When ADHD Symptoms May Be Something Else

Medically Reviewed by Smitha Bhandari, MD on July 17, 2023
4 min read

The symptoms are all there. Your child can't sit still for any length of time. They don't follow instructions well. They are unorganized and forgetful at school. It's possible they have ADHD.

Maybe you make careless mistakes at work and keep losing your keys. Is it ADHD if you have a hard time keeping up with presentations in meetings?

Before you jump to any conclusions, consider what else could be causing these kinds of behaviors. It may not be an illness after all, and it may be something you can easily fix.

Your brain needs water to work. When you're low on fluids, your brain's chemistry gets thrown off, and your memory and your ability to think clearly and make decisions suffer.

Drink a glass of water when you feel like your thoughts aren't clicking. To help keep your body hydrated, have one with every meal and at least one between meals. Drink up before, after, and while you exercise, too.

How long has it been since you've eaten? If you're moody, cranky, drowsy, or confused, it may be because you have low blood sugar.

A healthy meal or snack -- like a spinach salad with salmon and avocado, or a handful of walnuts -- could help you concentrate. Eating a lot of sweets, though, could slow down your brain.

A little caffeine can help you focus, but too much can make you jittery and restless. You may not realize how much you're getting. It's found in chocolate and some headache medicines, as well as coffee, black and green teas, sodas, and energy drinks. And having caffeine later in the day might cause trouble sleeping, which can also make you distracted.

If you've been overdoing the caffeine, back off slowly to avoid unpleasant withdrawal symptoms.

Let's face it: There usually aren't enough hours in the day. And buying yourself some time by staying up late or getting up early may sound like a solution. But when you don't get enough sleep, your judgment, mood, and ability to learn and remember suffer. You're more likely to make mistakes.

Allow your brain to rest and repair itself. A regular schedule, a soothing bedtime ritual, and comfortable bedroom conditions can help you fall asleep faster. To improve the quality of your sleep, get some exercise during the day and limit how much you eat and drink right before bed. Try cutting back on or avoiding naps to encourage nighttime slumber.

Stress is your body's reaction when it feels threatened in some way. Your child could have trouble with a subject at school, get into a fight with a friend, or pick up on tension at home. Perhaps you're trying to make a deadline or are worried about an unexpected expense.

It's normal to be thinking about what's bothering you rather than what you should be paying attention to, but being distracted can lead to trouble. Long-term stress can also hurt memory.

To clear your head, start by recognizing that you're upset or anxious. Admitting it will actually help your body relax. Breathe, and give yourself some encouragement that things will work out. Take a walk, go for a run, or do some yoga to ease the tension and make you feel more alert.

This can be really stressful for kids, especially when it happens through email, texting, a chat room, or on a web site. It's hard to avoid cyberbullying, and it's easy for others to pile on and amplify it. The effects of bullying can show up in a kid's grades, attitude, and health.

Talk to your child about what's going on. If it is bullying, most schools have prevention programs and anti-bullying policies. Find out what these policies are and check that they're being enforced.

Give your child positive support to build their self-esteem and confidence and to take away the bully's power. Help them figure out how to respond when it happens and what you and they can do to stop it.

Some children, especially those who are gifted, can become easily bored and impulsive, especially at school. They'll stare out the window or doze off in class. A gifted child can also become bossy and may not make friends easily because they're seen as a "know-it-all." They dislike routine, resist direction, and can be disruptive. They'll look for something to keep their minds occupied.

Meet with your child's teacher to talk about the classroom setting and schoolwork. They may have more insight into what's behind the behavior, and they might be able to make adjustments to keep your child interested.

Problems at school or work, poor memory, bad judgment, and moodiness are just a few symptoms of drug or alcohol misuse. The key things to look for are big changes in how someone looks, acts, and interacts with others.

If you think this might be the issue, reach out to someone -- a counselor, social worker, doctor, or clergy member -- who can help you help yourself, your child, or loved one. Drug addiction can be treated with behavior therapy, sometimes medication, and support.

An ongoing pattern of behavior that suggests inattention, hyperactivity, or being impulsive could be ADHD if it:

  • Started before age 12
  • Has lasted for more than 6 months
  • Interferes with daily life
  • Happens in multiple settings

Your pediatrician or primary care doctor can diagnose the disorder. They'll want to hear from parents, teachers, and others who have regular contact with the person. Your doctor may do tests or have you see a specialist to rule out other causes, too.