• Register and Receive 1 Year Free Subscription to CHADD Attention Magazine

What is attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)?

You have come to the right place to learn more about how to recognize the signs and symptoms of ADHD—or “attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.”

The exact cause of ADHD is unknown. ADHD is a “multifactorial” disorder, meaning it is influenced by the interaction of genetic and environmental factors on the structure and function of the brain.

Chemical Imbalance

Chemical Imbalance

ADHD may partly be caused by an imbalance of the chemical messengers responsible for memory, attention, and motor control (movement). Certain areas of the brain have also been shown to be less active, or underdeveloped, in people who have ADHD.

Genetic

Genetic

Children with parents or older siblings who have ADHD have a higher risk for the disorder.

Developmental

Developmental

Children born prematurely, or to mothers who had difficult pregnancies, have a higher risk for ADHD.

Environmental

Environmental

Fetal exposure to drugs or alcohol, and childhood exposure to lead, secondary cigarette smoke, or pesticides may increase the risk for developing ADHD.

How common is ADHD?

ADHD is actually one of the most common mental health issues affecting children and adolescents.

About 9.4% of American children and teens have been diagnosed with ADHD.

of American children and teens—that’s nearly 1 in 10—have been diagnosed with ADHD, including approximately:

2.4% of children aged 2 to 5
9.6% of children aged 6 to 11
13.6% of adolescents (aged 12 to 17)

Boys are 3 times as likely as girls to be diagnosed with ADHD, but these gender differences become less pronounced by adulthood.


While ADHD is a common and treatable medical disorder, only a doctor or other healthcare provider can diagnose ADHD; in fact, ADHD may be just the “tip of the iceberg,” with other mental health issues occurring underneath.

CHADD

Learn more about ADHD with this fact sheet overview from the Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD) website. For other helpful parenting resources, click here.

Does my child have ADHD? Signs and symptoms

Does my child have ADHD? Signs and symptoms

Not actual patient

There are often signs or symptoms that your child has ADHD. But it’s important to know that not all children with ADHD have the same symptoms.

Symptoms of ADHD typically surface at school, at home, and/or in social situations. However, for a diagnosis of ADHD to be made, symptoms must be present in 2 or more settings. The symptoms below are not a diagnostic tool, but some signs that may prompt a discussion with your child’s doctor.

Different types of ADHD

There are 3 distinct types of ADHD in children and teens

1

Predominantly inattentive

Difficulty keeping on task and following through: Your child may start schoolwork or chores, but quickly loses focus or gets easily sidetracked.

Difficulty paying attention: Do you hear from teachers that your child has difficulty paying attention to lessons? Perhaps your child cannot appropriately follow instructions or stay organized in their schoolwork.

Appearing not to listen when spoken to: It could be that when you speak directly to your child, you notice that his/her mind seems to be elsewhere, even in the absence of obvious distractions.

Often forgetful or easily distractible: Does your child constantly lose school materials—or if older, misplace glasses, keys, wallet, or cell phone?

2

Predominantly hyperactive-impulsive

Fidgets or has difficulty remaining seated: Do teachers complain that your child leaves his/her seat or moves around too much in class? Does it seem like your child is unable to be still for an extended period of time?

Always “on the go”: Maybe your child cannot seem to play quietly or participate in social activities.

Talks excessively.

Blurts out answers to questions or has difficulty taking turns: This can be as obvious as completing other people’s sentences or not being able to wait in line.

3

Combined (inattentive/hyperactive-impulsive)

Does your child show symptoms of both inattentive and hyperactive/impulsive behaviors?

If any of these symptoms sound familiar, it’s important to tell your child’s doctor about them and how they are impacting your child’s overall development—in school, at home, and socially with peers.

Talking with your doctor about ADHD: Your ADHD Discussion Guide

If you suspect your child has ADHD, the best course of action is to make an appointment with your child’s healthcare provider to further discuss.

Talking with your doctor about ADHD: Your ADHD Discussion Guide Not actual healthcare provider

How is ADHD diagnosed?

How is ADHD diagnosed?

There is no one “test” for ADHD. Your doctor will generally diagnose the disorder after your child has had issues with hyperactivity or inattention for over 6 months and in more than 1 setting (eg, both at home and at school).

The process of diagnosis starts with an open and honest discussion with your child’s doctor to talk about your concerns and/or observations. This attached Discussion Guide may help.

Download Discussion Guide

How do I know my child really has ADHD and isn’t just “being a kid” or “a typical teen”?

How do I know my child really has ADHD and isn’t just “being a kid” or “a typical teen”?

Not actual patient

Not actual patient

Parents often wonder if their child’s behavior is part of a normal developmental stage, or if it could be ADHD:

  • Preschoolers and young children may be energetic and have difficulty following directions and taking turns. These behaviors may be age appropriate, or they may be a sign of ADHD
  • Teenagers are sometimes reluctant to follow rules or pay attention. They may be moody or irritable. This could be a part of normal teenage development, or could indicate ADHD

At any age, the key to diagnosing ADHD is determining the impact of symptoms on your child’s life. A detailed history, along with your doctor’s observations and a physical exam, are important when diagnosing ADHD. Your doctor may also collect information from others involved in your child’s care, such as parents, teachers, and coaches.

What does a diagnosis of ADHD mean?

When your child has been diagnosed with ADHD, your first thought as a parent is, “How can I help”? The good news is that there are a variety of treatment approaches to help tackle ADHD behaviors and help your child to succeed!

What does a diagnosis of ADHD mean? Not actual patient

Treatment options in ADHD

Behavioral treatment and school accommodations

ADHD treatment is considered “multimodal” and should be tailored to each child’s needs and circumstances. The initial treatment for ADHD is often focused on behavioral and school support.

Behavioral therapy

Behavioral therapy for children and parents includes counseling and parent training.

School accommodations

School accommodations may take the form of 504 plans, individualized education plans (IEPs), tutoring, and/or special education programs. There are also simple strategies that your teacher may implement to help your child succeed in the classroom.

Medication options in ADHD

Behavioral and educational approaches alone may not be enough to manage your child’s ADHD. Medications may play an important role, and are used to treat core symptoms of the disorder, including inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity.

There are 2 main categories of ADHD medications: controlled medications/stimulants and noncontrolled medications/nonstimulants. One or the other may be used to help treat your child’s symptoms. Combination therapy with both categories of medications may also be considered in children who respond only partially to one treatment.

Controlled medications/stimulants

Controlled medications/stimulants are products containing the molecules methylphenidate or amphetamine.

  • Oldest and most commonly prescribed class of medication in ADHD
  • Work on the central nervous system to improve attention and reduce hyperactivity
  • Fast acting, but symptoms may “rebound” (occur again) in the late afternoon or evening
  • Common side effects are loss of appetite, weight loss, and difficulty sleeping
  • Less common, though more serious, side effects are anxiety, heart complications, psychosis, and worsening of tics (involuntary actions)
Noncontrolled medications/nonstimulants

Noncontrolled medications/nonstimulants include certain classes of medications also used in other settings to lower blood pressure or adjust the chemicals in your brain (antidepressants).

  • Can take 4-12 weeks to be fully effective
  • Often less effective than stimulants, though can help reduce hyperactivity and impulsivity
  • Common side effects include mood changes and fatigue
  • Less common, but more serious, side effects include dizziness or drop in blood pressure
  • In rare cases, can cause liver problems

Learn more about medication treatments for ADHD with this chart from the Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD) website.