What is ADHD?
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a condition that can affect your ability to concentrate. It can also make you unusually restless and act impulsively.
ADHD symptoms start in childhood and are often more noticeable during the younger years. While symptoms usually improve in adulthood, many people still experience problems as adults. Sometimes the diagnosis is missed in childhood, and adults become more aware of their symptoms as they get older.
ADHD is divided into the following main types:
Inattentive ADHD – this type of ADHD is also known as ADD, which means ADHD without hyperactivity. This is when you have difficulty concentrating on certain things and lose focus easily. Planning, organisational skills and time management can also be major challenges.
Hyperactive and impulsive ADHD – when your ADHD is characterised by hyperactivity. You are overactive in many situations and may find it difficult to sit still or settle down. It is common to be impulsive and don’t always have time to think about the consequences. Lack of attention tends to be secondary and not much of a problem.
Combined ADHD – most people have a combination of symptoms that affect attention as well as hyperactivity and impulse control.
What causes ADHD?
It’s not understood what causes ADHD exactly, but the following factors are important:
Family history – ADHD tends to run in families
Differences in the brain – Research suggests there are several differences in the function and structure of the brain in people with ADHD
Premature birth and low birth weight
Brain damage from birth or severe head injury
What are the symptoms of ADHD?
ADHD in children
Most children start showing some of the following symptoms before the age of six:
Finding it hard to stick at tasks
Being easily distracted
Hyperactivity and impulsiveness:
Finding it hard to sit still, even when it’s quiet and calm around them
Fidgeting and moving around a lot
Talking a lot and interrupting people
Saying or doing things without thinking
ADHD in adults
Research into adult ADHD is limited, but it’s thought that around 15% of adults still experience all their symptoms after the age of 25, and 65% still experience some of them.
It’s common for adults to find their hyperactivity tendencies reduce, but their inattentiveness worsens.
Learn more about how to spot the signs of ADHD in adults.
It’s normal for children to behave impulsively or be restless or inattentive at times, but if you’re concerned that your child regularly shows these behaviours, talk to their teacher or carer to find out if they’ve noticed anything.
A GP can’t diagnose ADHD, but they can discuss your concerns and refer your child for a specialist assessment if they think it’s needed. A range of different healthcare professionals can help, including psychiatrists, paediatricians and social workers.
There’s no simple test to diagnose ADHD, but there are strict assessment criteria. To be diagnosed with ADHD, children must have six or more symptoms of inattentiveness or hyperactivity and impulsiveness.
Experts use different methods to assess your child, including physical examinations, talking to you and your child, and looking at reports from parents, teachers and doctors. They will also look at how long your child has been having ADHD symptoms and when and how they started.
ADHD diagnosis in adults
Diagnosing ADHD in adults depends on whether you had symptoms in childhood. This is because it’s not thought that ADHD develops in adulthood, so if your symptoms started recently, it’s unlikely to be ADHD.
It isn’t always easy to remember what happened in childhood. So, it can be helpful to speak to people who knew you well as a child, like a teacher or relative.
You’ll also need to show that your symptoms are having an impact on your day-to-day life as an adult. For example, if you’re having difficulties at work or with social interactions and relationships.
Usually, a combination of medication and therapy is used to treat ADHD. You may feel daunted and scared by the prospect of giving your child medication. But they’ll usually start on a low dose, which will be slowly increased if necessary, under the supervision of a specialist. If you notice any side effects, it’s essential to talk to the GP immediately.
Medication for ADHD includes:
Central nervous system (CNS) stimulants – To help increase brain activity in the parts of the brain that control concentration, attention and behaviour
Selective noradrenaline reuptake inhibitors (SNRI) – To increase a chemical in the brain that can improve concentration and help control impulses
Therapy for ADHD includes:
Behaviour therapy – Using behaviour management techniques, like planning structured activities and rewarding children with praise when they make small amounts of progress.
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) – A type of therapy that helps your child understand how their thoughts affect their behaviour and can be done individually or in a group
Parental support – Training may be recommended before or after your child is diagnosed to help you understand your child’s behaviour and develop the skills you need to help them
Other support – Psychoeducation is a therapy that helps you and your child talk about how ADHD affects your lives. Social skills training is another helpful therapy that teaches children about different social situations through role-playing
Self-care for ADHD
For many families, making some lifestyle adjustments can significantly impact the symptoms of ADHD and improve family life. Things that may help include:
Eating a healthy, balanced diet, and avoiding sugar and caffeine as much as possible, especially after mid-afternoon
Getting regular exercise – around 60 minutes each day is recommended
Limiting screen time, especially in the evening
Getting a good night’s sleep and following a regular sleeping pattern
Finding relaxation techniques, like yoga or mindfulness
Spending lots of time outdoors
Support for relatives of people with ADHD
As a family member, it is important to be aware of the challenges your child or loved one faces. If you are a parent of a child who struggles with ADHD, there is support available from your local health services.
Support groups can help you gain more knowledge and understanding on the condition. This often makes it easier to deal with practical everyday problems and helps reduce stress and unnecessary conflict.
When should I seek help?
You should seek medical advice if your child or you are experiencing symptoms of ADHD that are negatively affecting your and their daily life. These may include difficulty concentrating, impulse control or overactivity. You should also seek treatment if you have problems that lead to low self-esteem, anxiety or depression.
If you book a digital appointment for your child, the child needs to be present during the appointment.
- Reviewed by:
- Dr Rhianna McClymont, Lead GP at Livi