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How to Recognize ADHD Symptoms at Every Age

Children with ADHD often show symptoms early in life. Here are some signs.

ADHD in the Elementary School Years

There are three forms of ADHD: hyperactivity-impulsivity ADHD, inattention ADHD, and combined ADHD. During the school years, ADHD in children -- particularly the hyperactive-impulsive form -- often becomes evident in the classroom. At this stage, children with this form of the disorder often become disruptive, blurting out answers without raising their hands, getting up from their seat and moving about the classroom, and talking excessively.

The inattentive form of the condition may be more difficult to spot at this point. Children with inattention ADHD may have trouble following directions and completing their schoolwork. They may spend a lot of their time in day dreams, lose toys or tools needed to do their schoolwork, and avoid tasks that require concentration, such as reading. Often they are disorganized – and messy. Their notebooks, backpacks, and desks are often in disarray, says Dana Stempil Herzberg, head of school at Lexis Preparatory School, a college-prep school in Scottsdale, Ariz., that focuses on children with ADHD.

ADHD in Adolescence

Particularly for children with the inattentive form of ADHD, adolescence may be the time it presents a serious problem. For example, if a girl is inattentive but not hyperactive – especially if she is of above average intelligence – Karniski says parents may not even suspect ADHD until the sixth grade, when the workload gets to the point that she can no longer compensate for it in other ways.

“If she is bright enough, she can compensate for it in grades one, two, three, four, and five because the teacher is addressing the middle level of the class, and despite her inattention, she still gets the work done,” Karniski tells WebMD. “When she has to switch class and has to remember her history book, and leaves her history book in the locker and takes her math book instead, and puts her history assignment in her math book, her work begins to suffer.” The grades of a child who previously excelled in school can take a nosedive.

Around the time of adolescence, ADHD may also be associated with other problems, including low self-esteem, depression, and even eating disorders.

Because it’s not always easy for a parent to differentiate between common adolescent swings in mood and behavior and those related to ADHD or other causes, experts recommend seeking professional help for any adolescent who experiences unexplained changes in school performance, mood, energy level, or socialization.

When Is It ADHD?

Most children demonstrate many of the symptoms associated with ADHD at least some of the time, so it can be difficult for parents to decipher the cause of their behavior. Experts say these symptoms only signal ADHD when they are persistent and severe enough to affect academic and social abilities.

To be diagnosed with ADHD, a child’s symptoms must have persisted for at least six months and create a real handicap in at least two areas of the child’s life, says Marjorie Montague, a professor of special education at the University of Miami. “It’s really the degree, the excessiveness, of the behavior,” Montague says.

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What symptoms of ADHD does your child have?