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Understanding ADHD

Understanding ADHD | What Is Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder?
What You’ll Learn

Suspecting or hearing that your child has ADHD can trigger a number of feelings. It can also raise many questions. You may wonder about symptoms, evaluations and how you can help. The journey of parenting a child with ADHD can sometimes feel lonely. But the fact is that 11 percent of kids ages 4 to 17 in the United States have been diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder.

What Is ADHD?A good way to understand what ADHD is to establish what it isn’t. It isn’t the result of bad parenting or of your child being lazy or disobedient. ADHD is a biological condition that makes it hard for many children to sit still and concentrate.

Research shows the areas of the brain that help with those functions may be less active or develop more slowly in kids with ADHD. This can upset the normal balance of certain brain chemicals. It can also explain why your child might act less mature than his peers.


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Kids don’t outgrow ADHD. The symptoms may change over time but ADHD is a lifelong condition. That doesn’t mean your child can’t be happy and successful. There are many effective strategies and treatment options you can try to manage your child’s symptoms.

Kids (and families) are all different, so not all options will work for you. It will take trial and error to see what fits your child and family. But finding the right strategies and seeing an improvement can boost everyone’s confidence.

Three Types of ADHD

For many people, the words “hyperactive” or “out of control” come to mind when they hear the term ADHD. If your child doesn’t have those symptoms, a diagnosis of ADHD can be puzzling. Kids who don’t seem hyperactive often aren’t diagnosed as early.

There are actually three types of ADHD, and one of them doesn’t include symptoms of impulsive and hyperactive behavior.

  • ADHD, Predominantly Hyperactive-Impulsive Presentation: Kids who have this type of ADHD have symptoms of hyperactivity and feel the need to move constantly. They also struggle with impulse control.
  • ADHD, Predominantly Inattentive Presentation: Kids who have this type of ADHD have difficulty paying attention. They’re easily distracted but don’t have issues with impulsivity or hyperactivity. This is sometimes referred to as attention-deficit disorder (or ADD).
  • ADHD, Combined Presentation: This is the most common type of ADHD. Kids who have it show all of the symptoms described above.

How Common Is ADHD?ADHD is one of the most common childhood conditions involving the brain. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 11 percent of kids in the U.S between the ages of 4 and 17 have been diagnosed with ADHD.[1] Boys are approximately twice as likely girls to have ever been diagnosed with ADHD.

What Causes ADHD?Researchers don’t know the exact cause of ADHD. But they have identified factors showing it’s a brain-based biological condition. Knowing there are medical reasons for why your child talks constantly or can’t stop daydreaming can help you see things in a different light. The possible causes of ADHD include:

  • Genes and heredity: Studies show that ADHD runs in families—meaning it may be genetic. If your child is diagnosed with ADHD, there is a significant chance that you have it too, even if you’ve never been diagnosed. As many as 35 percent of children with ADHD have a parent or sibling who also has the disorder.[2]
  • Brain differences: Your brain is structured and functions differently when you have ADHD. It takes three years longer for the brain to physically thicken and mature, which happens at age10½ in kids with ADHD instead of at 7½. Johns Hopkins Medicine reports that kids with ADHD also have lower levels of a brain chemical called dopamine that helps to regulate mood, movement and attention.[3]
  • Environmental factors: Prenatal exposure to alcohol and cigarette smoke increases the chances of getting ADHD, says the National Institute of Mental Health.[4] So does exposure to high levels of lead during infancy and early childhood. There’s no evidence that sugar or food additives cause ADHD. However, those substances may cause ADHD symptoms to be more intense in some people.[5]
  • Brain injury: Traumatic brain injury (TBI) is a lot less common than ADHD. But ADHD-like symptoms are sometimes present in the relatively small number of kids who have TBI. Recent studies show high rates of attention problems in acquired brain injuries (such as concussion and brain tumors).[6]