Understanding ADHD in Children: What Psychiatrists Want You to Know

Addressing ADHD symptoms now can set your child up for success.

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It can be frustrating to see your child struggling to succeed in school or at home, especially if you know their academic skills aren’t where they should be, or behavior problems are affecting their ability to participate in sports or have fun on playdates with friends. Daily reports from the teacher of missing homework or disruptive behavior might leave you with questions about whether or not your child could have ADHD.

ADHD, or attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder, is actually a group of mental health disorders with three different types:

  • Hyperactive/Impulsive ADHD Children with this type of ADHD are often constantly moving around and fidgeting. They pop in and out of their seat in school, they run places instead of walk, and they have poor impulse control. Impulsive children may seem unable to resist talking, calling out, or interrupting at inappropriate times. They may run out into the street or do other reckless things.

  • Inattentive ADHD This type of ADHD might not be as obvious and tends to be diagnosed less frequently than the hyperactive/impulsive type. Children with inattentive ADHD are easily distracted, daydream frequently, and have trouble staying organized. Find more information about symptoms of inattentive ADHD in adults and children here.

  • Combined ADHD As the name suggests, children with this form of ADHD have combined symptoms of hyperactivity and inattention.

Typically, ADHD in children becomes more noticeable and is first diagnosed around five to six years of age. “That’s the age where we get to tease out just being a rambunctious, hyperactive young child, to a child that’s actually having difficulties in school and home because of ADHD,” says Alok Patel, MD, a pediatrician at New York Presbyterian-Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital.

Diagnosing and Treating ADHD

To diagnose ADHD, doctors use a clinical exam including questions about behavior and performance, social factors, family history, and medical history. Doctors also do physical exams to rule out other causes for symptoms.

One important criteria for diagnosis is that symptoms appear in more than one setting. For example, a child may not have ADHD if she only blurts out comments or runs about the room in just one teacher’s class; however, if these symptoms happen in every classroom, as well as at home and in the grocery store, ADHD may be the issue.

If your child receives an ADHD diagnosis, there are a few treatment options to choose from. ADHD treatment often involves a combination of medication and therapy.

Medication for ADHD includes stimulants and non-stimulants.

  • Stimulant medications may improve focus and reduce impulsive behavior by targeting certain neurotransmitters in the brain, which influences decision making and motivation.

  • Non-stimulant medications for ADHD target a different different neurotransmitters to help children manage emotions and carry out tasks.

Some behavioral interventions for children with ADHD include training in organization, planning, time management, impulse control, and emotional regulation.

Addressing ADHD during childhood is crucial because managing symptoms will likely be a lifelong task, according to Yamalis Diaz, PhD, a psychologist at NYU Langone Health.  “This is important because the foundation we set today for how they manage themselves,” says Dr. Diaz, “essentially sets the tone for what they look like as adults.”