What is ADHD? 7 common questions about ADHD in kids

 By Emily Cavanagh, Clinical Psychology Registrar

What is ADHD?

Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a neurodevelopmental condition that results in poor concentration and inattentiveness. This has a negative impact on learning, social interactions, and day-to-day functioning. 

ADHD is usually diagnosed around the age of 7 years, although some people may not be diagnosed until much later in life. 

There are two broad defining characteristics of ADHD: the first is inattention, and the second is hyperactivity and impulsivity. Most people with a diagnosis of ADHD meet both criteria – however, some people only meet one. 

When given a diagnosis of ADHD, a clinician will specify if the diagnosis is a combined presentation, predominantly inattentive presentation, or predominantly hyperactive/impulsive presentation. The clinician will then also specify the severity as either mild, moderate, or severe. 

What are the signs of ADHD in kids?

The signs of ADHD are different for children, depending on whether they are predominantly inattentive or predominantly hyperactive and impulsive. 

Children with a predominantly inattentive presentation may experience poor concentration and attention, have difficulty focusing on work, make careless mistakes, become easily distracted, give up easily, become bored easily, or avoid completing tasks. 

Children with a predominantly hyperactive and impulsive presentation may experience high activity levels, be restless or impulsive, have difficulty being quiet, interrupt others, or become easily excited. 

It is important to remember that ADHD is dimensional, and symptoms exist on a continuum. This means that rather than categorising someone as being ‘inattentive’ or not, symptoms are looked at in terms of how much they impair functioning. 

How do I get an ADHD diagnosis?

Unfortunately, there is no quick test to diagnose ADHD. 

Getting a diagnosis of ADHD generally involves a clinical interview with parents, one-on-one interaction with the child and the use of various tools and scales that screen for symptoms associated with ADHD. 

A comprehensive ADHD assessment may also involve the completion of an IQ test and an academic achievement test, to get a more thorough understanding of the specific domains where a child may be struggling. 

When making a diagnosis of ADHD, some important factors to consider are the onset of symptoms, if symptoms are present in more than one setting (e.g. home and school) and whether or not the symptoms cause significant impairment. 

An ADHD diagnosis can be made by paediatricians, psychologists (such as our team at Spencer Health), or psychiatrists. 

What causes ADHD?

ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder. We know that the way the brain or nervous system grows in a child with ADHD is different to what is ‘typical’. This means different parts of the brain don’t communicate how we would expect them to. 

However, the exact cause of ADHD still remains largely unknown. 

Multiple people in the same family often have ADHD. This has led to extensive research on a possible genetical component. Despite this research, genes are more of a ‘risk factor’ than a cause of ADHD. 

Other risk factors include very low birth weight, smoking during pregnancy, perinatal events, dietary factors, neurotoxin exposure and some childhood infections. 

How is ADHD treated?

Treatment for ADHD usually depends on the severity of symptoms and the child’s ability to engage in therapy. ADHD treatment often involves a combination of medication and psychological treatment. 

The most common type of medication to treat ADHD is a stimulant, which assists the areas in the brain that are responsible for controlling attention and arousal, helping to improve concentration, impulse control, and hyperactivity. 

In psychological therapy, children with ADHD can be taught the skills needed to navigate their world, while also learning how to control their behaviour. A psychologist will usually communicate with the child’s school so that their teachers can be actively involved in their treatment and can adjust the learning environment if needed. 

It is important to remember that each treatment plan is unique and tailored to meet the needs of the individual and their specific symptoms, so a health professional will be the best person to guide the treatment. 

How can I help my child manage their ADHD?  

There are many different ways that parents can help their children who have symptoms of ADHD. 

Reinforcing ‘good’ behaviour is one of the best ways to change your child’s behaviour. A positive behaviour system at home, such as a reward chart, can help reinforce desirable behaviour. 

Children with ADHD may struggle with unpredictability. A structured routine can help to manage symptoms of ADHD, and this also helps children develop independent habits. Young children benefit from a visual daily schedule that is clear and easy to understand. 

Other tips include:

  • Be consistent with clear and simple rules.
  • Limit the number of instructions given to a child at once. 
  • Encourage the child to stay on task. 
  • Minimise distractions.
  • Practise good sleep hygiene. 
  • Maintain a balanced diet.

How can I get support for my child’s ADHD? 

There are multiple professionals who are usually involved in supporting someone who has ADHD, and their family. This may include psychologists, behavioural therapists, paediatricians, or psychiatrists. These professionals all play different supportive roles.

A child with a diagnosis of ADHD will often have an Individual Education Plan at their school to assist with any support they may need in class. 

Psychologists can complete a formal assessment to diagnose ADHD and help determine the best treatment plan. If you are confused about where to start, the best place is usually with your GP, who can then refer you to a psychologist or paediatrician who has a special interest in neurodevelopmental presentations. 

You can also get in touch with us at Spencer Health to discuss getting an ADHD diagnosis or accessing early intervention services for your child. 

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