Is It ADHD? Looking At Signs and Symptoms

One in 10 children age 5-17 in the U.S. is diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD), but sometimes the signs are very tough to spot. Dr. Daniel Moran gives some insights on what parents should look for.

One in 10 children age 5-17 in the U.S. is diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say that in just eight years, the number of children diagnosed has increased 42 percent. The symptoms of ADHD can range from hyperactivity and lack of focus to being withdrawn and displaying low self-esteem, which can make it difficult for parents and guardians to recognize and seek help or intervention.

Dr. Daniel Moran of the division of General Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine at UNC Children’s answers some common questions about ADHD:

What are the most common symptoms and signs of ADHD?

As the name implies, the most common symptoms and signs include hyperactivity, inattention, as well as struggles with impulse control. Often, children’ may be described as “constantly in motion” or “activing as if they were driven by a motor.” Because of their struggles with impulsivity, these children may get in situations where they are labeled as “behaving badly,” or put themselves at risk physically.

Alternatively, some children have inattentive ADHD and often seem to drift or daydream. They are easily distracted by items or events going on in their environment or even their own interior thoughts. The majority of children diagnosed with ADHD display both types of symptoms, but some children may display one or the other.

What are some of the common things parents or guardians miss when looking for ADHD symptoms?

ADHD sometimes looks like typical childhood behavior, and it’s often dismissed as such. Impulsive and hyperactive behaviors can sometimes seem natural for children – especially if they were more spirited toddlers.

Parents may also assume their child has ADHD when the behavior may actually be typical for children of that age. For example, expecting a 5-year-old to remain seated and attending to a task for an hour may be developmentally inappropriate. Hyperactivity, which typically draws an adults’ attention, can be a symptom of a non-ADHD problem. Medications can sometimes make children hyper, and lack of sleep can lead to daytime hyperactivity.

The presentation and difficulties with ADHD change over time. As the brain develops, children learn how to better regulate their body movements, selective attention and emotional responses. That’s what causes symptoms in a 7-year-old to look very different from symptoms in a 14-year-old.

How can parents get help if they think their children may have ADHD?

The best place to start is to ask for a formal assessment that includes input from home and school with rating scales that are specific for ADHD. Most pediatric primary care providers are very familiar with this and have been trained to assess ADHD symptoms and initiate treatment. The school is an important part  of this process because teachers can provide information about behavior, academic achievement, social functioning and any concerns about possible learning impairments.

As parents are doing additional research on ADHD, it’s important to choose reliable resources. I recommend seeking information from CHADD, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the CDC. In addition to working with a pediatrician, psychologists and counselors are also invaluable in helping parents understand the behaviors and providing strategies for the child and parents to minimize disruption and impairment at school and home.

Parents are the best advocates for helping children with ADHD. It’s important that parents approach their child with knowledge of ADHD as a behavioral disorder, as well as understanding that children develop and grow at different paces. I also highly recommend that families who have children with ADHD connect with other families in similar situations. I encourage that parents work with their pediatrician to find out what local resources and support groups are available.