Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a chronic condition that affects millions of children and often persists into adulthood. ADHD includes a combination of problems, such as difficulty sustaining attention, hyperactivity and impulsive behavior.
Children with ADHD also may struggle with low self-esteem, troubled relationships and poor performance in school. Symptoms sometimes lessen with age. However, some people never completely outgrow their ADHD symptoms. But they can learn strategies to be successful.
While treatment won't cure ADHD, it can help a great deal with symptoms. Treatment typically involves medications and behavioral interventions. Early diagnosis and treatment can make a big difference in outcome.
Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) has been called attention-deficit disorder (ADD) in the past. But ADHD is now the preferred term because it describes both of the primary features of this condition: inattention and hyperactive-impulsive behavior. In some children, signs of ADHD are noticeable as early as 2 or 3 years of age.
Signs and symptoms of ADHD may include:
ADHD occurs more often in males than in females, and behaviors can be different in boys and girls. For example, boys may be more hyperactive and girls may tend to be quietly inattentive.
Most healthy children are inattentive, hyperactive or impulsive at one time or another. It's normal for preschoolers to have short attention spans and be unable to stick with one activity for long. Even in older children and teenagers, attention span often depends on the level of interest.
The same is true of hyperactivity. Young children are naturally energetic — they often wear their parents out long before they're tired. In addition, some children just naturally have a higher activity level than others do. Children should never be classified as having ADHD just because they're different from their friends or siblings.
Children who have problems in school but get along well at home or with friends are likely struggling with something other than ADHD. The same is true of children who are hyperactive or inattentive at home, but whose schoolwork and friendships remain unaffected.
If you're concerned that your child shows signs of ADHD, see your pediatrician or family doctor. Your doctor may refer you to a specialist, but it's important to have a medical evaluation first to check for other possible causes of your child's difficulties.
If your child is already being treated for ADHD, he or she should see the doctor regularly until symptoms have largely improved, and then every three to four months if symptoms are stable. Call the doctor if your child has any medication side effects, such as loss of appetite, trouble sleeping, increased irritability, or if your child's ADHD has not shown much improvement with initial treatment.
While the exact cause of ADHD is not clear, research efforts continue.
Multiple factors have been implicated in the development of ADHD. It can run in families, and studies indicate that genes may play a role. Certain environmental factors also may increase risk, as can problems with the central nervous system at key moments in development.
In general, a child shouldn't receive a diagnosis of ADHD unless the core symptoms of ADHD start early in life and create significant problems at home and at school on an ongoing basis.
There's no specific test for ADHD, but making a diagnosis will likely include:
To be diagnosed with ADHD, your child must meet the criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders published by the American Psychiatric Association. For a diagnosis of ADHD, a child must have six or more signs and symptoms from one or both of the two categories below.
In addition to having at least six signs or symptoms from these two categories, a child with ADHD:
A child diagnosed with ADHD is often given a more specific diagnosis (a subtype), such as:
A number of medical conditions or their treatments may cause signs and symptoms similar to those of ADHD, or exist along with ADHD. Examples include:
Although signs of ADHD can sometimes appear in preschoolers or children even younger, diagnosing the disorder in very young children is difficult. That's because developmental problems such as language delays can be mistaken for ADHD. For that reason, children preschool age or younger suspected of having ADHD are more likely to need evaluation by a specialist, such as a psychologist or psychiatrist, speech pathologist, or developmental pediatrician.
ADHD can make life difficult for children. Children with ADHD:
ADHD doesn't cause other psychological or developmental problems. However, children with ADHD are more likely than are other children to also have conditions such as:
To help reduce your child's risk of ADHD:
If your child has ADHD, to help reduce problems or complications:
There's little research that indicates that alternative medicine treatments can reduce ADHD symptoms. Before considering any alternative interventions, talk with your doctor to determine if the therapy will be safe. Some alternative medicine treatments that have been tried, but are not yet fully proved scientifically, include:
Because ADHD is complex and each person with ADHD is unique, it's hard to make recommendations that work for every child. But some of the following suggestions may help create an environment in which your child can succeed.
Caring for a child with ADHD can be challenging for the whole family. Parents may be hurt by their child's behavior as well as by the way other people respond to it. The stress of dealing with ADHD can lead to marital conflict. These problems may be compounded by the financial burden that ADHD can place on families.
Siblings of a child with ADHD also may have special difficulties. They can be affected by a brother or sister who is demanding or aggressive, and they may also receive less attention because the child with ADHD requires so much of a parent's time.
Many resources are available, such as social services or support groups. Support groups often can provide helpful information about coping with ADHD. Ask your child's doctor if he or she knows of any support groups in your area.
There also are excellent books and guides for both parents and teachers, and Internet sites dealing exclusively with ADHD. But be careful of websites or other resources that focus on risky or unproved remedies or those that conflict with your health care team's recommendations.
Many parents notice patterns in their child's behavior as well as in their own responses to that behavior. Both you and your child may need to change behavior. But substituting new habits for old ones isn't easy — it takes a lot of hard work. It's important to have realistic expectations. Set small goals for both yourself and your child and don't try to make a lot of changes all at once.
To help manage ADHD:
Risk factors for ADHD may include:
Although sugar is a popular suspect in causing hyperactivity, there's no reliable proof of this. Many things in childhood can lead to difficulty sustaining attention, but that is not the same as ADHD.