How Doctors Diagnose + Treat ADHD in Children

Diagnosing a child with ADHD takes a team effort.

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Childhood ADHD, or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, can sometimes be difficult to diagnose. Even when you see the symptoms in your child, it can be hard to tell if your child really has ADHD, or perhaps is just an energetic kid.

“Every child with ADHD can present very differently, or have a very different severity of it,” says Preeti Parikh, MD, chief medical officer at HealthiNation and pediatrician at Mount Sinai Hospital. “It’s important to work with the parents, the teachers, your psychiatrist, and healthcare provider, to really talk about the symptoms that your child is presenting.”

Making an ADHD Diagnosis

One of the most important criteria for an ADHD diagnosis is that the behavioral symptoms appear in more than one setting—that is, not just in school. To check this, your doctor will give both you and your child’s teacher a survey to give observations about your child’s behavior.

In these surveys, your doctor is looking to see if there are consistent patterns. This helps rule out the possibility that there aren’t other environmental problems going on that could be causing the behavioral symptoms. For example, a poor relationship with their teacher could cause your child to act out at school—but not at home.

Your doctor will also ask if there have been any major life changes for your child, such as a divorce, move, or loss of a loved one. This can cause ADHD-like behaviors temporarily while your child processes the change.

And finally, doctors will want to rule out other disorders. For example, depression and anxiety in children can sometimes be confused with ADHD.

What a Comprehensive Treatment Plan Looks Like

Like any parent, you want the best for your child. That’s why when searching for treatment plans for your child with ADHD, it’s critical to know your options. That way you and your doctor can make the right decision about your child’s care.

Many doctors use what’s called a multimodal treatment approach. “A big part of a comprehensive treatment plan is education—making sure the parents and [the child] understand what ADHD is and how we’re going to treat it,” says Dr. Parikh.

“The two [main] options are medications and behavioral therapy,” says Dr. Parikh. “The data shows that those two in combination are the best ways to treat ADHD.”

The treatment plan may also include some of the following additional interventions, based on what your child needs and what you have access to:

  • Mental health counseling for your child, you, or the family to address any challenges.

  • Parent training classes or programs to address your child’s behavior. For example, here are parenting strategies to help raise children with ADHD.

  • Modifications and supports in school, including 504 Plans, tutoring, and special education programs.

Often more than one intervention is needed to fully treat your child with ADHD.

“One of the key things about parents being educated about ADHD is to know that it’s a team effort and they’re not alone,” says Dr. Parikh. “Talk to your doctor and psychiatrist about anything that you’ve seen that’s going on at home, any changes since they’ve been treated … We all are a team, and we want to make sure we do the best for your child.”