What is ADHD in Children?

Nearly all kids struggle to control themselves at times. It’s normal for children to become distracted, restless or impatient. But for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in adolescents and teens, it’s more than an occasional issue. Frequent and persistent symptoms of inattention, impulsivity or hyperactivity can affect their ability to lead normal lives. More than 9% of U.S. children ages 2-17 have ADHD – a neurological (or brain) disorder that makes it hard for kids to control their behavior. ADHD affects the part of the brain that helps children pay attention, make decisions, plan and organize. As a result, ADHD often affects a child’s performance in school.

What Causes ADHD in Children? 

In children with ADHD, the prefrontal cortex (forehead region) of the brain – the last part of the brain to develop in all people – can be even slower to mature. This results in decreased levels of the brain chemicals dopamine and norepinephrine, which play a crucial role in regulating attention, behavior and emotion.

Risk Factors

Other factors that can contribute to ADHD in children include:

  • Genetics – ADHD can run in families. Differences in certain brain genes can be inherited.
  • Developmental issues – Medical problems or delays at critical points in a child’s development may play a role.
  • Environment – Exposure to lead, smoking or having a traumatic brain injury can also cause ADHD.

While it’s true some kids with ADHD are more sensitive to sugar, refined flour, food dyes and other dietary substances, these nutritional factors don’t actually cause ADHD. 

ADHD Symptoms in Children

ADHD has three groups of behavior symptoms: inattention, impulsivity and hyperactivity. Children with ADHD may not have all the symptoms or experience them the same way. However, symptoms typically occur for more than 6 months and happen in 2 or more settings, such as home, school and/or social situations. 

Inattention symptoms in child ADHD are associated with behaviors that include:

  • Difficulty paying attention or frequently daydreaming
  • Trouble listening, even when spoken to directly
  • Distraction from schoolwork or play
  • Making careless mistakes without concern for details
  • Trouble following instructions or finishing tasks
  • Disorganization; frequently losing important things
  • Forgetfulness
  • Avoiding things that require mental effort

Children who are hyperactive may show these behaviors:

  • Constantly in motion or active
  • Difficulty staying seated
  • Squirming and fidgeting
  • Talking excessively
  • Climbing, running or jumping when it isn’t permitted
  • Trouble playing quietly
  • Difficulty settling down to sleep

These behaviors may be symptoms of impulsivity:

  • Acting or speaking without thinking first
  • Running into streets without checking for traffic first
  • Difficulty taking turns
  • Being impatient frequently
  • Calling out answers before questions are complete
  • Often interrupting others

Diagnosing & Treating ADHD in Children

Although ADHD begins in childhood, it often continues into adulthood. But the condition is manageable with help from Mercy’s pediatricians and pediatric behavioral health providers. Mercy’s pediatricians and behavioral health experts can diagnose your child and develop an ADHD treatment plan.

How to Diagnose a Child with ADHD

Diagnosing ADHD in children requires expertise since its symptoms are similar to normal behaviors in young kids as well as the commonality of one more condition being present. It’s common for children with ADHD to have other problems like oppositional defiance, learning disabilities, anxiety and depression. 

Child ADHD Test

While there’s no single test to diagnose ADHD in children, Mercy providers evaluate kids in multiple ways. Their overall health is assessed, including screenings for medical issues like vision, hearing, sleep or other problems that can affect behavior.

The American Academy of Pediatrics also recommends gathering information about children’s behavior from parents, teachers or others with whom they spend time in different settings like home, school, sports or other activities. Guidelines are used to identify patterns of inattention, impulsivity and hyperactivity in children. ADHD is diagnosed only when symptoms are severe enough to cause ongoing problems in more than one area of your child’s life.

How to Treat a Child with ADHD

With treatment, many children with ADHD are successful in school and other areas of their lives. Mercy’s behavioral health specialists can show you how to help your child make positive changes. While there’s no cure, many treatment options are available for ADHD in children.

Finding the right medication, dosage and schedule for your child may take time. Some medications may be more effective than others at improving your child’s symptoms. Types of pediatric ADHD medication include:

  • Stimulants – These drugs increase both dopamine and norepinephrine, brain chemicals associated with attention, behavior and emotion (examples: Adderall and Ritalin).

  • Non-stimulants – non-stimulant medications for pediatric ADHD include:
    • Atomoxetine, a drug that boosts levels of the brain chemical norepinephrine (example: Strattera)
    • The blood pressure medications clonidine and guanfacine, which treat hyperactivity and impulsivity (examples: Kapvay and Intuniv)
  • Antidepressants – Several types of antidepressants may be considered, and they’re especially helpful for kids who have ADHD along with depression, anxiety or other mood disorders.


Your Mercy provider will start with a mild dose, monitor for side effects and adjust as needed. Medication may be used alone or in combination with other therapies to treat children with ADHD. Talk with your provider about the benefits and risks of medication for child ADHD.

Therapy can be effective in helping your child manage ADHD symptoms such as impulsivity, inattention, distractibility and disorganization.

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) – CBT is the most common and helpful therapy for kids with ADHD. It’s a short-term, goal-oriented form of psychotherapy that gives kids behavioral modification tools to use at home and school.

  • Behavioral therapy – Also known as behavior modification therapy, this type of therapy uses praise and rewards to encourage desired behaviors, while problem behaviors have negative consequences. 

Kids with ADHD face extra challenges in school. Learning requires concentration, comprehension, behavior control and other skills that don’t come easily to children with ADHD. And learning disabilities are also common in kids with ADHD. Schools work with many children to minimize the effects of ADHD on learning. Common techniques used in the classroom include: 

  • Seating the child near the teacher
  • Maintaining a set schedule
  • Rewarding positive behaviors and having consequences for negative ones
  • Giving the child’s parents regular behavior reports
  • Supervising the child closely to keep them on task
  • Making assignments shorter or breaking them into section
  • Forming small groups for activities
  • Encouraging students to pause before answering questions
  • Changing how tests are taken, such as providing a less-distracting environment or allowing extra time


Federal laws require public schools to evaluate your child’s educational needs and provide services based on the evaluation. Make the school aware your child has ADHD (and any other learning problems), and ask about next steps for meeting your child’s educational needs.

While not all ADHD treatments are available in all locations, your Mercy doctor can help you locate resources and provide a treatment plan for your child.

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