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Do Kids Outgrow ADHD?

No, but symptoms change and intervention can make a big difference

Writer: Rae Jacobson

Clinical Experts: Stephanie Ruggiero, PsyD , Jeincy Duarte, PsyD, BCBA

Attention deficit hyper activity disorder (ADHD) is often thought of as a childhood disorder. And it’s easy to see why. Many people with ADHD are diagnosed during their early years when the structure and demands of school start to be too much for them to manage.

And the best-known symptoms of ADHD — bouncing off the walls, balking at homework, straining to concentrate during class — all feel firmly rooted in childhood. So it’s understandable that many parents wonder (dare we say hope?) if kids will outgrow troublesome ADHD symptoms, shedding them like baby teeth and emerging into adulthood ADHD-free.

Will they?

A life-long difference

The short answer is no, says Stephanie Ruggiero, PsyD, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute.

“About two-thirds of children who have ADHD will continue to meet criteria for ADHD by the time they’re adults,” says Dr. Ruggiero. But, she says, that doesn’t mean the symptoms stay the same. “ADHD symptoms look different as children grow and demands change.” And with the right help kids can learn skills that help them manage symptoms and reduce the fallout as they grow up.

Knowing how to spot the changing signs of ADHD as kids grow can help.

In preschool and early elementary school ADHD can look like:

  • Fidgeting, trouble sitting down or staying still for long periods of time, appearing disruptive or “wild”
  • Trouble following directions or listening to parents, teachers, and others
  • Difficulty with transitions — for example, melting down when it’s time to leave the house or get dressed for school
  • Distracted, misses cues and questions. This can sometimes be mistaken for hearing trouble
  • Sensory issues — for example refusing to wear clothes that feel “uncomfortable”
  • Trouble regulating emotions — acting out or having a tantrum when they’re frustrated

During later elementary and early middle school years the symptoms can include:

  • Trouble starting or completing homework or other tasks
  • Messiness, lateness, and forgetfulness
  • Difficulty following directions with multiple steps
  • Acting out in class — interrupting or seeming overly talkative
  • Appearing dreamy and distracted or “spaced out”
  • Social struggles — trouble making and keeping friends
  • Difficult managing emotions. For example, getting angry or upset over small things, or seeming oversensitive

During high school and young adulthood symptoms may look like:

  • Restlessness and subtler fidgeting, like bouncing a foot or tapping a pen
  • Forgetfulness, disorganization, and trouble being on time
  • Trouble in school. For example, disciplinary issues, missing homework assignments, or skipping class
  • Difficulty making and keeping friends
  • Impulsive or risky behaviors, like experimenting with alcohol or drugs

ADHD can continue to cause problems during adulthood. Untreated, it can result in difficulties at work and in relationships, and run-ins with law enforcement. But, notes Dr. Ruggiero, support for kids can set them up to manage their symptoms as adults. “Understanding, intervention, medication, and persistence can make ADHD very manageable,” she says. 

Jeincy Duarte, PsyD, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute, agrees. “Early intervention can make a big difference,” she explains. “Since many children are diagnosed during the elementary school years there’s a lot we can do to help.” That said, she doesn’t want parents to panic if a child isn’t diagnosed until later on. “Teenagers and young adults can absolutely learn skills and make changes that will help them manage their symptoms.”

How to Help

School supports

Making sure kids have the support and accommodations they need during their school years is key, says Dr. Ruggiero. “Having the right support, like an IEP or a 504 plan, can help clear the way for learning.” Likewise, it’s important to help kids understand their ADHD and build confidence — for example, getting comfortable talking about their ADHD and advocating for what they need. “Kids who learn to advocate for themselves at school will be better self-advocates as they grow,” she adds.

Boost social skills

“If kids have difficulties with social relationships, helping them build those skills can be a big help,” says Dr. Ruggiero. Working on social skills won’t just help children who are struggling now, she notes. “If you have difficulties with friends and teachers, you might also have difficulties with your employer, or in relationships later on.” So, she says, the goal is to help kids with ADHD identify social sticking points, and build social and interpersonal skills while the stakes are somewhat lower.

Help kids manage behavior

Kids with ADHD sometimes have trouble reining in big emotions, and they may act impulsively, without considering the consequences. Parents can help kids learn the skills they need to curb impulses, manage frustration, and feel more in control. For example, a child who often interrupts when friends are talking, or blows up when things don’t go their way, could work on building their self-regulation skills or start practicing mindfulness exercises to help them stay calm when big emotions hit. “Parents should be modeling the behaviors they want to see,” says Dr. Ruggiero. For example, making a show of taking a big breath and counting to twenty when you’re feeling frustrated.

Dr. Duarte adds that maintaining a clear, consistent routine at home is key for kids with ADHD. Routines help kids practice organizational skills, task initiation, and time management. For example, a post-school routine could look like:

  • Putting shoes, coat, etc, in the same spot every time they come home
  • Having a snack
  • Doing homework (in the same place, at the same time every day)
  • Using a checklist to pack what they’ll need for school the next day (Notebook? Check. Pens that work? Calculator for the test? Check.)
  • Chores and downtime
  • Bedtime, same time every night

Kids with ADHD thrive when they know what to expect, and keeping routines clear and manageable will help them build essential executive functioning skills that will serve them all their lives.

Support self-esteem

Finally, and vitally, parents should remember that having ADHD can take a major toll on kids’ self-esteem. As kids grow up the negative feedback the disorder causes can have a corrosive effect: I’m a failure. I’m stupid. I’m annoying.

Helping kids be kinder to themselves, particularly during the school years, is hugely important. Parents can help by being patient and praising efforts, even if the end result isn’t perfect. When they’re old enough, Kids with ADHD can also benefit from understanding how the disorder impacts them. Shedding light on why things are difficult can make it easier for kids to see their struggles as symptoms that can be managed, rather than personal failings.

Encourage kids to find hobbies, classes, teams, or clubs that make them happy, and where they feel competent and comfortable. Tune into what your child loves — sports? writing? gaming? — and look for activities that play to their strengths. Giving kids the chance to feel confident and proud can help combat negative self-talk and boost self-esteem.

Finally, let your child know that though having ADHD can be hard, it has nothing to do with how smart, or capable, or amazing they are. The list of famous and fabulous grown-ups with ADHD features musicians, artists, business leaders, scientists, and people who’ve changed the world. Kids may not grow out of ADHD, but that doesn’t mean they won’t grow into incredible, happy, inspiring adults.

This article was last reviewed or updated on June 7, 2022.