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Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in children

Key points

  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is one of the most common childhood disorders, but symptoms can continue into adolescence and adulthood.
  • ADHD can affect your child’s learning, behaviour and development.
  • Symptoms include fidgeting, not being able to focus or pay attention, being impulsive and hyperactivity.
  • Treatments include medicines and psychological therapies.

Featured FAQ

What foods might be particularly good or bad for a child with ADHD?

Experts still aren’t 100 percent sure whether certain foods are good or bad for children with ADHD. However, you may want to talk to your child’s GP, a specialist or a dietitian about cutting out foods that contain artificial colourings or preservatives.

See all our FAQs about ADHD

ADHD is a disorder that can affect your child’s learning, behaviour and development. Children with ADHD have short attention spans and may be easily distracted, hyperactive, restless and struggle to control their behaviour.

About ADHD

ADHD is also known as attention deficit disorder or hyperkinetic disorder. These different names can be confusing. However, they are all used to describe a group of symptoms in which children struggle to concentrate or control their behaviour.

About two to five in 100 school-aged children are thought to have ADHD. The condition is more common in boys than in girls – it affects around four in 100 boys and one in 100 girls in the UK. Children are usually diagnosed between the ages of three and seven, but symptoms can continue into adolescence and adulthood. For some people, it may only be diagnosed in later life. See our frequently asked questions for more information about ADHD in adults.

Symptoms of ADHD

A wide range of symptoms and behaviours are associated with ADHD. Most children will have some of these symptoms now and then, but this doesn’t mean they have ADHD. These symptoms are only a problem if they are more severe than in children of the same age. They will also have them at both school and home. The following table lists a number of common ADHD symptoms. 

Inattention symptoms Hyperactive symptoms
Impulsive symptoms
Making careless mistakes in schoolwork Fidgeting and excessive movement Making premature and thoughtless actions
Not listening to or following instructions properly Running or climbing when and where they shouldn’t Interrupting others
Not finishing things – being distracted easily Unable to stay sitting down or to play quietly Unable to wait for their turn or in queues
Losing and forgetting things, and being disorganised Talking constantly Answering questions before they have been fully asked

Children with ADHD may have mostly hyperactive, impulsive or inattention symptoms, or a combination of these.

Other symptoms common in children with ADHD include:

  • aggressiveness and poor discipline – disruptive behaviour
  • vocal or motor tics
  • mood swings
  • irritability
  • difficulty interacting with peers
  • sleep problems

If you think your child may have ADHD, it’s important to talk to your GP so he or she can get the right treatment.

Complications of ADHD

If your child has ADHD, he or she may find it difficult to communicate and interact with other children and adults. Your child may also have problems with speech and language development.

ADHD won’t make your child less intelligent, but it may interfere with his or her learning. If your child has ADHD, you may first notice it or it may get worse when he or she starts school. Your child may be slower to learn things than other children because he or she can’t pay attention and concentrate.

As your child gets older, there is an increased risk that he or she may become involved in antisocial conduct, such as rowdy behaviour. Your child may be unaware of how these actions affect others.

Causes of ADHD

The exact cause of ADHD isn't known. It’s unlikely that genetic factors alone would cause ADHD. However, researchers have found several genes that may play a role in the development of the condition.

If your child has ADHD, he or she may have differences in the parts of their brain that deal with controlling impulses and focusing attention.

Your child may be more likely to have ADHD if he or she:

  • has a family history of ADHD
  • had a low birth weight
  • was exposed to cigarette smoke, alcohol or drugs (such as cocaine) in the womb
  • had a brain injury – however, only a small percentage of children with ADHD have also had brain injury

Your child's behavioural and emotional symptoms may be made worse if he or she also has other problems, such as an anxiety disorder. A stressful home environment, for example, because of a divorce or separation, may also be linked with ADHD.

Diagnosis of ADHD

If you’re worried about your child’s behaviour or development, talk to his or her teachers to find out what your child’s behaviour is like at school. If you think that your child may have ADHD, see your GP. He or she will ask your about your child’s symptoms.

