Let's Talk About ADHD
We explain the signs, symptoms, and treatments of ADHD—plus ways to make life with ADHD a little easier.by Gail O’Connor Health Writer
Whether you or your child have just been diagnosed, or if you’re worried they could have ADHD, you’re likely nervous, confused, and even a little scared. That’s 100% normal—and these feelings aren’t forever. Discover the realities and challenges of ADHD—and also the best treatments, helpful lifestyle changes, and all the crucial information you need to help manage ADHD and thrive.
Our Pro Panel
We went to some of the top experts in ADHD to bring you the most up-to-date information possible.
Lindsay Elton, M.D.
Child Neurology Consultants
Mary Beth Lardizabal, D.O.
St. Paul, MN
Patricia Gerbarg, M.D.
Assistant Clinical Professor, Psychiatry
New York Medical College
What Exactly Is ADHD?
If you’re intimately familiar with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, you likely know the struggle of living with this common mental condition. While someone with ADHD wants to be a get-it-done kind of person (who doesn’t?), oftentimes, neither their brain nor body can muster the energy to put anything in motion. Maybe you interrupt others, and even though it can be off-putting to people, maybe you can’t stop. You may lose focus, or perhaps more accurately, shift focus from one thing to another, getting off track.
When you’re living with ADHD, either by association or because you yourself have it yourself, even seemingly minor tasks—like finishing a page of homework, emptying a laundry basket, or clearing a desk of piles of paper—seem daunting. Worse, some days it can feel like the whole world is judging you.
ADHD is one of the most prevalent childhood disorders and can continue through adolescence and into adulthood. More than 6 million children have been diagnosed with ADHD, according to a 2016 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and roughly 11 million people, or 5 percent of the adult population, have ADHD.
Signs and Symptoms
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, symptoms of ADHD may include:
Inattention: Having several tabs open (literally and figuratively), wandering off task, losing persistence, and feeling unable to stay focused, which can snowball into being generally disorganized.
Hyperactivity: Being in constant motion (moving around, tapping a hand or foot, squirming, fidgeting), including when it’s not appropriate and to the point of wearing down everyone else. This is one symptom often seen in children.
Impulsivity: Acting without thinking, even if those actions have a high potential for harm. With kids, this may be something like spending an entire car ride trying to take off a seatbelt, or walloping another child over a coveted toy. In adults it could be saying something insensitive to peers without thinking (this happens repeatedly, in spite of your sincere regrets), or blowing money you don’t have on a shopping spree (while at the same time accruing late fees for the bills you forgot to pay).
Other examples of impulsivity:
having trouble delaying gratification
excessively interrupting others
making important decisions (drugs, sex partners) without thinking about the long-term consequences.
Of course, all people can be inattentive or fidgety sometimes, but it’s noticeably different with ADHD in that these behaviors are more severe and happen more often. They can also make life harder socially at school or at work. People with ADHD may have one of the above signs or symptoms, or a combination; most kids have the type of ADHD that’s a combo of symptoms. In preschoolers, the most common sign is hyperactivity.
ADHD By the Numbers
6.1 million children have been diagnosed with ADHD
5 in 10 children with ADHD have a behavioral issue
3 in 10 children with ADHD also have anxiety
Boys are more likely to be diagnosed (12.9%) than girls (5.6%)
What Causes ADHD in the First Place?
No one really knows. Studies suggest reduced activity in the parts of the brain responsible for motor activity and attention capacity (the premotor cortex and the prefrontal cortex). The theory is ADHD may stem from poor connectivity among some of the brain’s communication routes, causing it to trip up just getting through the day, which makes sense. It’s not like anyone wants to wake up feeling like their brain’s in a fog, while simultaneously panicking about not doing all the things they meant to accomplish yesterday.
Here's what we know for certain: There are certain risk factors for ADHD, it affects boys more than girls, though girls with ADHD are more likely to have problems with inattention. We also know that where there’s ADHD, there’s often another condition, like a learning disability, anxiety disorder, conduct disorder, depression, and substance abuse.
Wondering what risk factors can contribute to ADHD? According to the National Institute of Mental Health, they include:
Genetics (having a family member with the condition)
Cigarette smoking, alcohol use, or drug use during pregnancy
Exposure to environmental toxins during pregnancy
Exposure to environmental toxins, such as high levels of lead, at a young age
Low birth weight
Do I—or My Child—Have the Symptoms of ADHD?
We’ve identified the most common signs and symptoms and you may want to consider whether any of these sound familiar when you think of yourself or your child:
Not seeming to listen when directly spoken to (in children) or having trouble listening
Overlooking or missing details and making careless mistakes
Avoiding things that take sustained mental effort, like doing homework or writing a paper or report
Having difficulty with organization, managing time, and meeting deadlines
Losing stuff: school supplies, your wallet, your keys, your phone, etc.
