It’s not unusual for young kids to have almost endless energy; often, it can be challenging to get them to calm down, sit still or pay attention. However, for children who have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), such behavior tends to be extreme, and is often accompanied by squirming or fidgeting, impulsive actions and problems focusing.
ADHD is a biological disorder that affects about 3 to 5% of children. While young kids by nature tend to be fidgety and distracted, those with ADHD continue to have symptoms as they grow up.
“You have to look at the child’s age and what you expect from them,” says Dr. Levy. “If you have an eight-year-old who just can’t sit still at dinner, leaves things lying around all the time, is always losing his possessions, there might be something going on. When a five-year-old does that, we assume that that’s part of the behavior at that age.”
There’s no perfect way to diagnose ADHD; often, much of the diagnosis rests on behavior reports completed by parents and teachers.
If you suspect your child may have ADHD, Dr. Levy recommends having a neuropsychologist assess them for learning disabilities, anxiety, depression and any other factors that may contribute to symptoms. In most cases, kids with ADHD will have a parent with the disorder. He also recommends blood tests to rule out other disorders and illnesses.
As children get older, their ADHD symptoms may change. Teens and adults may be able to control their hyperactive behaviors but may become more inattentive and have more trouble focusing on a task or assignment. Without treatment, they also may struggle with school, work and social relationships.
“Kids with ADHD don’t necessarily need special education, but they may need some help with organization and planning, so it’s useful to have the school involved,” Dr. Levy says. “They may need accommodations for extra time on their tests or testing in a smaller environment thats less distracting.”
Social support and love in the family are very important as well, especially considering the misconceptions about ADHD. One of the most common is that it’s simply bad behavior on the child’s part and, if you punish them properly, the ADHD symptoms will stop. While this may change their external behavior, says Dr. Levy, it will likely create far worse psychological problems.
There can also be an emotional stigma attached to ADHD, although Dr. Levy believes that is improving.
“Any time you have a label for anything, people tend to believe there is something wrong with them or they are somehow less,” he says. “I spend a lot of time talking to children about how the ADHD brain is actually a better brain. Kids with ADHD tend to be very creative. They tend to have a wonderful sense of humor and they’re often very intelligent.”
According to Dr. Levy, ADHD treatment can help kids get their academics under control, form healthier social relationships and become successful adults.
Treatment usually involves medication to help control impulsive behaviors and improve focus, as well as behavioral therapy to help kids learn how to organize themselves, manage their impulsivity and channel it into productive activity. Some adults stay on medication for life, while others are able to discontinue it once they have learned the tools to manage the condition.
“The first step is having your child evaluated by a professional,” says Dr. Levy. “The more the child knows about themselves, about their own responses and understands how wonderful they are with their ADHD, the better off they’ll be.”