Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

What is it?

Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, is a persistent pattern of inattention and/or hyperactivity and impulsiveness that interferes significantly with a child’s functioning. Children with ADHD have difficulty concentrating on tasks, paying attention, sitting still, and controlling their behavior. Some children exhibit mostly inattentive behaviors, others are predominantly hyperactive and impulsive; many children with ADHD exhibit both behaviors.

Signs and Symptoms

Hyperactive or impulsive behaviors are very noticeable in children and include fidgeting, excess energy, verbal outbursts, extreme impatience, incessant talking, and interrupting others. Inattentive behaviors are usually noticed when a child is in school: he’s easily distracted, has difficulty following instructions, is forgetful, struggles with organization, avoids mental exertion, and may be oblivious to what’s going on around him. Boys are more frequently diagnosed with ADHD than girls. Girls may experience the disorder differently.

Children with a first-degree biological relative who has ADHD are more likely to develop the disorder.

Diagnosis and Treatment

A child should be diagnosed with ADHD only if his inattentive or impulsive behaviors are abnormal for children his age and happen over an extended period and in multiple settings. Behaviors must interfere significantly with his schoolwork or social life. Symptoms must have been present before age 12.

Treatment for ADHD usually includes behavioral therapy and medication.

Therapy successfully helps children manage ADHD symptoms, including parent-child interaction therapy, which shows parents how to cultivate desired behaviors while minimizing impulsive or inattentive ones. Parent training uses the family to address symptoms, while cognitive behavioral therapy teaches a child to understand how his thoughts and feelings influence his behaviors. Close consultation with teachers can help your child succeed. Social skills training may help him behave more appropriately with other children, and family therapy can help parents and siblings manage the stress created by the ADHD child’s needs and behavior.

The most common medications prescribed for ADHD are psychostimulants; two widely-known generics are methylphenidate and dextroamphetamine, known by the brand names Ritalin and Adderall. These medications stimulate the brain’s production of certain neurotransmitters that activate the brain’s centers of attention and impulse control. Stimulants can have significant side effects, such as headaches, loss of appetite, and trouble sleeping. Some children are prescribed other, non-stimulant drugs approved for treatment of ADHD if stimulants are problematic. Children with ADHD taking medication find that they are better able to concentrate and enjoy school more than they did before.

There’s no proven link between diet and the signs and symptoms of ADHD.

What are the risk factors for children?

Many children grow out of the disorder, but symptoms often persist into adulthood; many people will continue to need professional help to manage it. Inattentive and impulsive symptoms are more likely to persist into adulthood than hyperactivity. Children with ADHD are often diagnosed with oppositional defiant disorder, anxiety or depressive disorders.