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Understanding ADHD: An Introduction


Suspecting or hearing that your child has ADHD (also known as ADD) can trigger a number of feelings. It can also raise questions, including “what is ADHD?” You may wonder about symptoms, evaluations and how you can help.

The journey of parenting a child with ADHD can sometimes feel lonely. But you’re not alone. In fact, more than 10% of kids ages 4 to 17 (6.4. million children) in the U.S. have been diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, according to a survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Learning as much as you can about ADHD is a great first step to getting your child the help he needs.

What is ADHD?

A good way to understand ADHD is to establish what it isn’t. It isn’t the result of bad parenting or of your child being lazy or disobedient. ADHD is a biological condition that makes it hard for many children to sit still and concentrate.

There are various areas of the brain that control your child’s ability to concentrate and “hit the brakes.” These areas may be less active and develop more slowly in kids with ADHD. The best evidence for this occurs in the front part of our brain, or the frontal lobe. This can upset the balance of certain brain chemicals. It can also explain why your child may have more trouble socially than his or her peers.

Kids don’t outgrow ADHD. The symptoms may change over time but ADHD is a lifelong condition. That doesn’t mean your child can’t be happy and successful. There are many effective strategies and treatment options you can try to manage your child’s symptoms.

Kids (and families) are all different, so not all options will work for you. It takes trial and error to see what fits your child’s and family’s needs. But finding the right strategies and seeing an improvement can boost everyone’s confidence.

Three Types of ADHD

For many people, the words “hyperactive” or “out of control” come to mind when they hear the term ADHD. If your child doesn’t have those symptoms, a diagnosis of ADHD can be puzzling. Kids who don’t seem hyperactive often aren’t diagnosed as early.

There are actually three types of ADHD, and one of them doesn’t include symptoms of impulsive and hyperactive behavior.

  • ADHD, Predominantly Hyperactive-Impulsive Presentation: Kids who have this type of ADHD have symptoms of hyperactivity and feel the need to move constantly. They also struggle with impulse control.

  • ADHD, Predominantly Inattentive Presentation: Kids who have this type of ADHD have difficulty paying attention. They’re easily distracted but don’t have issues with impulsivity or hyperactivity. This is sometimes referred to as attention-deficit disorder (or ADD).

  • ADHD, Combined Presentation: This is the most common type of ADHD. Kids who have it show all of the symptoms described above.

What are the symptoms of ADHD?

You may have been concerned about some of your child’s behaviors. Once you recognize them as signs of ADHD, you’ll be in a better position to help.

Observing and taking notes to share with your child’s teacher and other professionals are key first steps to finding the best treatments, strategies and supports. If your child’s teacher is the first to mention concerns and observations, try to be receptive.

Symptoms of ADHD fall into three categories: inattention, impulsivity and distractibility. For your child to be diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, the signs have to be present for at least six months.

Signs of Inattention

  • Forgets things, seems “day-dreamy” or confused and appears to not be listening

  • Finds it hard to concentrate and jumps quickly from one activity to another

  • Gets bored with an activity unless it’s very enjoyable

  • Struggles to get organized and finish tasks

  • Has difficulty learning new things and following directions

  • Is smart but doesn’t understand or “get” things you expect him or her to understand or that his or her peers grasp easily

Signs of Impulsivity

  • Is impatient and has trouble waiting for a turn

  • Blurts out inappropriate things and interrupts people

  • Overreacts to feelings and emotional situations

  • Doesn’t understand the consequences of his actions

Signs of Hyperactivity

  • Talks almost constantly

  • Moves nonstop even when sitting down

  • Moves from place to place quickly and frequently

  • Fidgets and has to pick up everything and play with it

  • Has trouble sitting still for meals and other quiet activities

When Symptoms Appear

Parents often don’t notice signs of ADHD before their kids start school. Kids whose main symptoms are distractibility and inattention are typically diagnosed during grade school.

Kids with severe hyperactivity and poor impulse control are more likely to be diagnosed as preschoolers. The American Academy of Pediatrics doesn’t recommend giving a diagnosis of ADHD until a child is at least 4 years old. It’s hard to know what falls within the range of typical behavior when kids are that young.

Symptoms May Change Over Time

Children don’t outgrow ADHD, but their symptoms may change as they become older. For example, some symptoms like hyperactivity might decrease with age, but difficulty with organization and time management may be become more noticeable as kids enter middle school or high school.

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