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What’s Going On With My Child’s Behavior?

Medically Reviewed by Neha Pathak, MD on March 29, 2021

Kids -- they squirm in their chairs; they run when you tell them to walk; they stop in the middle of cleaning their room to play with their toys. These are all normal parts of being a kid. But some of this behavior can also be a sign of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

So how can you tell the difference? Your child’s energy level, attention span, and focus can help you see if they’re “acting their age” or if they may have a condition that needs extra support.

Hyperactivity

Kids naturally have lots of energy. One study found that they have the same staying power as trained endurance athletes. They’re also curious about the world and eager to explore. But if your little one’s always active in ways that don’t fit the time or setting, they may be hyperactive.

If your child is hyperactive, they may:

  • Run and shout when playing, even indoors
  • Find it hard to sit still
  • Fidget
  • Bump into things because they move so fast
  • Tend to play too rough
  • Talk a lot (including blurting out answers and talking over others)

Older kids and teens can often sit still for longer times. But hyperactive teens may still squirm or want to keep their hands busy.

Inattention

Children naturally have a shorter attention span than adults do. As they get older, their attention span grows. They get better at tuning out things that distract them.

If your child has a problem with attention, they could:

  • Get distracted easily
  • Find it hard to finish tasks
  • Struggle to get or stay organized
  • Make simple mistakes because they rush
  • Often lose or forget where they put things

Kids who have a hard time with focus can sometimes also get what’s called a “hyperfocus.” Once they find something that interests them, whether it’s a video game or a book, it’s all they want to do or talk about.

Poor Impulse Control

Kids often see a big jump in self-control between the ages of 5 and 6. (Girls are usually better at this skill than boys.)

If your child acts impulsively, they could:

  • Act silly to get noticed
  • Find it hard to follow rules
  • Be aggressive
  • Get upset when they make a mistake or are criticized
  • Not realize how their words or actions affect others

Teens who are impulsive often take more risks than other kids their age.

When to Get Help

If your child can sit still, focus, or show self-control at least some of the time, that may be normal for their age. If they struggle in these areas all the time -- for instance, at home, with friends, as well as in school -- ADHD could be the cause.

ADHD affects 1 in 10 children under the age of 17. But other health issues can also cause similar symptoms. Those conditions include:

Check in with your child’s doctor if you have concerns. They can ask you both more questions to get a better idea of what’s going on. They may refer you to a specialist if it looks like your child needs testing.

If your child does have ADHD or another condition, counseling, medication, and extra support at school can all help.

WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

Understood.org: “Understanding Hyperactivity,” “Understanding Why Kids Have Trouble with Focus,” “Understanding Impulsivity in Kids.”

Edward-Elmhurst Health: “Is it ADHD or normal kid behavior?”
HelpGuide: “ADHD in Children.”

Frontiers in Psychology: “Metabolic and Fatigue Profiles Are Comparable Between Prepubertal Children and Well-Trained Adult Endurance Athletes.”

Frontiers for Young Minds: “How Do Kids and Grownups Get Distracted in Everyday Situations?”

Scientific Reports: “Development of self-control in children aged 3 to 9 years: Perspective from a dual systems model.”

National Institute of Mental Health: “Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder.”

Harvard Health: “5 conditions that mimic ADHD.”

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