Parents expect children to be fidgety or overly talkative from time to time. It’s natural for them to forget their assignments, misplace important items, or get lost in a daydream every so often. And, of course, kids are famous for their incredibly short attention spans. But when this sort of behavior is consistent or disruptive or continues in adulthood, it might be a sign of a more serious mental health condition—attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD.
What is ADHD?
ADHD is a neurodevelopmental syndrome that involves the regulation of a particular set of brain operations known as “executive functioning skills.” These skills and functions include memory, concentration, organization, attention, emotional and behavioral control, and social skills. ADHD is usually caused by genetic factors, but can also be caused by chemical and structural differences in the brain.
In addition, researchers at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) believe ADHD can result from environmental factors, such as:
- a mother’s cigarette smoking, alcohol use, or drug use during pregnancy,
- exposure to environmental toxins at a young age,
- premature delivery or low birth weight, or
- brain injuries.
Although some experts have suggested a relation between ADHD and external factors, including excess screen time, food additives, too much sugar, or even poor parenting, none of these links has been scientifically supported.
How Common is ADHD?
ADHD is one of the most common disorders affecting children. In fact, an estimated 8.4% of children have been diagnosed with ADHD. However, ADHD is not just a childhood disorder. It is a chronic condition that can extend through the teen years and into adulthood. The American Psychiatric Association (APA) estimates 2.5% of adults suffer from this condition. ADHD also affects male-identifying individuals more than female-identifying, and symptoms may differ by gender.
Common Symptoms of ADHD
Symptoms of ADHD may become noticeable as early as age three, and the three primary symptoms—inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsive behavior—are usually detected before age 12. ADHD is most often diagnosed in childhood because children’s symptoms tend to disrupt their performance and behavior in the classroom as well as at home or in social situations.
For both children and adults, ADHD symptoms may be severe, moderate, or mild, and can include a combination of the following:
Patterns of inattention:
- Careless mistakes in schoolwork or job duties
- Lack of attention to detail
- Trouble staying focused
- Difficulty following through on chores, instructions, projects, or schoolwork
- Forgetting daily tasks like errands or homework
- Trouble organizing tasks or activities or dislike of activities that require focus
- Frequently losing items needed for tasks
Patterns of hyperactivity or impulsiveness:
- Fidgeting, tapping, or squirming
- Difficulty staying seated
- Running or climbing when it’s not appropriate
- Interrupting others’ conversations or a speaker’s question
- Talking too much
- Difficulty waiting for their turn
- Unable to play or perform tasks quietly
- Always “on the go” or seemingly in motion
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Types of ADHD
A diagnosis of ADHD is based on the symptoms a person has experienced within the last six months and can be one of three types:
Predominantly inattentive presentation—children and adults whose symptoms are classified as patterns of inattention. This person will be forgetful of even the most routine details and find it difficult to finish projects or tasks. They will have trouble carrying on conversations, organizing activities, and paying attention.
Predominantly hyperactive/impulsive presentation—children and adults whose symptoms are classified as patterns of hyperactivity and impulsivity. This person’s symptoms are more action-oriented; they can’t sit still for even short periods of time, speak at inappropriate times, and can’t wait for others to finish their activities or conversations before acting.
Combined presentation—individuals who display a relatively balanced combination of inattention symptoms and hyperactive/impulsive symptoms.
Do I have ADHD?
There’s no definitive lab test to diagnose ADHD. Instead, the process usually involves performing psychological assessments to rule out other causes of inattention or impulsivity like anxiety, depression, or learning disabilities, which can present with similar symptoms.
However, the APA recommends reviewing the common symptoms within the inattention and hyperactive/impulsive categories. If an adult over the age of 17 regularly experiences five or more of the symptoms in one category, or if six or more symptoms frequently occur with a child under 17, the person might have ADHD.
For parents, it’s important to distinguish these symptoms from normal childhood behavior. For example, if a child is inattentive or having social problems in the classroom but not at home or with friends outside of school, they may have another issue.
Before physicians or mental health professionals assign a diagnosis of ADHD, they will not only review and rate the individual’s symptoms using appropriate checklists, but also gather feedback from parents, spouses, teachers, or caregivers.
Treatment for ADHD
Although there is no definitive cure for ADHD, several types of treatment have proven successful in managing symptoms. The most effective treatment is a combination of medication and behavioral therapy.
With children especially, physicians and psychologists are more likely to try therapy before prescribing medication for ADHD. Mental health professionals will work with parents and perhaps even teachers to help children learn organizational skills and techniques to stick to a routine or schedule. They will also educate adult caregivers about ADHD and how it affects families, introduce them to support groups, and help them deal with their own frustrations. Adults will benefit from behavioral therapy by learning similar coping and organizational techniques and learning to break down tasks into more manageable steps, for example.
While behavioral therapy addresses thoughts and behaviors associated with ADHD, medication will manage the brain-based functions and symptoms. Stimulants like Adderall or Ritalin can be effective because they increase the amount of dopamine, which helps with thinking and attention functions in the brain. Non-stimulants will take a bit longer to start working, but for individuals who don’t respond well to stimulants, these medications can improve focus and attention.
To complement medication and behavioral therapy, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends that people with ADHD maintain a healthy lifestyle. Regular exercise, healthy eating habits, and plenty of sleep will do wonders for overall wellbeing. Adults may also practice meditation or mindfulness techniques to better deal with ADHD symptoms.
Common Barriers to ADHD Treatment
Diagnosis and treatment of ADHD are not possible without seeking out help from physicians and mental health professionals. Don’t let these common barriers get in your way:
- Writing off your recurring symptoms as less disruptive than they genuinely are
- Not wanting to admit that you or your child might have a mental health condition
- Hoping that symptoms will just go away eventually
- Stressing over finding or visiting a physician or mental health professionals
Once you’ve visited with your general practitioner or pediatrician, don’t hesitate to schedule an initial appointment with a licensed therapist or mental health professional. Using With Therapy’s innovative and user-friendly tool, you can find a therapist who’s a perfect match for you.
Typical online therapist listings are overwhelming, seemingly endless, and severely lacking in the details you want when looking for a mental health professional. WithTherapy is a matching service that uses science to pair you with a personalized shortlist of therapists.
You’ll start by finding therapists who are available when and where you are. Then you’ll be able to narrow down your list with preferences like what you think would be helpful for your treatment—for example, someone who specializes or has experience treating ADHD in children or adults. WithTherapy will also take into consideration demographic considerations like race, gender, or sexual orientation of your preferred therapist.
Best of all, once you’ve found your perfect therapist, you can schedule an appointment with them immediately, directly through the WithTherapy website. No additional URLs or phone calls are necessary.
Find a Therapist for ADHD
If you’re ready to address and learn to cope with your or your child’s ADHD symptoms, check out WithTherapy to start a productive relationship with a therapist.