What is ADHD?

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder or ADHD is a common childhood illness that can be treated. It is a health condition involving biologically active substances in the brain. Studies show that ADHD may affect certain areas of the brain that allow us to solve problems, plan ahead, understand others’ actions, and control our impulses.

girl on swingThe primary symptoms of ADHD are hyperactivity, impulsivity, and inattention.

Hyperactive children always seem to be in motion. A child who is hyperactive may move around touching or playing with whatever is around, or talk continually. During story time or school lessons, the child might squirm around, fidget, or get up and move around the room. Some children wiggle their feet or tap their fingers. A teenager or adult who is hyperactive may feel restless and need to stay busy all the time.

Impulsive children often blurt out comments without thinking first. They may often display their emotions without restraint. They may also fail to consider the consequences of their actions. Such children may find it hard to wait in line or take turns. Impulsive teenagers and adults tend to make choices that have a small immediate payoff rather than working toward larger delayed rewards.

Inattentive children may quickly get bored with an activity if it’s not something they really enjoy. Organizing and completing a task or learning something new is difficult for them. As students, they often forget to write down a school assignment or bring a book home. Completing homework can be huge challenge. At any age, an inattentive person may often be easily distracted, make careless mistakes, forget things, have trouble following instructions, or skip from one activity to another without finishing anything.

Some children with ADHD are mainly inattentive. They seldom act hyperactive or impulsive. An inattentive child with ADHD may sit quietly in class and appear to be working but is not really focusing on the assignment. Teachers and parents may easily overlook the problem.

Children with ADHD need support to help them pay attention, control their behavior, slow down, and feel better about themselves.

What Is Not ADHD?

Many children and adults are easily distracted at times or have trouble finishing tasks. To be ADHD, however, the behaviors must appear before age 7 and continue for at least six months. The symptoms must also create a real handicap in at least two areas of the child’s life—in the classroom, on the playground, at home, in the community, or in social settings.

If a child seems too active on the playground but not elsewhere, the problem might not be ADHD. It might also not be ADHD if the behaviors occur in the classroom but nowhere else. A child who shows some symptoms would not be diagnosed with ADHD if his or her schoolwork or friendships are not impaired by the behaviors.

Even if a child’s behavior seems like ADHD, it might not actually be ADHD. Many other conditions and situations can trigger behavior that resembles ADHD. For example, a child might show ADHD symptoms when experiencing

  • smiling childrenA death or divorce in the family, a parent’s job loss, or other sudden change.
  • Undetected seizures.
  • An ear infection that causes temporary hearing problems.
  • Problems with schoolwork caused by a learning disability.
  • Anxiety or depression.

The American Psychiatric Association defines Attention Deficit/ Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) as “one of the most common health disorders, affecting approximately 5 to10% of children in the United States. The hallmarks of the syndrome of ADHD are inattention, hyperactivity and impulsivity. Symptoms of this condition are expressed in multiple settings and across numerous functional domains, thus demonstrating the pervasiveness of this condition.”
-American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. 4th ed. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Press; 2000.)

What is ADHD?
How Common is ADHD?
Common Signs and Symptoms
Getting Treatment
Supporting School Success
The Teenage Years
Working Together