As any frustrated parent can tell you, it’s completely normal for children to have trouble focusing, be impulsive, or have ants in their pants from time to time. “When children are really young, they’re kind of all hyper. They don’t really have any rules,” says Alok Patel, MD, a pediatrician at New York Presbyterian-Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital.
But if these behaviors start to get in the way of your child functioning normally in everyday life—like if they’re always running, jumping, or getting out of their seat so they get in trouble at school, or they’re often unable to focus on and finish their homework—that’s a sign that it could something more.
“ADHD, or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, is a set of disorders that describes kids that have challenges with hyperactivity, impulsivity and possible inattention,” says Susan Samuels, MD, a psychiatrist at New York- Presbyterian and Weill Cornell Medicine. Depending on what symptoms present the strongest, doctors will diagnose the child with one of three ADHD subtypes:
Understanding the 3 Types of ADHD
A child who’s predominantly inattentive may be easily distracted, and have a hard time paying attention to details or following instructions or conversations. “Those are the kids who look sometimes spaced out, they’re daydreaming, [and] they’re often off task,” says Khadijah Watkins, MD, a psychiatrist at New York Presbyterian Hospital and Weill Cornell Medicine. “The class will be on page 10 and the kid will still be on page 5.”
In kids who are primarily inattentive, the ADHD may not be noticed right away, because they don’t tend to cause much trouble, they’re just not focused in school, says Dr. Samuels.
“When the kids are hyperactive, they’re restless and motorically driven; almost like they’re a motor in a car,” says Dr. Watkins. Children who have ADHD that’s predominantly hyperactive-impulsive tend to fidget and talk a lot. They may not be able to sit for long, and they’ll often run, jump, or climb on top of things. These kids may also have trouble controlling their impulses, meaning they interrupt conversations a lot, grab things from people, or speak at inappropriate times. “They’ll blurt out answers. They cannot be controlled despite multiple attempts redirecting them and it’s really out of their control as well,” says Dr. Samuels.
In combined ADHD, children will show symptoms of inattentive ADHD and hyperactive-impulsive ADHD. “The combined subtype is actually the most common subtype and the most impairing subtype, because these are the kids who have significant attention problems and significant difficulties with impulsivity and hyperactivity,” says Yamalis Diaz, PhD, a psychologist at NYU Langone Health.
Treating Your Child’s ADHD
In most cases, ADHD is treated with a combination of behavior therapy (which is usually the first line of treatment, especially for younger children) and medication.
“Treatment for ADHD is very essential because we do know that ADHD is a chronic disorder,” says Dr. Diaz. In fact, two-thirds of kids with ADHD continue to have ADHD symptoms as adults. “And these are usually the kids who are pretty mild to begin with,” she says.
Treating your child’s ADHD is important because it sets the foundation for how they’ll conduct themselves as adults. “I’m always on a mission to help parents understand, you need to work on these things now so that your child develops the skills they need to manage themselves later,” says Dr. Diaz.