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What is ADHD?

Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a mental health condition that is often diagnosed in children. ADHD can make it very hard for children to focus on their schoolwork or other tasks, pay attention and sit still. Children with ADHD have a harder time controlling themselves than other children their age, which can lead to challenges at school and at home.

ADHD includes two separate kinds of behaviors:

  • Inattentive behaviors, in which a child has trouble paying attention
  • Impulsive behaviors, in which a child has too much energy and has trouble controlling their impulses

Some with ADHD only show inattentive behaviors and some only show impulsive behaviors, but most have a combination of both.

What are the symptoms of ADHD?

The first signs of ADHD are often hyperactive or impulsive behaviors. They usually show up in children between three and six years old. Hyperactive or impulsive behaviors include:

  • Having a lot of energy and struggling to sit still
  • Fidgeting all the time
  • Often running around and climbing on things
  • Constantly talking or interrupting others
  • Being very impatient

The other symptoms of ADHD are inattentive behaviors. These usually show up once the child starts school. Inattentive behaviors include:

  • Being easily distracted
  • Making careless mistakes
  • Having a hard time following instructions
  • Often forgetting or losing things
  • Having trouble staying organized
  • Appearing not to listen when someone speaks to them
  • Avoiding things that involve a lot of thinking or effort
  • Seeming unaware of what’s going on around them

Boys are diagnosed with ADHD about twice as much as girls. Girls may show different symptoms.

How is ADHD diagnosed?

A child can be diagnosed with ADHD if:

  • They show several inattentive or impulsive behaviors before the age of 12
  • Their behavior challenges go beyond what’s normal for their age
  • They show symptoms over a long period of time
  • They struggle with their behavior in different places, such as at home and at school
  • Their behavior gets in the way of their schoolwork or social life

To make a diagnosis, a mental health professional will talk to parents, teachers, and other adults in the child’s life. They will also meet the child. The child will receive several tests. This will help the mental health professional decide if the child has ADHD or another disorder with similar symptoms.

How is ADHD treated?

ADHD is usually treated with a combination of behavioral therapy and medication.

Therapy

There are several types of therapy that can help children with ADHD:

  • Parent-child interaction therapy: Therapy for the parent and the child together. The parent learns how to encourage good behavior.
  • Parent training: The parent learns skills to address the child’s symptoms.
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): The therapist teaches the child to control their behaviors. They discuss how the child’s thoughts and feelings are connected to their behavior and practice ways to improve self-control. This works best with older children.
  • Social skills training: The therapist helps the child learn how to act around other children.
  • Family therapy: Parents and siblings learn how to handle the stress of living with a child who has ADHD.

Therapists can also work closely with a child’s teachers.

Medication

Children with ADHD are often prescribed what’s called a stimulant. This medication will help them be calm, focus and control their impulses. The two most common medications are methylphenidate and dextroamphetamine, which go by brand names like Ritalin and Adderall.

These medications can have serious side effects, such as headaches, not feeling hungry, or trouble sleeping. If children have these side effects, they may be prescribed non-stimulant medication instead.

For many children, symptoms of ADHD will decrease or disappear once they’re young adults. Some adults still struggle with symptoms of ADHD, especially inattention and impulse control.

Risk for other disorders

Children with ADHD are often diagnosed with oppositional defiant disorder, anxiety or depression. Some children may also be diagnosed with Tourette’s syndrome. ADHD treatments are most effective when any other mental health conditions are also treated at the same time.