One of the most prevalent neuro-developmental disorders of childhood, attention deficit hyperactive disorder presents in a number of different ways. Many ADHD symptoms in kids, in fact, are simply amplifications of normal childhood behaviour – but go beyond the typical too-much-sugar-before-bedtime fireworks, as we will discuss below.

However there are also symptoms in children that appear to run completely counter to the typical, hyperactive expectations of the condition: hyper-focus on certain activities, deep daydreaming, and exceptional creativity.

Whether your child presents with ADHD in the conventional way or exhibits lesser known symptoms, it is important to understand what the condition is, how it might manifest itself, and – above all – how you can support your child to minimize any negative effects. In fact, with the right approach, ADHD in children does not have to get in the way of a happy childhood; with proper support, parts of ADHD can actually become a superpower, helping your child live up to their fullest potential.

What is ADHD?

Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder is a chronic neurological condition, which means that many children will continue to have ADHD into adolescence and adulthood. There is no clear understanding of the cause, although scientists believe there are a combination of genetic factors and environmental triggers that result in ADHD.

Many of the signs of ADD in children are similar to the behaviour of neuro-typical children: excessive movement, trouble controlling emotions, interrupting others, playing loudly, losing focus and not completing tasks. However, in kids with ADHD, these behaviours go beyond what is typically expected for a child their age – and often gets in the way with everyday life.

(For example, a kid with ADHD might constantly interrupt their best friend, provoking fights with them and straining the friendship – whereas a neuro-typical friend would learn from the first fight and modify their behaviour accordingly.) Kids with ADHD are not ‘acting out’ on purpose; it’s how their brain is wired. As their caregivers, you can learn more about ADHD to be able to support them as they learn to deal with the negative impacts of their symptoms.

What does ADHD Look Like in Kids

ADHD is a complex condition that can manifest in three different ways. However, just because a child exhibits one type of ADHD does not mean they always will. As symptoms change over time, so too can the type of ADHD they present.

ADHD in Children

Three Types of ADHD in Children

  • Predominantly Inattentive Type: Children with this type of ADHD (which used to be called ADD – attention deficit disorder) will have challenges with task completion. They may struggle with organization, following instructions or listening to conversations. These children will not be detail-oriented but instead, big-picture thinkers (a positive quality they should be encouraged to develop). Daily routines might be difficult for these kids.
  • Predominantly Hyperactive-Impulsive Type: Children with this type of ADHD are in perpetual motion, beyond what is typical. They love to run and climb, while sitting still presents a real struggle for them. They may have trouble letting other people finish their sentence, waiting their turn or following instructions. In addition to the social strain that this may cause them, hyperactive-impulsive children may be more likely to injure themselves physically.
  • Combined Presentation: In this type of ADHD (the most prevalent of the three), symptoms of the above two types are equally present in the child.

Read in detail about identifying the types of ADHD

 Positive Aspects of ADHD in Kids

If you’re looking into support around ADHD, it’s likely that it’s because some of the behaviours have been less than ideal for your child – if not downright problematic. However, kids with ADHD also exhibit many positive traits which, when fostered supportively, can become their “superpower.” These traits include exceptional creativity, ability to deeply focus on areas of interest, and big-picture thinking.

How to Get a Diagnosis

The process of diagnosing ADHD varies widely according to where you live and whether you will be accessing public or private medical services.  However, a few general guidelines hold.

ADHD diagnoses can be given to children five and older. In children younger than five, it is generally too difficult to separate out typical and atypical behaviour, since hyperactivity, impulsivity and inattentiveness are part of the preschooler profile. Children change so quickly during the first five years, that it is generally recommended to monitor the situation but not give a formal diagnosis prior to kindergarten.

In order to get a diagnosis, your child needs to have shown six or more symptoms of inattention/hyperactivity on a regular basis for more than six months in at least two settings (for example, at school and at home).

Typically a family physician can determine whether your child has ADHD, using standard guidelines developed by the American Academy of Pediatrics. However, in order to get formal accommodations for schools, you might have to present other documentation, so it is best to consult your district to find out their requirements.

Testing includes a physical exam, a medical history, psychological assessments and potentially a noninvasive brain scan.

Once you have a diagnosis, you need to develop a treatment plan alongside trusted professionals, including your family physician, therapist and school district. There are medical and behavioural ways to treat ADHD, each of which have their own benefits and drawbacks. The two approaches may be used in combination and, as your child responds (or fails to respond) to various options, you may find yourself tweaking the different ingredients over time. As long as you have a trusted, collaborative team, you can feel confident that your efforts will lead to a solution that works for your family.

What Kind of Treatment is Best for ADHD?

Medical Treatment

After consulting with your doctor, you may decide to try pharmaceutical interventions for your child. One typical class of drugs used for ADHD treatment is known as psycho-stimulants. These medicines, including Adderall, are used to help children focus more effectively. We have explained our process of treating ADHD at shift.

One of the challenges of developing an ADHD treatment plan is determining the timing of when to take it during the day. Because ADHD medicines are available in short-, intermediate-, and long-acting forms, your doctor may have to try different schedules before you figure out the best one. The occasional – and mild – side effects of ADHD drugs tend to happen early in treatment.

Behavioral Treatment

Whether used in concert with medication or on its own, behavioural treatment can go a long way in mitigating ADHD symptoms in children. Different from talk therapy, counselling for ADHD should be geared towards teaching kids about how their brain functions – in terms of how it manifests itself in their daily life. Then, they can learn strategies to help avoid situations that set them off (when possible) and how to better handle challenging situations when they inevitably arise.

Behavioural treatment works best when there are open lines of communication between the therapist, parents and teachers, so that all three groups can collaborate on brainstorming practical solutions.

The therapist might recommend the child be allowed to take extra breaks in school, sit on special furniture that allows for more natural movement, or wear ‘fidget jewelry’ that enables the child to vent their energy in a non-disruptive way. Bringing the teacher into the conversation ensures that the solutions can be integrated into the classroom in the most supportive way possible.

Familial Support

With so much focus on your child, don’t forget to take a step back and consider how the process of obtaining and managing the diagnosis impacts you as parents – as well as any other siblings.

As a parent of a child with ADHD, you may benefit from counselling – and not just to help you with any parenting techniques that might support your child. You may benefit from having a space to address any emotions that arise from the diagnosis and to strategize how to handle the related stress. A regular plan for self-care – whether it’s spending time in nature, getting regular exercise, treating yourself to a coffee or taking an evening off – will make you all the more resilient when every day stressors hit you. A proactive approach to stress means you’re more able to avoid burnout, which can be much more challenging to recover from.

If you have other children, check in with them about how they’re feeling. Schedule one-on-one time with them when possible, to do an activity that’s special to them. Even if they appear to be coping, they likely feel the shift of attention away from them and towards their sibling, so little signs that show you see them can go a long way in mitigating any negative feelings they might be harbouring.

When a child gets an ADHD diagnosis, it can feel like a tide-changing moment in a family – and it undoubtedly is. However, it also can be an opportunity to bring the family together to think about one another’s values and how to support them. In other words, there can be a silver lining to the experience that far outlasts whatever initial shadow the diagnosis casts.