ADHD in children

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) affects around 1 in 20 children. Read on for information on the symptoms, diagnosis and treatment.

ADHD in children

Despite its name, Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) does not cause a deficit in attention. Instead it causes inconsistent attention. 

It is important to understand that ADHD is not a behavioural disorder, nor a mental illness, nor a learning disability, rather it is a complex neurodevelopmental disorder which impacts the brains executive functioning, including focus, memory and regulating emotions. This can impact a child’s learning ability and behaviours.

Jump to section: What causes ADHD | Symptoms of ADHD | Diagnosing ADHD | Managing ADHD | Where to get help

In a nutshell – ADHD is a neurological difference which impacts a person’s ability to self-regulate their thoughts, words, actions, emotions and perceive or manage time. As a result, people with ADHD have a different way of thinking which comes with its own challenges and advantages.  Positive traits that are often associated with children with ADHD include their creativity, imagination, inventiveness and their ability to think outside the box. 

On the other hand, children with ADHD may experience inattention, impulsive behaviour and hyperactivity that can cause difficulty with learning, relationships and self-esteem. Despite the challenges children with ADHD can face, with the right support and a focus on a child’s strengths, they can grow and thrive.  Great examples are the champion gymnast Simone Biles and swimmer Michael Phelps.

Though ADHD is common, it’s important to note that not every child that shows these symptoms has ADHD. We’ll explain how ADHD is diagnosed, provide a closer look at the signs and symptoms of ADHD, and provide information on how it can be managed. 

What causes ADHD?

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder affects around one in 20 children in Australia. ADHD affects both males and females of all IQ levels, from all socio-economic and cultural backgrounds. As a neurodevelopmental disorder, it’s still unknown what causes ADHD, but the leading theory is that there are a combination of factors, including genetics. 

It’s important to point out that all children can be prone to impulsive behaviour and limited attention span, but not all children have ADHD. If a child has been diagnosed with ADHD, it’s important to recognise that this doesn’t define who they are, or what they can achieve. With a focus on the child’s strengths, proper support and evidence-based treatment, they can learn to manage their condition and go on to lead productive fulfilling lives.

Types of ADHD

Symptoms of predominantly inattentive ADHD

Children with inattentive ADHD may display the following symptoms on a regular basis:

  • not give close attention to details, or make seemingly careless mistakes in school work or other activities 
  • have difficulty sustaining attention in tasks or play activities 
  • not seem to listen when spoken to directly 
  • not follow through on instructions  
  • not finish school work, chores or other duties (but not because they are being wilful or do not understand instructions) 
  • have difficulty organising tasks and activities 
  • avoid, dislike or be unwilling to do tasks that need continuing mental effort (such as school work or homework) 
  • lose things needed for tasks or activities (such as toys, school assignments, pencils, books or tools) 
  • be easily distracted 
  • be forgetful in daily activities.

A child with six or more of these symptoms of inattention for at least six months may be diagnosed with the inattention aspect of ADHD. 

Symptoms of predominantly hyperactive-impulsive ADHD

Children with hyperactive-impulsive ADHD may display the following symptoms on a regular basis:

  • fidget with their hands or feet or squirm in their seat 
  • leave their seat in the classroom or in other situations in which remaining seated is expected 
  • run about or climb excessively in inappropriate situations 
  • have difficulty playing or taking part in leisure activities quietly 
  • be ‘on the go’ or act as if ‘driven by a motor’ 
  • talk more than average.

A child with symptoms of impulsivity may often: 

  • answer before questions have been completed 
  • have difficulty waiting in turn 
  • interrupt or intrude on others (for example, interrupting conversations or games).

A child with six or more of these symptoms for at least six months may be diagnosed with the hyperactivity-impulsive aspect of ADHD. 

Symptoms of combined ADHD

A child who displays six or more symptoms from both the inattentive and hyperactive-impulsive criteria for at least 6 months on a regular basis may be diagnosed with combined type ADHD. 

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Diagnosing ADHD

ADHD requires professional diagnosis. If you believe your child may have ADHD, please see your GP. They may carry out an initial assessment and then provide the necessary referral to see a specialist, such as a paediatrician or child psychologist.

