Understanding ADHD

By The Understood Team
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What is ADHD? ADHD is a common condition that impacts focus, self-control, and other skills. It’s caused by differences in the brain, and it often runs in families.

ADHD is one of the most common conditions in childhood. Suspecting or hearing that your child has ADHD (also known as ADD) can raise lots of questions, even basic ones like “what is ADHD?” You may wonder about signs of ADHD and how to help your child.

Understanding ADHD lets you find ways to help your child thrive. This overview can answer many of your questions about ADHD. It has basic information to get you started. But you’ll also find more in-depth information, tips, and expert insight.

If you’re concerned your child has ADHD, here are steps you can take. And if your child was just diagnosed with ADHD, find out what to do next.

Snapshot: What ADHD Is

ADHD is a real, biological condition that’s caused by differences in brain anatomy and wiring. It often runs in families.

ADHD isn’t a problem of laziness or willpower. In fact, kids with ADHD are often trying as hard as they can to pay attention and sit still. But the ADHD brain works in a way that makes certain things naturally challenging.

ADHD involves a group of key skills known as executive function. Executive function affects skills like focus, organization, working memory, and self-control.

Everyone has symptoms of ADHD at one time or another. But kids with ADHD struggle a lot more with these behaviors than other kids their age.

Estimates of how many kids in the United States have ADHD range from 5 percent to 11 percent. For a long time, people thought ADHD was something only kids—boys, in particular—had. But research shows that ADHD symptoms can last into adulthood in some people, and that women and girls have it as often as men and boys.

Kids with ADHD struggle with focus and impulse control. Some of the skills kids with ADHD often struggle with include:

Most kids don’t totally outgrow ADHD. (But some symptoms can lessen or disappear as kids get older.) Even so, there are treatments that can help make ADHD more manageable. And there are supports at school that can make learning easier.

Dive Deeper

ADHD Signs and Symptoms

The main symptoms of ADHD are trouble with focus, impulsivity, and hyperactivity. These symptoms can look different in different kids, however. And some symptoms may change or even disappear as kids get older.

The stereotype of kids with ADHD is that they’re always in motion, they’re impulsive and hyperactive, and that they act out at home and at school.

But some kids with ADHD never have those symptoms. They may only have trouble with focus. These kids might be identified as having ADHD Inattentive Type. (It may also be referred to as ADD, or ADHD Without Hyperactivity.)

ADHD is essentially an issue with executive function. Because of that, kids with ADHD often have trouble:

  • Managing time

  • Getting and staying organized

  • Managing emotions

  • Paying attention and remembering things

  • Shifting focus from one thing to another

  • Getting started on tasks

  • Thinking before saying or doing things

There’s one very confusing sign of ADHD. Kids who lack focus most of the time can often “hyperfocus” or focus very well on tasks or activities they find really interesting.

For instance, kids might be able to focus for hours while playing a sport or doing a craft project. Or they may hyperfocus on video games or a TV show, to the point that they don’t hear their name being called.

Focusing on schoolwork can be very hard, however, even when kids know it’s important. This can make it look like ADHD is a “willpower problem,” when in reality it isn’t. There’s a big difference between “won’t” (willpower) and “can’t.” A child’s brain with ADHD has a harder time shifting focus.

Some kids show signs of ADHD in preschool. But for many, there are no clear signs of ADHD until third or fourth grade. Some kids won’t show signs of ADHD until they face the challenges of middle school or high school. This might be because demands on executive function—organizing, planning, and managing time—get more intense as kids progress in school.

Here are some signs you or your child’s teacher might see at different grade levels:

Preschool–Grade 2

  • Ignores directions or doesn’t follow them

  • Grabs things without permission

  • Gets easily and extremely frustrated

  • Needs to be frequently reminded to stop and listen

  • Has trouble getting started on tasks

  • Gets up, fidgets, or talks when expected to be quiet

Grades 3–7

  • Seems daydreamy and distracted, and easily loses focus

  • Frequently loses or forgets things

  • Is often restless

  • Tends to forget to bring home assignments or turn them in

  • Doesn’t consider consequences before doing things

  • Doesn’t finish tasks in a reasonable amount of time

Teens

  • Has trouble getting organized and prioritizing things

  • Often acts impulsively

  • Frequently fidgets and talks too much

  • Has trouble meeting deadlines and finishing tasks

  • Often needs to re-read things or have directions repeated

  • Often rushes through assignments, making errors

While many kids with ADHD rush through assignments, others actually work more slowly than other kids. Slow processing speed is common in kids with ADHD. It can make it harder to complete tasks or explain things as quickly as their peers. Also, kids with ADHD can be more likely to have learning differences, as you’ll read about below.

Dive Deeper

Other Difficulties That Can Co-Occur With ADHD

ADHD isn’t a learning disability, even though it can affect learning. But ADHD often co-occurs with common learning challenges like dyslexia, dyscalculia, and dysgraphia. Many kids with ADHD also struggle with mental health issues like anxiety and depression.

Here are some conditions and challenges that often co-occur with, or are mistaken for, ADHD:

Executive functioning issues and ADHD are closely related. In fact, the symptoms and difficulties of ADHD are problems of executive function. Trouble with attention, self-control, memory, and organization are often due to weak executive skills.