Fidgeting and being unable to sit still in the classroom or an office
Excessive movement (in children) or extreme restlessness (in adults)
Interrupting or intruding on others’ conversations, games, or activities
Having trouble waiting or taking a turn
Having difficulty quietly engaging in hobbies
Keep in mind, anyone can exhibit these behaviors sometimes. The key difference is that with ADHD, the signs and symptoms are often more severe, occur more often, and affect the ability to function socially or at work and school.
If your child exhibits several symptoms for at least 6 months and in more than one area of their life (for instance, both at home and at school), you might consider getting them evaluated. For an adult to meet diagnostic criteria, they must have contended with several symptoms since before age 12 and been significantly impaired by them (for instance, struggling in their marriage or losing a job).
How Is ADHD Diagnosed?
A primary-care doc or pediatrician might identify signs of ADHD in you or your child, and may offer a preliminary diagnosis, but if they don’t have extensive ADHD-specific experience, they should be sending you to a licensed clinician who does—like a psychiatrist or psychologist.
ADHD is also commonly confused with other conditions, like anxiety, which can have symptoms similar to ADHD, like inattention and poor concentration, or autism spectrum disorder, which may share symptoms like trouble interacting with peers and appearing to not pay attention. If only there were a simple lab test or scan that could detect ADHD, more sufferers would properly be diagnosed, but there isn’t. Instead, here’s the process you can expect:
Diagnosis in Children
Proper diagnosis is the secret to making sure your kiddo gets the quality treatment they need. An evaluation may also help you determine if it’s something else, like autism, and start on the road to treating your child’s challenges.
To receive an ADHD diagnosis, the symptoms of inattention and/or hyperactivity-impulsivity must be chronic or long-lasting, impair your child’s functioning, and cause them to fall behind typical development for his or her age. The doctor should also ensure that any ADHD symptoms are not due to another medical or psychiatric condition.
Your child’s clinician or other specialist will follow guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics as well as the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry when diagnosing. These include:
A detailed interview with you regarding your child’s symptoms
Questionnaires completed by your child’s teachers or childcare providers
A review of school and medical records
Talking with and observing your child
Possibly screening for learning disabilities
Most children with ADHD receive a diagnosis while they’re still in elementary school. (ADHD symptoms can appear as early as between 3 and 6 years old.) For an adolescent or adult to receive a diagnosis of ADHD, the symptoms need to have been present before age 12.
If your child is evaluated through your school system, the focus will be whether he or she meets grade level standards. Ask for an evaluation through your school district, but it’s a good idea to get an independent evaluation, too. Why? It’s valuable to have in your back pocket if you need to advocate for your child to have special learning accommodations, and will give you a more comprehensive picture of what’s going on.
Diagnosis in Adults
Suspect you or someone you love have ADHD? Getting evaluated by a licenced mental health professional with experience with ADHD is so key. Here’s what you can expect during an evaluation:
A diagnostic interview about your symptoms--both current and in childhood
A screening for coexisting conditions, such as depression or learning disabilities
An interview with other important people in the patient’s life (such as their partner) who will speak honestly about the patient’s symptoms
Possibly additional testing
What Is the Best Treatment for ADHD?
If you or your child is diagnosed, one of your first questions is likely how to manage it. The answer depends on a number of factors, including age. Here’s what you or your child can expect:
Treating Children With ADHD
For children six and under, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends behavior therapy, which teaches skills and strategies to help the child succeed at school, at home, and in relationships. Behavior therapy should include behavioral interventions in the classroom, if available.
If your child is age 12 and under, your health care provider should discuss parent behavior therapy (also known as parent training in behavior management or just parent training) with you, since you’re likely the one spending the most time with your child and are likely to have the greatest impact. In fact, most kids aren’t mature enough to change their behavior without your help. Look for a therapist who trains parents, and teaches positive ways to help with structure, communication, and interaction. You can expect to attend several sessions of training.
Your child will also have a school treatment plan, which might include an Individualized Education Plan—or 504 plan—that describes accommodations, including interventions and supports.
Those accommodations might look like any of these examples:
Receiving extra time on tests
Getting breaks or time to move around
Using technology to assist with tasks, extra help with staying organized, and positive reinforcement and feedback
What about meds? Pharmacologic treatments, reserved for ages six and over, can be very effective, though when it comes to children, they should be used in combination with psychotherapy and psychosocial interventions.
As for diet, some small studies suggest eating less processed food, and more fatty acids has a modest benefit on improving ADHD symptoms, so getting some omega-3s (like fish and seafood, nuts and seeds and plant oils) can’t hurt.
Treating Adults With ADHD
Behavior therapy can translate to success in adults, too: In recent years cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) programs have been developed specifically for adults with ADHD. They can help you overcome difficulties with executive functioning, to better manage time, organize, and plan in the short-term and long-term.
