What is ADHD? Does my child have it?

ADHD stands for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.  It is a very common diagnosis in childhood and is identified through a list of behaviours clustered together under the headings of inattention or hyperactivity/impulsivity. Examples of inattention are being easily distracted, forgetful, frequently losing things, or showing an inability to complete tasks which require continued mental effort.  Some signs of hyperactivity are consistent fidgeting, squirming, an inability to stay seated or difficulty playing quietly. Impulsivity can be seen in a child who consistently blurts out an answer before the question has been asked, completes others’ sentences or interrupts or uses somebody else’s things without asking.

But wait, you might say, aren’t these just typical child behaviours?  Well yes, to some extent they are.  That’s why it’s important to consider the age of the child. In preschool, we know that self-regulation is limited, so for example, we might not expect a child to sit still for long periods of time or complete extended tasks.  However, in primary school, children are increasingly asked to work independently, without disturbing others. At the ages of seven, eight and nine, the majority of children are required and able to do this.  If a child is consistently struggling to focus attention, is very easily distracted and/or finds it difficult to sit still,  it is very unlikely she is going to be able to produce her best work. If a parent or carer decides to seek help with a possible diagnosis in mind, a clinician will refer to a standardised set of criteria, often the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.  Here, the clinician will assess whether the child is demonstrating at least six of the DSM 5 listed inattentive behaviours (for a diagnosis of predominantly inattentive ADHD) or six of the hyperactivity/impulsivity behaviours (for a diagnosis of the predominantly hyperactive/impulsive ADHD).  It’s also possible that the child may show both of these (combined presentation ADHD). To fulfil the criteria for the ADHD classification, the behaviours will have been present before the age of 12 and the child will be having difficulties both at home and school.  You can see the full set of criteria here.

So, it’s likely that many parents will recognise symptoms of inattention, hyperactivity and impulsivity in their own children. But how do we know when seeing a professional and discussing a potential diagnosis might be useful?  The main question is in regards to whether or not a child’s inattention, hyperactivity or impulsivity is creating significant difficulties.  This might be in  regards to the child’s ability to achieve in school or to form successful family relationships or friendships.  Where a child is falling significantly outside of the behaviours and abilities of her peers, it may be helpful to talk to a professional in regards to therapeutic, parenting and educational approaches which could help. If nothing more, talking to others enhances our knowledge and perspective, which can only have a positive effect on our ability to support our child.


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