Dyslexia occurs in roughly 20 to 40 percent of kids with ADHD. This common learning disability impacts the ability to read. Dyslexia can also interfere with other learning skills like math, spelling, and writing.

Watch as an expert talks about how ADHD and dyslexia co-occur.

Dyscalculia and dysgraphia are also common in kids with ADHD (and vice versa). Dyscalculia is a learning disability that impacts math, while dysgraphia impacts writing.

Learn more about dyscalculia and dysgraphia.

Slow processing speed isn’t part of ADHD, but it can add to the challenges. Processing speed is like the engine that drives how well kids can use executive functioning skills. So kids with slow processing speed may have a harder time starting tasks, staying focused, and monitoring how they’re doing.

Learn more about slow processing speed.

Sensory processing issues can occur in some kids with ADHD. These kids have trouble handling input that comes through the senses. They can get overwhelmed by things like smells, noises, tastes, and textures.

Auditory processing issues can look like ADHD. That’s because trouble following directions or talking with people can be signs of both. But while their symptoms may appear to be similar, these two challenges are very different.

Nonverbal learning disabilities impact social skills, as well as other abilities. Kids with ADHD often struggle with social skills, too, and these two conditions can co-occur.

Anxiety and depression both commonly occur with ADHD. Kids with ADHD are more likely to struggle with mental health issues than kids who don’t have ADHD.

Read about the connection between anxiety and ADHD and depression and ADHD.

Dive Deeper

Possible Causes of ADHD

There’s been a lot of research in the last few years that has pointed to possible causes of ADHD. Brain-imaging studies have looked at brain anatomy and wiring in people who have ADHD and in those who don’t.

Studies have shown that brain development is very similar. But kids with ADHD have a delay in development of about three years in some specific parts of the brain. These are the areas involved in executive functions. That’s why kids with ADHD may act one to three years younger than other kids their age.

Research also shows some differences in the networks that help parts of the brain communicate with each other. And there are differences in how brain chemicals act when they’re involved in that communication.

These differences have nothing to do with intelligence. Kids with ADHD are just as smart as kids without ADHD.

Genetics can also play a role. Research has shown that ADHD tends to run in families. A child with ADHD has a one in four chance of having at least one parent who also has it. And there’s a strong likelihood that another close family member also has ADHD.

Read a dad’s candid story about moving past the guilt of “giving” his son ADHD.

Dive Deeper

How ADHD Is Diagnosed

There are no blood or imaging tests that can diagnose ADHD. Instead, evaluators use a variety of tools to determine if a child has ADHD. One is a questionnaire about the child’s behavior (normed rating scales). Another is a clinical interview with both the child and the parents.

Parents will be asked for a detailed history of the child’s health, past and present. The clinician will also want to discuss how the child functions at school, at home, and in social situations.

It’s best if the evaluation is done by a specialist who understands ADHD and other conditions kids might have. (Find out what to look for in an ADHD evaluation.)

The types of professionals who may diagnose ADHD in children include the following:

Many can also evaluate for issues that often co-occur with ADHD. That includes learning challenges and mental health issues.

Dive Deeper

How Professionals Can Help With ADHD

There’s a wide range of professionals who work with kids who have ADHD. How they help depends on their specialty and the setting they work in. Here are some of the specialists who commonly help kids with ADHD.

Psychologists, licensed mental health counselors, licensed clinical social workers, and licensed marriage and family therapists can help children and parents understand ADHD and develop strategies to improve symptoms. This might include using cognitive behavioral therapy or play therapy to help kids improve attitudes and behavior. They might also do behavior therapy to help kids turn negative behaviors and habits into positive ones.

Health-care professionals can prescribe and monitor ADHD medication. They also fine-tune the medication until they find the right type, dosage, and timing for each person. Doing that can reduce or eliminate any side effects. Medications don’t cure ADHD. But they can significantly improve symptoms for about 80 percent of people with ADHD.

School psychologists can help plan supports and interventions at school. They may also work directly with kids on academics, social skills, and behavior management.

Special education teachers may help develop behavior intervention plans. They may also work with kids to build academic and social skills and manage behavior. These teachers sometimes offer private tutoring services and teach organization skills.

Find out how kids with ADHD may qualify for a 504 plan or an IEP. See a sample 504 plan for a child with ADHD.

Educational therapists help kids work on a variety of skills. They can focus on specific subject areas being taught. They may also teach organizational skills and help kids build basic learning skills. Read more about skills educational therapists work on.

Organizational coaches are private consultants. They work with kids on building organizational and time management skills. They can also work on study skills. Learn more about organizational coaches.

Dive Deeper

How You Can Help Your Child With ADHD

Raising a child with ADHD has its challenges (and its rewards). But there are ways you can support your child and help build vital skills. You can also help improve your child’s self-esteem and resilience.

Your child can learn to manage some of the symptoms of ADHD and thrive. Here are just some things you can do to help:

For more ideas, explore this collection of ADHD strategies to try at home.

It’s important for you to have support, too.

Key Takeaways

  • ADHD is common.

  • ADHD is not a problem of laziness or willpower.

  • With the right support, kids with ADHD can thrive.

About the Author

About the Author

The Understood Team 

is made up of passionate writers, editors, and community moderators. Many of them learn and think differently, or have kids who do.

Reviewed by

Reviewed by

Thomas E. Brown, PhD 

is a clinical psychologist and clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the Keck School of Medicine of USC.

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