How to Recognize ADHD Symptoms at Every Age

Medically Reviewed by Smitha Bhandari, MD on May 12, 2015
3 min read

Think your child may have ADHD? Think you might? Symptoms vary, and no two people are alike. Only an expert can say for sure. But there are clues at every age.

There are three types of ADHD:

  • Hyperactive-impulsive
  • Inattentive
  • A combination of both

Each has different symptoms, and they can change with age.

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, of the University of Florida Health, Jacksonville. "They're often described as 'on the go' or 'driven by a motor.'"

Russell A. Barkley, PhD, of the Medical University of South Carolina, describes fidgeting and restless behavior: "They simply can't concentrate very long on anything," even a bedtime story.

But some kids with ADHD can focus on things they are interested in, like certain toys or video games.

While you may see warning signs early on, the diagnosis usually comes a little later. A doctor can help you with strategies for parenting.

Not all children with ADHD are hyperactive. But if a child is, it will show during the school-age years. You may notice other symptoms, too. They may be unable to focus, and may have trouble making good decisions or planning things. "What you're seeing is a blossoming of a more and more complex disorder," Barkley says.

They may also have more trouble than other kids their 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, Barkley says. If something frustrates them, "you're going to see that frustration come out." If you say you might take them to a movie, they may ask about it nonstop. "If you say no, they're going to blow up."

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

There is no 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 life and schoolwork, Cuffe says.

Once you know your child has ADHD, you and your doctor will talk about treatments. They most often include both medication and behavioral therapy. You may need to try different things before you settle on the right treatments.

In the teen years, hyperactivity tends to improve. But your child may feel restless and be uncomfortable sitting for long periods.

At this stage, Barkley notes, "other problems -- with time, motivation, organization -- these are going to become the costliest symptoms for them."

A teen with ADHD may have a hard time concentrating on schoolwork but may do well with video games, which offer immediate rewards.

All teens can be emotional, but one with ADHD may have more trouble keeping their emotions in check.

Because of the tendency to be impulsive, a teen with ADHD might do risky things, including use alcohol and drugs, lie, steal, and have unprotected sex. Safety in the car may also be a problem. "This is one of the worst disorders you can have while operating a motor vehicle," Barkley says.

The hyperactivity that comes with ADHD fades further with age. But other symptoms continue to create problems in many areas of life.

An adult with ADHD may:

  • Be messy and disorganized
  • Have trouble paying attention
  • Struggle to finish tasks
  • Lose their keys, wallet, sunglasses, or cell phone often
  • Take shortcuts, behind the wheel and at work
  • Have risky sex
  • Abuse drugs and alcohol
  • Quit jobs on impulse
  • Max out credit cards
  • Eat unhealthy foods

They may also tend to have relationship problems. "Their divorce rate is very high," Barkley says.

Still, if you get a diagnosis as an adult, it may give you a new understanding of problems you have struggled with since childhood. Treatment can help you with your symptoms, so stick with it. If you find it's no longer working, talk to your doctor about making adjustments.