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ADHD in Children Health Center

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How to Recognize ADHD Symptoms at Every Age

By Marianne Wait
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Joseph Goldberg, MD

Think your child may have ADHD? Think you might? There are clues at every age. But symptoms vary, and only an expert can say for sure.  

ADHD stands for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. There are three types of it: 

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  • Hyperactivity-impulsivity
  • Inattention
  • A combination of both

Each has different kinds of symptoms, and they change with age.

ADHD begins in childhood and for some people can last a lifetime, but treatments can help.

ADHD in Toddlers and Preschoolers

Little kids are an active and unruly bunch. So how can you tell if one has ADHD? Usually, their unruly behavior is extreme.

These kids are “running, jumping, climbing on everything, they can’t sit still, they talk all the time," says Steven Cuffe, MD. He is chair of the department of psychiatry at the University of Florida College of Medicine, Jacksonville. "They’re often described as ‘on the go’ or ‘driven by a motor.’”

Russell A. Barkley, PhD, clinical professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at Medical University of South Carolina, describes fidgeting and restless behavior: “They simply can’t concentrate very long on anything,” even a bedtime story.

While you may see the warning signs, the diagnosis usually comes a little later. But a doctor may be able to give you strategies for parenting.

ADHD in Elementary School Kids

Not all children with ADHD are hyperactive, but one that is will still be so when he becomes school-age.  Other symptoms will show up, too. He may be unable to focus, and may also have trouble making good decisions and planning for the future. “What you’re seeing is a blossoming of a more and more complex disorder,” says Barkley.

He may have more trouble than other kids his age with:

  • Sharing
  • Taking turns
  • Letting others talk
  • Finishing homework or chores
  • Keeping track of things like homework and books

Also, a child with ADHD can be emotional, says Barkley. If something frustrates her, “you’re going to see that frustration come out.” If you say you might take her to a movie, she may ask about it non-stop. “If you say no, they’re going to blow up.”

Because she may act without thinking things through, your child may be accident-prone.

There is no one test for ADHD. Many kids have some signs, but for an ADHD diagnosis, several signs need to be present for at least 6 months, and they have to be taking a toll on the child’s social and academic activities, says Cuffe.

Once a child is diagnosed with ADHD, you and your doctor will discuss treatment options. They most often include both medication and behavioral therapy. You may need to try different things before you settle on the right treatment.

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