ADHD in Children; symptoms, causes and treatments

ADHD is a common condition affecting millions of children worldwide, but what exactly is it and how can it be treated? Read on as I discuss ADHD in children.

Introduction to ADHD in Children

Parenting is never a straightforward journey. Whilst it is natural to want to celebrate our child’s differences, it is also natural to wonder and worry about what is or isn’t considered normal. All children will have their ‘quirks’, but what happens when you child’s behaviour is having an impact on their ability to learn, make friends and function at school and home? ADHD affects millions of children and adults across the globe and here we unpack everything you might want to know about this surprisingly common condition.

What is ADHD?

The technical name for ADHD is attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. This condition is a mental health disorder that is most commonly diagnosed in children, but also affects adults. It is estimated that 8.4% of children and 2.5% of adults have ADHD, making it a prevalent condition across the globe (Danielson, 2018). Additionally, boys are more than twice as likely to be diagnosed with ADHD than girls although this is thought to be because girls often display more subtle signs and symptoms than their male counterparts.  

ADHD in Children
Boys are more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD than girls. Girls with an ADHD diagnosis will often present with more subtle symptoms

What are the symptoms of ADHD in children?

The most common signs of ADHD include inattention (having trouble maintaining focus), hyperactivity (excessive movement) and impulsivity (acting in the moment without thought). A child with ADHD might appear forgetful and have trouble completing tasks and they can be very easily distracted. A teacher might notice that a child has difficulty sitting still in class and they might frequently interrupt or become disruptive within a classroom environment. Some other common symptoms of ADHD include:

–      Poor time management

–      Frequent mood swings and emotional dysregulation

–      Disorganisation

–      Difficulty prioritising tasks

–      Difficulty multitasking

–      Executive dysfunction

–      Poor working memory

–      Difficulty waiting for a turn

–      Difficulty controlling anger or frustration

–      Frequent procrastination

–      Chronic fidgeting

ADHD in Children
There are different types of ADHD, unfortunately, still to this day, the exact cause is unknown

How does a child get ADHD?

Whilst ADHD has been around for a very long time, doctors and researchers remain unsure about what actually causes the condition. It is generally agreed that the condition is neurological and that genetics play a role, but an actual cause has not yet been identified. There have been some other theories over the years about contributing factors for an ADHD diagnosis and smoking whilst pregnant has been highlighted as a possible consideration. There has been some research that indicates that dopamine levels in the brain might play a role in determining how brain signals move from one nerve to another, impacting on a person’s emotional responses. You can find an interesting research study about this topic here: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19738093/

What are the different types of ADHD?

There are three different forms of ADHD, and these are outlined below.

Inattentive ADHD: A person with this kind of ADHD struggles mostly with paying attention but they are not typically disruptive within a classroom environment.

Hyperactive and impulsive ADHD: A person with this kind of ADHD might be able to focus fairly well, but their hyperactive and impulsive behaviours can cause disruption within a classroom.

Inattentive, hyperactive and impulsive ADHD: A person with this kind of ADHD will experience all of the symptoms of both forms mentioned above. They will have difficulty focusing and will be hyperactive and impulsive.

Whilst the main symptoms of ADHD can be found in both boys and girls – females are generally more likely to experience the inattentive form whilst boys are more likely to be hyperactive and impulsive. Knowing what kind of ADHD a child has is important for determining the best and most effective treatment.

Can a child outgrow ADHD?

Most medical professionals believe that a child cannot simply outgrow ADHD, although the condition can present in different ways as a child grows older. Certain symptoms might diminish and the person might become better at managing some of the challenges – such as fidgeting – as they mature. Whilst it might seem like some kids have outgrown their ADHD due to the symptoms becoming less obvious, in most cases a child who is diagnosed with ADHD will grow into an adult with ADHD.

How does ADHD get diagnosed?

In Australia, a diagnosis of ADHD must be made by a trained and experienced health professional. This usually begins with a trip to the family GP, where they can arrange for a referral to a paediatrician or child psychologist. These professionals will then follow a diagnostic process to determine if your child meets the criteria for a diagnosis of ADHD.

The medical professionals will need to rule out whether the child’s symptoms are being caused by anything else and whilst there is no one test for ADHD, an assessment will be made based on information provided from the family and child’s school. Often a doctor will utilise the Conners Comprehensive Behaviour Rating Scales (CBRS) to support their assessment and you can learn more about this tool here: What Is the Conners Scale for Assessing ADHD? (healthline.com)

ADHD in Children
ADHD needs to be diagnosed by a professional such as a paediatrician or a child psychologist.

There are a range of other professionals that might need to be involved in a diagnostic process when determining if a child has ADHD, including speech pathologists and occupational therapists. Since most children that have ADHD tend to have additional learning difficulties, sleep problems or anxiety – these factors also need to be assessed and managed alongside an ADHD diagnosis by the treating professionals.