Medications for ADHD
For kids older than age 6 as well as adults, medication might also be a part of the treatment plan. Striking the right balance with medication can take some trial and error, but it’s worth it. Your healthcare provider may try different meds and dosages before hitting on the right one. Some people are amazed by the difference in their focus, thanks to medication. Whatever ADHD medication you’re on, it’s important not to skip or miss doses, as symptoms may return.
Prescribing a stimulant for ADHD may seem backwards but they work. In fact, they’re the most popular medication to treat the condition. How does it work? Stimulants boost the brain chemicals dopamine and norepinephrine, which help you focus. They’re a popular choice to help manage moderate to severe cases of ADHD, improving symptoms in about 70 percent of adults with ADHD and 70 to 80 percent of children shortly after starting treatment, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
Stimulants are not considered to be habit-forming in kids and adolescents, and there is no evidence that using them leads to drug abuse. Still, with any stimulant, there’s the possibility of overuse and addiction, so be sure to voice any concerns or pose any questions to your doctor.
Stimulants fall into three buckets: short-acting (taken a few times a day), intermediate-acting (taken less often), and long-acting (taken one a day). Examples of stimulants include:
Concerta, Ritalin, Daytrana, Jornay, Quillivant, Quillichew (methylphenidate)
Evekeo (amphetamine sulfate)
With stimulants having a strong track record for efficacy, why would someone consider a non-stimulant? A doctor will prescribe a non-stimulant if stimulants aren’t helping, if you’re suffering from unpleasant side effects, or if you could benefit from one in combination with a stimulant to increase effectiveness.
Non-stimulants don’t work as quickly as stimulants do, but they also help mitigate symptoms of ADHD by improving focus, attention, and impulsivity. Strattera (atomoxetine), for example, long known as the first non-stimulant medication for ADHD, works in about half of patients.
Non-stimulants available for ADHD treatment include:
While not approved by the Food and Drug Administration for the treatment of ADHD, antidepressants may be used alone or in combination with stimulants to treat ADHD. They work similar to stimulants, boosting the levels of dopamine and norepinephrine in your brain, improving both attention and impulsivity.
Side Effects of ADHD Treatment
Every drug comes with a chance of side effects, including the stimulants and non-stimulants prescribed for ADHD.
Possible side effects of stimulants:
Higher blood pressure
Moodiness and irritability
“Rebound” (a flare-up of ADHD symptoms when the medication wears off)
Since stimulants can also raise blood pressure and heart rate and increase anxiety, if you have other health problems or an anxiety disorder, talk to your doctor before starting meds. In the doses used to treat kids and teens, stimulants typically aren’t habit forming.
Possible side effects of nonstimulants:
While most people find that the focus and relief they find on these meds outweighs side effects, it’s important to chat with your doctor about what you can expect before you fill your script. Non-stimulants aren’t habit-forming or prone to misuse.
What’s Life Like for People with ADHD?
ADHD can feel frustrating, but it should never cause shame. Kids with ADHD often bear unfair assumptions that they’re acting out, not paying attention, or behaving badly—as if their condition were a choice! It’s that kind of judgment can be a confidence crusher and it’s especially disheartening when symptoms, like those related to hyperactivity, abate with time and maturation.
What’s needed for kids with ADHD: a partnership between families, doctors, and teachers who can work together to provide structure and positive support. Since having ADHD can feel alienating, even among its youngest sufferers, you can also help your child with making friends; team sports and activities have a built-in social network. You don’t need to worry about your kid having an expansive circle; studies show having just one close friend can be all your child needs.
For adults with ADHD who were never diagnosed, or were diagnosed late in life, there might be a history of poor grades, trouble at work, and rocky relationships with friends and romantic partners. Maybe you’ve switched majors or schools a lot, or gotten through high school or college just barely. You’ve probably fielded frustrations from romantic partners about your attentiveness. Even if your partner’s forgiving of your quirks though, a bigger hurdle for those with ADHD might be boredom when that dopamine rush of a new relationship fades with time, which can result in relationship hopping or cheating. Therapy or couples counseling can help, and for more insights check out the YouTube series “How to ADHD,” which has a segment on relationships.
It’s not easy having ADHD, but there is hope as ADHD responds to being managed. With the right interventions, ADHD won’t keep anyone from a healthy and satisfying work and personal life. With the right care and support you can learn the skills to not just focus, but full-on flourish.
Where Can I Find ADHD Communities?
Whether it’s you, your child, or a loved one who’s been diagnosed with ADHD, we guarantee there’s someone out there who has been in these very same shoes—Googling, worrying, and figuring out how to navigate the challenges. The support groups, orgs, and bloggers who chronicle life with ADHD and how to cope with its hurdles are endless. Here are a few of our favorites to guide you through this new unknown. They may even encourage you to share your story, too.