There are no specific tests to diagnose for ADHD, so the assessment is made using a wide range of information provided by the child’s carers and school. Assessment can also include any history of the child’s behaviours, illnesses or traumas, and family relationships.

In Australia, ADHD assessments follow the criteria outlined by the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5). Assessment criteria include:

  • Symptoms must have persisted for at least 6 months to a degree that is inconsistent with the development levels of the individual.
  • There is clear evidence that symptoms interfere with, or reduce the quality of social, academic or occupational functioning.
  • Symptoms must be present before the age of 12.
  • Impairment of symptoms is observed across multiple settings, such as home, school or childcare. 

Managing ADHD

Positive parenting strategies 

Positive parenting strategies can involve routine building around the home and classroom, and planning out the learning environment so the child is appropriately stimulated and rewarded for positive behaviour. Some examples include:

  • Uncovering what your child’s interests and strengths are. Try to weave these things into the learning and home environment to help build their confidence and peak their interest throughout the day. For example, reading them books that relate to their interests and passions. 
  • Understand your child’s unique challenges. Try to empathise with them and uncover whether there are any small changes that can help them, especially within the school environment.
  • Provide regular praise. Remember that everyday tasks might be hard for someone with ADHD. What is usually deemed a ‘small thing’ might be a big thing to them. Providing positive re-enforcement will go a long way.  
  • Create a deep understanding of your child’s ADHD. This will help you recognise when your child’s behaviour is a physiological response and outside of their control and help to prevent maladaptive parenting responses. 
  • Build consistent routines at home and school. Consider using whiteboards to document key tasks, events and routines as visual prompts can help your child stick to their task. 
  • Ensure constructive language is used when discussing ADHD. There are many negative stigmas associated with the condition so focusing on a strength-based approach can help with self-esteem. 
  • If there is any undesirable behaviour, it’s important to address it, but it may be best to set a time to discuss it once you are both calm. 

A referral to a psychologist or psychiatrist can also be an option, based on your GP’s recommendation.  As is counselling for the child or the family.

Medication for ADHD

Sometimes medication is required to help manage the symptoms of ADHD and is generally prescribed by paediatricians, child psychiatrists or neurologists.

Stimulant medication has been the standard medication treatment for children with ADHD since the 1970s. Acting on the parts of the brain involved in controlling attention and arousal, these medications help to improve concentration, impulse control and hyperactivity in about 80 per cent of children with ADHD. It’s important to understand that whilst medications can help reduce symptoms and normalise behaviours, it is not permanent. It lasts only so long as the medication is active. 

There are some side effects with stimulant medications, such as decreased appetite, and to a lesser extent stomach aches, dizziness or headaches, and trouble falling asleep. Some children may experience no side effects at all. As always, it’s important to be aware of any side effects, and that prescribed medication is regularly monitored by a treating doctor.

Where to get help

The best place to start is by speaking to your GP. They will be able to assess your individual situation and recommend the best next steps for your child.

Our team of mental health professionals are here to support you on our 24/7 Mental Health Phone Support line. It’s available to Medibank members with hospital cover 24 hours a day, 7 days a week on 1800 644 325~.

There’s no doubt that raising a child with ADHD can be challenging and stressful at times. But when surrounded by care, understanding, patience, and appropriate evidence-based support, a child with ADHD can thrive at school and at home.




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Further reading

Anxiety in children

Fearful and anxious behaviour is common in children, but when do they need extra support? Find out what to look for, and what you can do to help your child.

Depression in children

Discover what to look out for, what you can do and where to get help for children with depression.

Caring for your child's mental health

Caring for your child's mental health

How to foster health mental health as your child grows up, and early warning signs to look out for. 

Supporting mental health through early childhood

Promoting healthy habits from a young age can help set your child up for life. 

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While we hope you find this information helpful, please note that it is general in nature. It is not health advice, and is not tailored to meet your individual health needs. You should always consult a trusted health professional before making decisions about your health care. While we have prepared the information carefully, we can’t guarantee that it is accurate, complete or up-to-date. And while we may mention goods or services provided by others, we aren’t specifically endorsing them and can’t accept responsibility for them. For these reasons we are unable to accept responsibility for any loss that may be sustained from acting on this information (subject to applicable consumer guarantees).