What is the most effective treatment for ADHD in Children?

Parents can help their child to manage the symptoms of their ADHD through positive parenting strategies. Maintaining a predictable and consistent routine, giving time for movement breaks and making adjustments in your child’s diet could help lesson the symptoms. Some children are sensitive to particular foods or preservatives so an elimination diet could be a helpful starting point to determine if your child is having a reaction to things they are consuming. For information on commencing an elimination diet, visit the following page: Dietary Interventions & ADHD – Thriving with ADHD.

If you have tried these strategies and your child’s symptoms are still having a negative impact on their learning and relationships, your doctor might suggest that you try a medication. The most effective treatment for ADHD is stimulant medication, which has been used successfully since the 1970s. Stimulant medications can significantly improve concentration, impulse control and hyperactivity in the majority of children who have ADHD and for many parents these are a lifesaver.

ADHD in Children
There are a range of therapies and treatments for ADHD; medications are just one of them.

There are two stimulant medications that are widely used across Australia to treat ADHD and these are methylphenidate and dexamphetamine. Both of these medications work in a similar way and have similar side effects. Stimulant medications can either be short or long action and in Australia these are regulated medications that can only be prescribed by paediatricians, child psychiatrists or neurologists. Stimulant medications work quickly, so you will know if the medication is being effective not long after the first dose.

The use of stimulants to treat ADHD has been highly researched and these medications are non-addictive in the doses that are used for children. Whilst these medications typically work well, they can also come with some side effects.  These include:

–     A decrease in appetite (and therefore weight loss)

–     Difficulty sleeping

–     Stomach aches

–     Headaches

–     Increased difficulty regulating emotions

–     Motor and voice tics

There are also some non-stimulant medications that are used to treat ADHD in children, such as atomoxetine, clonidine and guanfacine. These medications have been proven effective in many children with ADHD and are usually prescribed for children who experience stronger side effects from the stimulant medications. To learn more about ADHD medications, visit the following site to find a useful parent guide from Child Mind Institute: Parents Guide to ADHD Medications | Child Mind Institute. You can also find some useful information about alternative ADHD therapies here: BetterHealth.vic.gov.au

Is ADHD a form of autism?

ADHD and autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are related conditions in several ways. Whilst ADHD is not recognised as being on the autism spectrum, many of the symptoms can be similar and having one of these conditions increases the likelihood of having the other. A proper diagnostic process through a qualified and experienced paediatrician will ensure that your child is diagnosed correctly.

Are there foods that should be avoided with ADHD?

Whilst there is no specific diet that is recommended for all cases of ADHD, many people have found that avoiding certain foods can help reduce the symptoms. Since the food we consume can impact on our energy and concentration levels, it makes sense that some foods are better than others for kids and adults with ADHD.

ADHD in Children
For some children with ADHD, avoiding foods that are high in sugar, additives and preservatives can make a big difference. It’s certainly worth a try before looking at medications.

An elimination diet can help determine what foods should be limited or avoided but in general terms, many people have found that staying away from sugary foods, gluten, artificial colourings and additives, and soy has helped improve their symptoms of ADHD. It is also worth exploring if a child has any food allergies or intolerances that might be causing or exacerbating their symptoms of ADHD. It is advisable to speak to your doctor or a dietician before commencing any kind of elimination diet.

How can you help a child with ADHD?

Unfortunately, there is an awful stigma attached to children who have ADHD – whether they are diagnosed or not. Children that are impulsive are often viewed as disrespectful and children who are hyperactive are often labelled as naughty. The best thing we can do to support any child – regardless of a diagnosis of any kind – is to look past the behaviour and see the child underneath. When we understand behaviour as communication, we are able to give a much more empathetic response and realise that our child is not trying to be difficult, they are merely having some struggles that they need support with.

The following information from HelpGuide contains some helpful and positive strategies for parents to support their child with ADHD – and to help them take care of themselves. Parenting can be tough at the best of times, so it is important to remember that a focus on self-care is important for parents too.  ADHD Parenting Tips – HelpGuide.org

Summary of ADHD in Children

A diagnosis of ADHD might feel concerning for parents but fortunately there is a lot of information and support available to help you through. If you suspect that your child might have ADHD, seeking advice from a medical professional, such as your GP, is a great starting point. Remember, there are a great many successful people who live with ADHD, including Jamie Oliver, Justin Timberlake, Paris Hilton and Erin Brockovich. I firmly believe that if a child can channel all of that energy into something positive, ADHD can become their superpower!

Reference: Danielson, ML, et al. Prevalence of Parent-Reported ADHD Diagnosis and Associated Treatment Among U.S. Children and Adolescents, 2016. Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology, Volume 47, 2018 – Issue 2

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