD symptoms for treatment to be effective.
  • Personality disorders. Adults with ADHD appear to be at higher risk of personality disorders, such as borderline personality disorder.

Finding Help for ADHD

If you or someone you know suffers from symptoms of ADHD it is important to remember with the help of medication, psychotherapy, and behavioral training, individuals (children and adults) can learn to manage their symptoms and lead productive lives. Search the TherapyTribe therapist directory for an ADHD Therapist and learn more about the ADHD treatment options available.