ADHD: What Is It, Does My Child Have It, and What Can I Do About It?

What is ADHD?

Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is considered a neurodevelopmental disorder, meaning it begins to reveal itself and cause problems as the brain develops during childhood. It impacts the ability to regulate attention, behavior, and emotion. Symptoms fall under two general categories – inattention and hyperactivity-impulsivity – a child with ADHD may display one or both.

Inattention refers to difficulty getting started on tasks, staying focused and working toward goals, particularly if the tasks involved are hard or are perceived to be boring. Children with ADHD are often described as distractable, disorganized, and as struggling to follow directions; their attention is easily drawn to whatever they find most stimulating or interesting, which is why completing homework can be very difficult, while playing video games may pose no problem!

Hyperactivity is excessive movement, like running in inappropriate situations, fidgeting/squirming, having difficulty staying seated, and talking too much.

Impulsivity is struggling to stop oneself from engaging in a behavior. Instead of considering consequences, children with ADHD tend to be controlled by what is happening now. As a result, they may interrupt others’ activities, struggle to wait their turn, or lie when “put on the spot.” In addition, they are often emotionally impulsive, reacting with emotion more quickly than others and failing to express emotions appropriately.

How do I know if my child has ADHD?

Currently, we cannot diagnose ADHD with a brain scan or physical test. Instead, it is diagnosed through gathering information about a child’s behaviors from adults who have observed the child over extended periods of time. The person diagnosing the child – typically a physician or psychologist – must collect that information, rule out other possible causes for the behavior, and determine the following:

  • Are the behaviors inappropriate for a child this age? Symptoms of ADHD are, to some extent, normal behaviors. That is, they are behaviors that most children will exhibit at some time. Nearly all young children, for example, struggle to remain focused on tasks they find boring or difficult, just as nearly all children sometimes interrupt others, talk too loudly, or act without thinking about consequences. However, a child with ADHD exhibits significantly more of these behaviors than most other same-aged children.
  • Have enough symptoms been present, for long enough, in more than one environment? Numerous inattentive and/or hyperactive-impulsive symptoms must be present in order to diagnose ADHD. Also, some symptoms must have been present and persistent before age 12. Finally, symptoms of ADHD should be observable in different settings, though not always to the same degree. For example, hyperactivity that appears only at home and never at school would be unlikely to be related to ADHD.
  • Do the behaviors interfere with the child’s life? In short, these symptoms need to cause problems – at home, at school, or with other activities and relationships.

If my child is diagnosed, what can I do about it?

We do not know how to “cure” ADHD. Instead, the goal is to manage symptoms so they cause fewer problems. Research tells us that the following are the most effective ways to manage it:

  • Behavior management training is a type of counseling that involves teaching parents effective strategies to help a child demonstrate more appropriate behaviors. Strategies may include using positive attention and rewards, increasing structure and routine, and using appropriate discipline. A therapist may also provide parents information about ADHD, as well as work to ensure that effective strategies are being used to help the child at school.
  • Medication management. A variety of medications have been found to significantly reduce symptoms. However, both medication and behavioral treatments stop providing benefit if they are discontinued.

If you have concerns that your child may have ADHD, or if you are seeking help for a child already diagnosed, start by discussing your concerns with your child’s primary care provider. Big Lots Behavioral Health Services at Nationwide Children’s Hospital also provides evaluation and treatment for ADHD. Click here for more information or listen to our PediaCast. An initial appointment can also be arranged by calling the Intake Department at (614) 355-8080.

Benjamin Fields, PhD, MEd
Ben Fields, PhD, MEd, is a clinical psychologist at Nationwide Children’s Hospital. His primary clinical interests include assessment and treatment of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and learning disorders, as well as parent behavior management training for disruptive behavior disorders. Dr. Fields is active in delivery of Incredible Years parent groups and ADHD Academy seminars. A former teacher, he has also collaborated with local school districts to increase understanding and effective support of students with ADHD.

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