Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

Medically Reviewed by Zilpah Sheikh, MD on March 10, 2024
8 min read

ADHD stands for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. It’s a brain disorder that affects how you pay attention, sit still, and control your behavior. It happens in children and teens and can continue into adulthood. ADHD is one of the most commonly diagnosed mental disorders in children. It’s usually spotted during the early school years, when a child begins to have problems paying attention. 

ADHD can't be prevented or cured. But spotting it early, plus having a good treatment and education plan, can help you or your child with ADHD manage symptoms.

There are three types of ADHD diagnosed in children:


A child with inattentive ADHD may:

  • Be easily distracted
  • Have trouble following directions or finishing tasks
  • Have poor listening skills
  • Have trouble paying attention 
  • Make careless mistakes
  • Forget things easily
  • Have problems organizing daily tasks
  • Have trouble sitting still
  • Often lose things
  • Daydream a lot


A child with with this type of ADHD may:

  • Often squirm, fidget, or bounce when sitting
  • Have trouble staying seated
  • Not be able to play quietly by themselves
  • Always be moving, such as running or climbing on things
  • Talk excessively
  • Have trouble waiting for their turn
  • Blurt out answers
  • Interrupt others


A child with combined ADHD has symptoms of both inattention and hyperactivity. 

Combined is the most common type of ADHD, and hyperactive-impulsive is the least common type.

Symptoms of ADHD may change as you get older. They include:

  • Often being late or forgetting things
  • Restlessness
  • Trouble controlling anger
  • Impulsiveness
  • Trouble staying organized
  • Procrastination
  • Easily frustrated
  • Often bored
  • Trouble concentrating when reading
  • Mood swings
  • Depression

These symptoms often cause you to have trouble at work and in relationships. 

Attention deficit disorder (ADD) is the old name for ADHD. It changed in 1987 because hyperactivity was added to the name. Some people still use both names to talk about this one condition.

Experts aren’t sure what causes ADHD. Research shows a strong link between the disorder and genetics. You may be more likely to have it if it is passed down to you. You might also be more likely to have it if you:

  • Had a brain injury
  • Were born to a mother who smoked or drank while she was pregnant with you
  • Had a low birth weight or were born early
  • Were exposed to lead or other toxic environmental substances before you were born or as a child

It can be hard to diagnose ADHD, especially in children. No one test will spot it. Doctors diagnose ADHD in children and teens after discussing symptoms at length with the child, parents, and teachers and then observing the child's behaviors. 

Doctors use the American Psychiatric Association’s guidelines, which are based on how many symptoms you or your child has and for how long. They’ll also rule out other things that may be causing the symptoms, such as mental health conditions like depression and anxiety. Conditions like thyroid disorders can also cause similar symptoms. 

You health care provider might recommend your child take a series of tests to see how their brain works and to rule out problems with vision, hearing, or other problems related to the senses, which can cause symptoms similar to ADHD. The tests should be given by a pediatrician or mental health professional with experience in diagnosing and treating ADHD. The tests may include:

  • A physical exam and neurological assessment that includes screenings of vision, hearing, and verbal and motor skills
  • An evaluation of intelligence, aptitude, personality traits, or processing skills

Treating ADHD in children involves a combination of therapies. 

Behavioral therapy

Parent training in behavior management. Therapists teach parents ways to manage their child's behavior, including setting clear routines, positive reinforcement, and how to handle unwanted behavior. This is the only type of treatment recommended for young children since they aren't yet able to control their behavior without their parent's help. 

Play/talk therapy. This kind of therapy is more useful for older children and teens. This provides them with a space to express their emotions and talk about their problems.


Stimulants. These are the most common medications for ADHD. Examples include dextroamphetamine and methylphenidate. They help improve focus and attention and reduce impulsiveness. 

Non-stimulants. These may be used when stimulants don't work well or cause side effects. Examples include atomoxetine, clonidine, and guanfacine. They take longer to work, but some of them can last up to 24 hours. 

Effective treatments for adults include:


Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). This helps you reframe your negative thought patterns, manage your emotions, and develop coping skills for your ADHD symptoms. 

ADHD coaching. A coach provides practical support for day-to-day living such as organization, time management, and completing tasks.


Stimulants. Your doctor may prescribe amphetamine or methylphenidate.

Non-stimulant. Options include atomoxetine, clonidine, and guanfacine.

Lifestyle changes

Regular exercise. Physical activity helps improve focus, lower impulsiveness, and boost your mood. 

Sleep. Getting enough sleep is important to manage ADHD symptoms, as they can get worse when you are sleep deprived. 

