ADHD vs. Being Fidgety: Pediatricians Explain the Difference

“Every parent with a fidgety child immediately thinks their child has ADHD.”

Loading the player...

Zoom! Bouncing from room to room, your kid is always on the move. Even when he’s sitting, he’s moving his feet and playing with, well, anything and everything that’s in front of him. You know that most kids are little balls of energy, but your kid seems to be incapable of sitting still. You wonder: Is my kid just really fidgety, or could he possibly have ADHD?

“Almost every parent with a fidgety child immediately thinks their child has ADHD,” says Alok Patel, MD, a pediatrician at New York Presbyterian-Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital. That’s because most children can be a little hyper when they’re young, says Dr. Patel.

ADHD vs. Being Fidgety: How to Tell the Difference

Attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is an umbrella term that describes kids who have various  challenges with inattention, impulsivity, and hyperactivity.

Inattention: A child who’s inattentive will have a hard time focusing. “They’ll be easily distracted when a teacher is talking to them or if a parent is talking to them,” says Dr. Patel.

Impulsivity: If a kid is impulsive, they’ll just do whatever they want, even if it’s inappropriate, says Dr. Patel.

Hyperactivity: Kids who are hyperactive may not be able to sit still. “They’ll get out of their chair in class, they’ll go running around, they’ll get out of line, they’ll talk in the middle of someone else conversation,” says Dr. Patel.

Depending on what symptoms present the strongest, doctors will diagnose the child with one of three ADHD subtypes: inattentive, hyperactive-impulsive, or combined. Learn more about how doctors diagnose ADHD.

What differentiates a kid with ADHD from a kid who’s fidgety is how the symptoms affect the child’s ability to function in everyday life. Kids with ADHD may get sent home from school for their behavior, and parents tend to get a lot of complaints from people the child interacts with, like teachers, coaches, or babysitters. “It’s really, really disruptive to life for the entire family,” says Susan Samuels, MD, a psychiatrist at New York-Presbyterian and Weill Cornell Medicine.

Symptoms of ADHD also tend to be more apparent as the kid gets older, around 5 to 7 years of age. “Because now that they’re older, they have rules, and the kids with ADHD don’t always follow [those rules],” says Dr. Patel.

Find out more about the three types of ADHD in children.