Top ADHD-related Instagrammers
Follow because: She’s unapologetically ADHD, and shows that you can be creative, fun, strategic, charismatic, and overall awesome with this condition. Plus, she makes really cool TikToks that break down ADHD in a way that you’ll totally get.
Follow because: Her advice as the mom of a child with AHD is pure and candid and so very relatable. Her platform provides a “safe space to vent and share information”—we think you’re going to like it there.
Follow because: He’s a certified integrative nutrition health coach (INHC) who helps people with ADHD find self-love. Through his male-focused support group (@adhdmensupport), a podcast that brings in guests from all walks of ADHD, and his overall vibe on his feed, you’ll find something that resonates with you on the daily.
Pina Varnel, @adhd_alien
Follow because: Her candid comics are a great little “share” to help the people who love and follow you understand what life is like for you.
Top ADHD-related Podcasts
TiLT Parenting: Raising Differently Wired Kids. Hosted by activist, speaker, and author Debbie Reber (and sometimes her differently wired 15-year-old son, Asher), this podcast is for any parent of a differently wired kiddo. Reber believes that being differently wired isn’t a deficit, and she helps you see that, too.
I Have ADHD Podcast. Kristen Carder has ADHD and she still finds ways to be a successful mom, boss, and spouse—and since she’s a certified ADHD coach, she can help you do the same. Her stories and personal experiences fuel her podcasts, which leave you with actionable takeaways that you feel like you can do immediately.
5 Minutes ADHD Podcast. Soli Lazarus knows her audience, and creates shorty podcasts even the most restless among us can digest. That’s all the time it takes for Lazarus to give smart tips on helping your kid with ADHD focus at home and at school.
Top ADHD-related Support Groups and Non-profits
CHADD. This nonprofit supports both children and adults with ADHD through education and advocacy, online support groups, and a toll-free number so you can talk with an ADHD Information Specialist.
Attention Deficit Disorder Association (ADDA). Their mission? To serve, connect, and empower adults living with ADHD lead better lives. Backed by science (read: facts), and human experience (read: support groups), this team makes you feel like you have a place at their table to say, feel, and learn whatever you need.
ADDitude Forums. Brought to you by ADDitude Magazine, these ADHD-specific forums are like the endless hole of Reddit, but hyper-focused on issues facing the ADHD-community, whether adults or children. Whether you’re looking for an answer to specific questions or just commiseration, you’ll find it here.
ADHD Statistics: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2016). “Data and Statistics About ADHD.” cdc.gov/ncbddd/adhd/data.html
Definition of ADHD: American Psychiatric Association. (2017). “What Is ADHD?” psychiatry.org/patients-families/adhd/what-is-adhd
Causes: HealthyChildren.org, from the American Academy of Pediatrics. (2019). “Causes of ADHD: What We Know Today.” healthychildren.org/English/health-issues/conditions/adhd/Pages/Causes-of-ADHD.aspx
Signs and Symptoms: National Institute of Mental Health. (2019). “Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, Signs and Symptoms” nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/attention-deficit-hyperactivity-disorder-adhd/index.shtml
Diagnosing in Adults: CHADD. (n.d.). “Diagnosis of ADHD in Adults.” chadd.org/for-adults/diagnosis-of-adhd-in-adults/
Diagnosing in Children: CHADD. (n.d.). Preschoolers with ADHD. chadd.org/for-parents/preschoolers-and-adhd/
Guidelines for Diagnosing in Children: HealthyChildren.org. (2017). “Diagnosing ADHD in Children: Guidelines & Information for Parents.” healthychildren.org/English/health-issues/conditions/adhd/Pages/Diagnosing-ADHD-in-Children-Guidelines-Information-for-Parents.aspx
Diagnosing in Children: HealthyChildren.org. (2017). “Diagnosing ADHD in Children: Guidelines & Information for Parents.” healthychildren.org/English/health-issues/conditions/adhd/Pages/Diagnosing-ADHD-in-Children-Guidelines-Information-for-Parents.aspx
Treatment: Cleveland Clinic. (2016). “Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD): Stimulant Therapy.” my.clevelandclinic.org/health/treatments/11766-attention-deficit-hyperactivity-disorder-adhd-stimulant-therapy
Non-stimulants and Antidepressants: Cleveland Clinic. (2016). “Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD): Nonstimulant Therapy (Strattera) & Other ADHD Drugs.” my.clevelandclinic.org/health/drugs/12959-attention-deficit-hyperactivity-disorder-adhd-nonstimulant-therapy-strattera--other-adhd-drugs
Life with ADHD: CHADD. (2017). “What It’s Like to Have ADHD.” chadd.org/adhd-weekly/what-its-like-to-have-adhd-presentations-change-throughout-life/