Your child’s GP may refer your child to a specialist, such as a:

  • child psychiatrist (a doctor who specialises in children’s mental health)
  • specialist in your local Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services
  • specialist paediatrician (a doctor who specialises in children’s illnesses)

There are no specific tests to diagnose ADHD. The specialist will observe your child and look at reports of his or her behaviour. You and other people who spend time with your child, such as teachers, are usually asked to fill in a questionnaire about your child’s behaviour.

ADHD is usually diagnosed if your child has symptoms that affect both school and home life (present in more than one setting).

Treatment of ADHD

Your GP is likely to suggest a combination of treatments to treat your child effectively.
The exact treatments used will depend on what your child needs and how he or she responds. Your child may need to try several treatments before finding one that works.

Self-help

Diet

A healthy diet is always important. In some children, ADHD symptoms can be improved by cutting down on certain ingredients, such as food additives. See our frequently asked questions for more information about this. However, you should speak to your child’s doctor or a dietitian before making any significant changes to your child’s diet.

Managing behaviour at home

Parents and teachers play a key role in helping to reduce ADHD symptoms. Structured regimes and routines can be helpful. Positive and negative feedback also help, by rewarding certain behaviours and discouraging others.

Your child’s specialist can help you learn how to manage his or her specific behaviours. You could also attend classes and support groups where parents in a similar situation can share their knowledge and experiences.

School

If your child is diagnosed with ADHD, his or her school may offer extra help with reading, spelling and maths. He or she may also be offered speech therapy, physical education therapy and counselling. An educational psychologist will usually assess your child’s needs and check on his or her progress.

Talk to your child’s teacher about his or her condition. A structured and orderly classroom without too many distractions may help your child to focus. He or she may also work better in a smaller group or with individual teaching, if this is an option.

Medicines

Your child’s specialist may offer medicines to manage their symptoms of ADHD. Your child will often need to continue treatment into adolescence and may even need to continue as an adult. Your child’s specialist will identify a suitable medicine and dosage. After this, your child’s GP may take over his or her care. Medicines aren’t usually recommended for children under the age of six.

The type of medicine prescribed for your child will depend on:

  • his or her symptoms
  • whether he or she has any other medical conditions
  • how he or she responds to the medicine
  • whether he or she gets any side-effects

The most common type of medicine used to treat ADHD is often referred to as a ‘stimulant’. They include methylphenidate (eg Ritalin and Concerta XL) and dexamfetamine. Although these medications are called stimulants, they generally have a calming effect on your child. They help by improving your child’s ability to focus. Like most medicines, it’s important that you’re aware of possible side-effects. These include insomnia (finding it difficult to fall asleep or stay asleep), sleep disturbance and nightmares, headaches, irritability, loss of appetite and weight loss.

Your doctor may also suggest your child tries another type of non-stimulant ADHD medication. The most commonly-used non-stimulant is called atomexetine.

Always ask your child’s GP for advice and read the patient information leaflet that comes with your child’s medicine. Talk to your doctor if your child has any side-effects.

Talking therapy

Talking therapies, such as psychological and behavioural therapy, can also help. The therapy is designed to help your child learn to focus their attention and reduce impulsive behaviour. Therapy may be offered to your child or your whole family.

Living with ADHD

Caring for a child with ADHD can be difficult and the effects on family life can be dramatic. National support groups are available for families of children with ADHD. Your GP may be able to put you in touch with a local group. Through one of these, you can meet other families in the same situation and get support and advice on managing your child’s behaviour.

 

Reviewed by Alice Rossiter, Bupa Health Information Team, July 2013.

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  • This information was published by Bupa's Health Information Team and is based on reputable sources of medical evidence. It has been reviewed by appropriate medical or clinical professionals. Photos are only for illustrative purposes and do not reflect every presentation of a condition. The content is intended only for general information and does not replace the need for personal advice from a qualified health professional. For more details on how we produce our content and its sources, visit the about our health information page.

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