A person with untreated attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) has difficulty maintaining attention, managing energy levels, and controlling impulses.

In the United States, around 8.4% of children and 2.5% of adults have ADHD. In some children, ADHD characteristics begin as early as 3 years of age.

Ways of treating ADHD include medication, behavioral management techniques, and other practical strategies.

Below, we explore what ADHD is, how it affects a person, and which treatments can help.

Find tips for managing ADHD during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Share on Pinterest
Image credit: Catherine Delahaye/Getty Images

People with ADHD have difficulty focusing on tasks and controlling their attention, which can make completing a project, for example, challenging. ADHD can limit a person’s ability to study or work, and it can lead to stress, anxiety, and depression.

Some people with ADHD also find it hard to sit still. They may be quick to act on impulse and become easily distracted.

While children of any age can experience distraction and impulsiveness, these traits are more noticeable in those with ADHD.

ADHD may develop in one of three ways. A doctor may find that the disorder has:

  • a predominantly hyperactive and impulsive presentation
  • a predominantly inattentive presentation
  • a combined presentation

People with ADHD experience hyperactivity, impulsivity, and inattention in varying degrees.

Inattention

Below are some behaviors related to inattention that a person might notice in someone with ADHD:

  • daydreaming
  • becoming distracted and having difficulty focusing on tasks
  • making “careless” mistakes
  • appearing to not listen while others are talking
  • having difficulty with time management and organization
  • frequently losing everyday items
  • avoiding tasks that need prolonged focus and thought
  • having difficulty following instructions

Learn more about inattention and ADHD.

Hyperactivity and impulsivity

Some or all of the following may be apparent in someone with ADHD:

  • seeming constantly “on-the-go” and unable to sit still
  • running or climbing at inappropriate times
  • having difficulty taking turns in conversations and activities
  • fidgeting or tapping the hands or feet
  • talking and making noises excessively
  • taking unnecessary risks

In adults

Adults and children tend to experience the same symptoms of ADHD, and these can create difficulties in relationships and at work.

The effects of these features vary widely from person to person, and a person may find that their experience of ADHD changes over time.

Not everyone with ADHD is noisy and disruptive. A child may be quiet in class, for example, while facing severe challenges that they do not express.

Learn more about ADHD in adults.

In females

Females with ADHD may be more likely to have difficulty paying attention, while males may be more likely to experience hyperactivity and impulsivity.

This may be one reason why more males than females receive diagnoses of ADHD. Hyperactivity can be easier to spot than inattention.

Learn more about how ADHD may affect females here.

Most children with ADHD receive a diagnosis while they are in elementary school, but some may not do so until adolescence or adulthood.

No single test can identify ADHD, and the symptoms can overlap with those of other conditions. This can make it difficult to diagnose.

A doctor will conduct examinations to rule out other potential causes, such as hearing or vision problems.

Other conditions that can lead to similar behaviors include:

A doctor will often ask questions to learn more about the person’s behavioral patterns. They may speak with the individual, members of their family, and any other caregivers, such as teachers.

Many children experience hyperactivity and inattention. For a diagnosis of ADHD, the symptoms must meet specific criteria, including having a significant impact on daily life and schoolwork.

Getting a correct diagnosis of ADHD can take time. Find out why.

A range of approaches can help a person manage ADHD. A doctor should work with the individual to develop a treatment plan that suits them best.

The plan may include:

Behavioral therapy and counseling

A therapist or counselor can help a person develop or enhance a wide range of skills, such as:

  • building and maintaining relationships
  • establishing and following rules
  • planning and completing tasks
  • developing and following a schedule
  • monitoring ADHD symptoms

Therapists can also help parents develop constructive ways to respond to the behaviors that can result from ADHD.

A person with ADHD may specifically benefit from:

  • stress management
  • classroom behavior management techniques
  • cognitive behavioral therapy
  • family therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy, commonly called CBT, aims to help a person find new ways to approach and react to everyday situations.

Tips for supporting children

Parents, teachers, and other caregivers can help children navigate the challenges of ADHD.

Schools often have educational plans for children with ADHD, including specific teaching approaches, classroom accommodations, and school-based counseling.

At home and at school, the following strategies can help:

  • having a written schedule of all tasks
  • breaking down larger tasks into smaller, more manageable ones
  • keeping school items and toys organized
  • establishing clear and consistent rules
  • rewarding or praising the child when they accomplish tasks
  • using a planner that teachers and caregivers check regularly

Also, encourage children to engage in activities that they enjoy and do well in to boost their self-esteem. Sports and other forms of exercise can provide outlets for high energy levels and enhance the child’s overall well-being.

Tips for adults

Reminder notes and alarms, calendars, and planners can help adults with ADHD manage their schedules.

It is also a good idea to keep keys and other important everyday items in specific spots.

Can dietary choices make a difference? Find out here.

Medications

Medications, such as stimulants, can help improve attention and focus. Here are some examples:

  • amphetamine/dextroamphetamine (Adderall)
  • lisdexamfetamine (Vyvanse)
  • methylphenidate (Ritalin)
  • dexamphetamine (Dexedrine)

However, they can have adverse effects, such as:

  • abdominal pain
  • headaches
  • raised blood pressure and heart rate
  • increased anxiety and irritability
  • sleep problems
  • reduced appetite
  • personality changes

To avoid side effects, let the doctor know about any ongoing medications and health issues.

If stimulants are ineffective or unsuitable, a doctor may prescribe nonstimulant medications, such as:

  • guanfacine (Intuniv)
  • atomoxetine (Strattera)
  • clonidine (Catapres)

For some people, a doctor may prescribe one of the above alongside a stimulant.

Find more detailed information about medications for ADHD.

Doctors do not know what causes ADHD, but they have identified some risk factors, including:

ADHD is a mental health condition that can create challenges to a person’s work, study, and home life. It usually appears during childhood.

A person does not “grow out of” ADHD, but learning management strategies can help them enjoy a full life.

Without treatment, which may include medication, a person may experience low self-esteem, depression, and problems with school, work, and relationships.

Anyone who believes that a child may have ADHD should seek medical advice.

Counselors, teachers, and other members of a child’s support network can help the child manage their symptoms and maximize their opportunities.