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About 6.1 million children live with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in the United States. Children with ADHD struggle with everyday skills like organization, following directions, and impulse control.

While these behaviors can seem like a child is being defiant or misbehaving, that’s not the case. It’s much harder for children with ADHD to do these things than it is for children without ADHD. It’s important for children with ADHD to get the treatment they need to manage their condition.

ADHD is a developmental condition. The condition causes children with ADHD to have difficulties with executive function skills.

This includes many skills needed in everyday life such as organization, time management, patience, self-control, staying on task, and managing emotions. Children with ADHD who are struggling with executive function often need extra support at school and at home.

The symptoms of ADHD can look different depending on the child. Some children will struggle more with certain areas than others. In general, children with ADHD have symptoms that fall into three different categories:

  • inattention
  • hyperactivity
  • impulsivity

Kids with ADHD might have trouble in just one of these categories or might show symptoms in two or three categories.

Inattention symptoms include:

  • becoming distracted easily
  • difficulty concentrating or focusing
  • difficulty completing tasks
  • difficulty following directions
  • losing things often
  • missing details of instructions
  • forgetting directions or tasks
  • taking excessive amounts of time to complete simple tasks
  • daydreaming or seeming lost in thought often

Hyperactivity symptoms include:

  • being restless or fidgety
  • being easily bored
  • having trouble staying quiet
  • having trouble staying still
  • making careless mistakes
  • disrupting class or family time
  • hyper-focusing on some tasks while ignoring others

Impulsivity symptoms include:

  • interrupting others
  • thinking without acting
  • having trouble waiting their turn
  • having intense emotional reactions that don’t fit the situation
  • engaging in risky or dangerous behavior

All kids occasionally do some of these things. It’s expected for children to sometimes become bored during class or have trouble waiting their turn. In children with ADHD, these behaviors aren’t occasional.

They happen very frequently, and they make it hard for the child to succeed at school or at home. A child with ADHD might have trouble completing homework, keeping their room clean, making friends, and listening to adults. This can lead to a lot of frustration for the child with ADHD and make symptoms worse.

Symptoms can look different in older children. Children don’t outgrow ADHD, but their symptoms might change as they age and mature.

For example, a 6-year-old with ADHD might frequently get up in the middle of class without permission and have trouble following directions. A 14-year-old with ADHD might have trouble turning in assignments on time or staying organized.

ADHD is often noticed by parents or teachers. Sometimes, a school might make a referral to a specialist who can assess the child and make a diagnosis. Parents can also bring their concerns to a pediatrician or other primary care provider.

Only a professional can diagnose ADHD. To make a diagnosis, they’ll need input from the adults in the child’s life. Often, the doctor or therapist might ask you or your child’s teacher to fill out a few forms about the behaviors you’ve observed. They’ll also talk with you and your child about the behaviors and the impacts they have on your child’s everyday life.

To be diagnosed with ADHD, the behaviors will need to meet a few criteria. This generally includes behaviors that:

  • have been present since the child was very young
  • are not appropriate or expected for their age
  • are negatively affecting the child at school and at home
  • are not being caused by any other health or learning concern

In some cases, your child might have a few tests to rule out any other possible causes of their behavior. This can include cognitive tests to look for other developmental or intellectual conditions, and screenings of their eyesight and hearing to look for any physical impairments.

Some children have other conditions alongside ADHD, such as learning disabilities or mood disorders. The doctor can treat those conditions alongside the child’s ADHD.

Doctors aren’t sure what causes ADHD in children. There is no proven cause. ADHD isn’t linked to parenting styles, diets, habits, or any other environmental factors.

However, the condition is likely inherited. Most children with ADHD have a close relative who also has it.

ADHD can’t be prevented. Since ADHD is thought to be genetic, children with it were likely born with the condition. Plus, since there’s no known cause, there’s also no known way to prevent the condition.

Researchers have looked into several possible risk factors for ADHD, but very few links have been found. Studies have been done to see if factors such as exposure to chemicals or drinking alcohol during pregnancy increase the risk of ADHD, but found that these things didn’t seem to increase the risk.

While it’s often said that ADHD is more likely to occur in boys than in girls, this isn’t fully proven or understood either.

The symptoms of ADHD can present differently in boys than in girls. Some researchers and advocates think that this leads to ADHD being very underdiagnosed in girls. Currently, there are only two known risk factors for ADHD in children:

  • having a parent or other close relative with ADHD
  • being born prematurely

Read this article for more information about the risk factors for ADHD.

When a child is diagnosed with ADHD, the doctor or therapist will work with their parents to come up with a treatment plan. The plan will depend on the child, but might include:

  • Behavior therapy. Counseling using behavioral therapy techniques can help kids with ADHD manage their condition and develop the skills they need to succeed at school and at home. This type of therapy may also involve the entire family.
  • Medication. ADHD medication can help children focus, pay attention, and control impulses.
  • Parent/caregiver coaching. Parents or caregivers will learn effective ways to help the child and respond to behaviors.
  • School support. Kids with ADHD often need extra support in school. This can include extra reminders to stay on task, help to remove distractions, and more. It could also include the need for an IEP or 504 plan, more formal supports available through child’s school to ensure they receive appropriate accommodations and supports to access the curriculum.

Treatments can change some as your child gets older. This might include trying new types of therapy, changing medications, or adding different in-school supports. It’s important to adjust any treatment for each specific child and the things they struggle with the most.

Treating ADHD is a team effort that takes work from parents, teachers, doctors, therapists, and the child with ADHD. It’s important for kids with ADHD to have the support they need at school and at home. Without treatment and support, children with ADHD can struggle. This can lead to low self-esteem, depression, conflict at home, risk taking, failure at school, and more.

ADHD can’t be cured. A child with ADHD will have ADHD for the rest of their life. However, with treatment, children with ADHD can have very successful lives. Many people with ADHD are able to do very well in school, earn advanced degrees, and pursue fulfilling careers.

While most kids can sometimes have trouble listening to directions or sitting still, children with ADHD struggle to do these things and other executive function skills on a daily basis.

Their struggles can make it difficult for them to succeed at home and at school. However, with treatment and support children with ADHD can manage their condition and improve their daily lives.