ADHD Symptoms in Children

May 24, 2011

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADD/ADHD):

Symptoms in ChildrenADD/ADHD attention deficit hyperactivity disorder is a treatable, but not curable, complex disorder that appears in childhood. ADHD is considered to be a mental health disorder as classified by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition, Text Revised (DSM-IV-TR)[1]. In 1994 the disorder was changed from ADD to ADHD. ADHD symptoms in children can be difficult to diagnose and can be easily confused with other disorders. The main ADHD symptoms include: inattention, hyperactive and impulsive behavior.

Who has ADHD?

ADHD affects approximately 4 to 6 percent of the school age population. On average, at least one child in every classroom in the U.S. has ADHD. Also, two to three times more boys than girls are affected by this disorder. ADHD often continues into adolescence and adulthood, requiring lifelong physical and emotional adjustments.

ADHD Symptoms

ADHD symptoms typically appear before the age of seven. In some children, ADHD symptoms can be noticeable as early as infancy. However, at any age, it can often be difficult to distinguish between attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and normal “kid” behavior. 

At one time or another, most healthy children are inattentive, hyperactive or impulsive. For example, parents may worry that their 3-year-old who can’t sit still during story time may have ADHD. But most preschoolers normally have a short attention span and cannot stick with one activity for too long. Even in older children and adolescents, attention span can often depend on the level of interest. We all know teens that can listen to music or talk to their friends for hours, but are a lot less focused when it comes to doing their homework or chores.

The same is true of hyperactivity. Young children are naturally energetic, often wearing their parents out long before they’re even tired. Children may become even more active when tired, hungry, anxious or in a new environment. Also, some children are just naturally more active than others. While some of these behaviors are normal, severity and consistency in any of these types of behaviors may indicate that your child has ADHD.

It important to note that children who have problems in school but get along well at home or with friends are not considered as having ADHD. The same is true of children who are hyperactive or inattentive only at home, but whose schoolwork and friendships aren’t affected by their behavior.

Main Symptoms of ADD/ADHD

The main symptoms of ADHD in children are serious and consistent difficulties in the following three areas:

  • inattentiveness or “distractibility” – poor attention span
  • impulsivity – weak impulse control and delay of gratification
  • hyperactivity – excessive activity or restlessness (but, not in all cases). Up to 30 percent of children with ADHD are not hyperactive at all, but still have trouble focusing.[2]

Many children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder are naturally inclined to fall into one category more than the other. However, most children with ADHD have some combination of both inattention and hyperactive-impulsive behavior.

Inattentive symptoms of ADHD

Children who only show inattentive symptoms of ADHD are often overlooked since they are not disruptive. However, inattentive sypmtoms have consequences of their own. A child may get into trouble with parents and teachers for not following directions; underperforming in school; or fighting with other kids over not playing by the rules. Here is a checklist for discovering inattentive symptoms of ADHD in your child:

  • Gets  easily distracted, misses details, forgets things, and frequently switches from one activity to another
  • Has difficulty focusing on one thing
  • Becomes quickly bored with a task, unless doing something enjoyable
  • Has difficulty focusing attention on organizing and completing a task or learning something new
  • Has trouble completing or turning in homework assignments, often losing things (e.g. pencils, toys, assignments) needed to complete tasks or activities
  • Does not seem to listen when spoken to
  • Daydreams, becomes easily confused, and moves slowly
  • Has difficulty processing information as quickly and accurately as others
  • Struggles to follow instructions.

Hyperactive/Impulsive symptoms of ADHD

The more obvious symptoms of ADHD in children are hyperactive and impulsivity. These are the kids that are always on the go, bouncing from one task to the other but never completing any of them. Even when forced to sit still – which can be very difficult for them – their foot is tapping, their leg is shaking, or their fingers are drumming. These children often find it difficult to pay close attention to what is going on at school, often getting into trouble. It is more challenging for them to organize their schoolwork and their time than it is for most children. Children with symptoms of ADHD also have trouble concentrating on one thing if there are other things going on around them; they usually need a calm, quiet environment in order to sustain attention.

Here is a checklist for discovering hyperactive symptoms of ADHD in your child:

  • Fidgets and squirm in their seats
  • Talks nonstop
  • Dashes around, touching or playing with anything and everything in sight
  • Has trouble sitting still during dinner, school, and story time
  • Is  constantly in motion
  • Has difficulty doing quiet tasks or activities.

Here is a checklist for discovering impulsive symptoms of ADHD in your child:

  • Is very impatient
  • Blurts out inappropriate comments, shows their emotions without restraint, and acts without regard for consequences
  • Has difficulty waiting for things they want or waiting their turns in games
  • Often interrupts conversations or others’ activities.

Symptoms of ADHD in children may also be displayed as a Combined Type: having six or more symptoms of inattention and six or more symptoms of hyperactivity and impulsivity.

ADD/ADHD: Symptoms Different in Boys and Girls

It is also important to note that ADHD symptoms usually manifest themselves differently in boys and girls:

  • Boys are more likely to be hyperactive, whereas girls tend to be inattentive.
  • Girls who have trouble paying attention often daydream, but inattentive boys are more likely to fool around or fiddle aimlessly.
  • Boys tend to be less compliant with teachers and other adults, so their behavior is often more noticeable.

When to seek professional help

ADHD symptoms in children vary greatly therefore it is important to seek professional help in diagnosing the disorder.  If the signs of ADHD as described above last more than six months; occur in more than just one setting (typically at home and at school); regularly disrupt school, play and other daily activities and cause problems in relationships with adults and other children-it’s time to get help.


[1] Fowler, Mary,  ADHD What are the Signs? FamilyEducation.com

[2] Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder / Attention Deficit Disorder (ADHD/ADD) University of Maryland Medicine, May 12. 2003.