Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)

A lot of kids are what we call "high energy." They seem to bounce off walls and find it impossible to sit still. For some kids, though, overactive and impulsive behaviors are severe enough to affect their schoolwork and home life. These kids may have a condition called Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, or ADHD.

ADHD is very common. In fact, it's the most common behavioral problem in children. About 3 to 5% of school-aged kids are diagnosed with ADHD. Most of them are boys.

So, what causes ADHD?
Doctors aren't sure exactly what causes ADHD, though we do know some things that contribute. And we do know that the brain looks different in kids with this condition than it does in kids without the disorder. Most kids with ADHD also have other problems with behavior, depression, sleeping, or learning.

How do you know for sure that your child has ADHD?
There are three types of ADHD: inattentive, hyperactive, and impulsive. Kids with the inattentive type get distracted easily. You'll find them staring out of the window in class instead of paying attention. They tend to lose their pens and pencils, and can't seem to ever finish their homework.

Kids with hyperactivity are the ones who can't sit still. Their feet are always tapping and their mouth is always moving. It's like someone wound them up, but never wound them back down.

Kids with impulsivity have trouble controlling themselves. They'll blurt out the answer to a question before the teacher has even finished asking it. They often won't let their friends finish a sentence, or a game, without butting in.

In kids with these kinds of symptoms, ADHD can be a tricky diagnosis to make. Sometimes kids are mistakenly diagnosed with ADHD when they're just high energy. Other kids have ADHD and never get diagnosed.

To get diagnosed with ADHD, kids need to have at least six symptoms of inattention and six symptoms of hyperactivity/impulsivity that have lasted for at least 6 months. A pediatrician, psychologist or psychiatrist can test the child and talk to the parents and teachers to make the diagnosis.

How do doctors treat ADHD?
Many kids with ADHD respond to a combination of medicines and behavior therapy. The drugs that are used most often for ADHD are called psychostimulants, like Adderall, Focalin, and Ritalin. A nonstimulant drug called Strattera may also be effective. Because these drugs can have side effects, kids should only use them under a doctor's guidance.

Talk therapy that involves both the parents and child can help gain more control over ADHD behaviors. Parents can learn how to limit distractions, make sure their child gets enough sleep and eats right, and learn how to set consistent rules, rewarding good behavior and addressing bad behavior. Good sleep, good food, and plenty of physical activity, especially outdoors may help.

About half of kids with ADHD eventually grow out of it. If they don't grow out of it, it can lead to problems in adulthood, like drug and alcohol abuse, difficulty keeping a job, and sometimes trouble with the law. Diagnosing ADHD early and addressing it right away can give kids the best chance for a healthy, happy future. So if you see any signs of ADHD in your child, talk to a pediatrician or child psychologist.

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)

Version Info

  • Last reviewed on 10/25/2011
  • Alan Greene, MD, Author and Practicing Pediatrician; also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.

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