Stress management. Stress can make ADHD symptoms worse.

Some lifestyle changes can help improve your and your child's ADHD symptoms. These can't treat ADHD on their own, but they can be very helpful when combined with therapy and medication. 


It's important to eat a nutritious diet to keep your and your child's brain and body healthy. Maintaining steady blood sugar levels is especially important. Both high and low blood sugar can affect your energy, mood, and ability to focus. Aim to eat foods high in protein and fiber and low in sugar. Choose whole foods over processed foods, and stick to water and other unsweetened drinks for hydration. Staying hydrated is also key, as even mild hydration can affect mood and concentration. 


Regular physical activity is key for both adults and children with ADHD. It helps improve focus, lower impulsiveness, and boost your mood. 


A lack of sleep can worsen ADHD symptoms. Children need 9 to 13 hours of sleep each night, teens need 8 to 10 hours, and adults need 7 to 9 hours.


Stress can also make ADHD symptoms worse. Both adults and children can use yoga, meditation, breathing exercises, and mindfulness to lower stress levels.


There is some evidence that omega-3s in fish oil can improve symptoms of ADHD. But they don't work as well as prescription medications, and they take a long time to have any effect. 

It's common to get frustrated when you're raising a child with ADHD. You’ll feel more in control if you take an active part in your child's treatment. It may help for you to:

  • Simplify your child's room to lessen distractions, like toys, and improve organization. 
  • Keep a clear schedule and routines.
  • Talk to your child simply and honestly about what you expect from them. Make instructions simple and specific – "Brush your teeth. Now, get dressed" – instead of general – "Get ready for school."
  • Focus only on your child when you’re talking to them.
  • Be an example of calm, focused behavior.
  • Be consistent with discipline, and make sure other caregivers follow your methods.
  • Reward good behavior.
  • Boost your child's self-esteem. Because they may have trouble processing directions and other information, they may be overloaded with corrections, leaving them with a low opinion of themselves. Praise them for things they do well, and highlight their strengths.
  • Encourage your child's special strengths, particularly in sports and out-of-school activities.
  • Learn as much as you can about ADHD and impulsive behaviors.
  • Keep in close contact with your child's doctor, teachers, and therapists.
  • Join a support group to learn from other parents who have been through the same problems.

It can be equally as frustrating if you're living with ADHD as an adult. It can help to:

  • Use lists and planners to stay on top of your appointments, tasks, and deadlines.
  • Break tasks into smaller steps to make them less overwhelming.
  • Set timers for specific tasks to help you stay focused. When the timer starts, you have to focus; when it goes off, you can take a short break.
  • Declutter your space and simplify your possessions to make your environment less distracting.
  • Keep a consistent routine for morning, evening, and work to create structure and predictability in your day.
  • Find a place to work that is free of distractions. Use noise-canceling headphones or white noise machines to block out distracting sounds.
  • Focus on one task at a time. Complete it, take a break, then move on to the next task. 
  • If you feel comfortable, be open with friends, family, and colleagues about your ADHD and how it affects you. Their support and understanding can help make life easier for you and them. 
  • Join support groups to share with and learn from other people with ADHD.
  • Consider hiring a coach to keep you accountable and on task.
  • Ask for help when you need it. 

Without treatment, ADHD can make it hard to deal with the challenges of everyday life. Children may have trouble learning or developing social skills. Adults could have problems with relationships and addiction. The disorder could also lead to mood swings, depression, low self-esteem, eating disorders, risk-taking, and conflicts with people around you.

But many people who have ADHD live happy, full lives with proper treatment. It’s important to keep track of your or your child's symptoms and see your doctor regularly. Sometimes, medication and treatments that were once effective stop working. You may need to change your treatment plan. Some people’s symptoms get better in early adulthood, and some are able to stop treatment.









If you think you or your child has ADHD, talk to your doctor or pediatrician as a first step. They can help refer you to a specialist to get an accurate diagnosis and treatment plan. 

How do you know if you have ADHD?

The only way to find out if you have ADHD is to see a professional trained in diagnosing the condition. ADHD shares symptoms with many other conditions, so it's important to get a thorough evaluation. 

Can a person with ADHD have a normal life?

With the proper treatment and lifestyle changes, people with ADHD can lead normal lives. 

Is ADHD an illness or coping mechanism?

ADHD is not a coping mechanism; it's a clinically recognized disorder, related to the development of the nervous system, that responds to treatment with specific medications. It's also often genetic, which is not the same for coping mechanisms.