What is Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)?
ADHD is one of the most common mental disorders in children and youth. It affects the way people act and interact with the world around them. Children and youth with ADHD usually have some combination of challenges with:
- paying attention
- being restless
- acting before thinking
When does ADHD first appear?
ADHD causes a lot of problems in young children, but is usually only diagnosed after they start school. Until then children usually aren’t expected to concentrate or sit still for long.
It is becoming more common for older youth and adults to be diagnosed with ADHD, but they must have shown signs when they were younger. Some children cope with symptoms, but as they get older and school or work becomes harder, their symptoms become worse. If an older youth suddenly begins to experience symptoms that look like ADHD, there is likely something else going on that you may want to talk to your health care professional about.
What causes ADHD?
The cause of ADHD is not fully understood, but changes in brain chemicals and brain structures are found in people with ADHD. It also seems to run in families, so ADHD may be affected by certain genes. The environment may also play a role. For example, ADHD is seen more often in children of women who smoked cigarettes while pregnant.
How do I know if my child has ADHD?
There are two groups of ADHD symptoms. Most children and youth living with ADHD have some symptoms from all groups.
1. A child or youth with inattention symptoms finds it hard to focus or pay attention and may:
- have a hard time staying focused on tasks or play
- seem easily distracted unless doing something fun
- make many careless mistakes at school
- appear to not be listening when spoken to
- have a hard time following directions and instructions
- lose things like toys, homework, or articles of clothing
- have difficulty organizing things
- dislike tasks where they have to be focused for a longer time
- be forgetful
2. A child or youth with hyperactivity symptoms may:
- have problems sitting still
- look very restless or fidget often
- have a hard time playing quietly
- climb and run even if they can get in trouble for it
- seem to be always “on the go”
- talk too much
- blurt out answers before you finish a question
- interrupt in conversations
- have a hard time waiting for their turn
It’s normal to be distracted, restless or disorganized at times. Some children and youth have more energy or a slightly shorter attention span than others.
The difference between typical behaviour and ADHD is that ADHD symptoms:
- happen often and last for a long time — at least six months
- happen in different places — for example, at home and at school
- cause a lot of problems, such as —learning problems, difficulty completing day-to-day activities and problems in relationships
- may cause a lot of distress
How common is ADHD?
ADHD affects about 5% of school-age children. It generally affects boys more than girls, especially the hyperactivity type of ADHD.
What can go along with ADHD or look like ADHD?
Other problems can look like ADHD, or happen at the same time including:
A skilled mental health professional can work with a child or youth to figure out whether the child has ADHD or whether something else is going on for them.
What can be done?
If a child or youth you know is diagnosed with ADHD, it’s important to learn about the disorder. It will help you to understand their behaviour and that ADHD is a problem that can be overcome.
Treatment for ADHD usually includes some combination of:
1. Behaviour skills training helps children learn:
- good behaviours
- how to work better with others
- how to make choices that will help them reach their goals
2. Collaborative Problem Solving (CPS) teaches families how to work together to find solutions that pay attention to everyone’s concerns.
3. Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT) children and youth living with ADHD may easily feel frustrated or angry. They may act out when they don’t know what to do with their troubling thoughts, feelings or behaviours. CBT can help them understand the thoughts behind their urges and how to deal with them before they become a problem.
4. Parenting skills training helps parents learn how to:
- cope with ADHD symptoms
- guide their child
- predict problem situations
- solve problems
- enforce rules
- give helpful feedback to their child
5. Family counselling helps all family members learn to cope with disruptive behaviour and encourage positive behaviour.
Changes at home
Here are a few things that may help children cope with troubling symptoms:
- keep to the same schedule and routine every day including a regular bedtime
- use lists, charts, schedules or notes to help children remember important tasks or information
- include children in managing their health - even a young child can tell you what’s helping
- regularly spend time doing things they are good at and enjoy
- celebrate all successes, big or small!
Changes at school
Parents and schools can work together to help a child or youth cope with troubling symptoms. Here are some changes that may help:
- move the child’s desk to a quieter, less distracting area
- use checklists and schedules to keep on-track
- make an Individual Education Plan (IEP) for them if it is necessary. An Individual Education Plan can help to:
- provide different kinds of learning materials
- set different learning goals
There are two different types of ADHD medication:
- Stimulant medication. These medications activate areas of the brain that control attention and body movements. This helps improve symptoms of ADHD. Stimulant medications are very safe and effective for children who have been properly tested and diagnosed with ADHD.
- Non-stimulant medication. If they can’t take stimulant medication, children and youth may be prescribed other types of medications, such as antidepressants. The kind of medication will depend on the type of ADHD and other medical or mental health problems.
Medication can help but it may not solve all the behaviour or social skills difficulties. That’s why it’s important to include education, counselling and skills training in the treatment plan.
To learn more about different ADHD medications, click here.
Tips for healthy living activities that may help children cope with ADHD:
- regular physical activity to help restlessness
- good sleep habits:
- limit TV, video games and computer time before bedtime
- try relaxing activities: quiet music, reading
- same bedtime every night, even on weekends, holidays and vacations
- a comfortable bedroom: dark, quiet and not too warm or cool
- a healthy diet – Canada’s Food Guide has information on healthy eating in different languages.
** In the past, people thought that ADHD might be linked to food products and food allergies. But there is no clear evidence to show that ADHD or hyperactivity are caused by what we eat. Very strict diets that claim to “cure” ADHD can cause a lot of harm because children may not get the nutrients they need to grow. Many studies show that sugar does not cause hyperactivity. Researchers think sugar may be linked to hyperactivity because parents expect their children to be hyperactive after eating sugar. For more information on healthy eating, talk to a dietitian. Registered dietitians are available to answer your healthy eating and nutrition questions over the phone through HealthLinkBC by dialing: 811
- social activities to improve social skills and boost self-esteem like sports, dance, or community volunteer work.
- other treatments like yoga and massage therapy to help children and youth relax and concentrate.
- social support such as a support group for parents and children living with ADHD to share information, learn new things, find help and stay connected with others.
- For additional healthy living tips and strategies, check out our Healthy Living Toolkit for Families
Talk to your doctor and look for help from a mental health professional by:
- self-referring or getting a referral to the local Child and Youth Mental Health team
- contacting your Employee Assistance Plan (EAP), if you have this option
- contacting a private psychologist or counsellor:
For additional information about options for support and treatment in BC, visit the Finding Help section of our site.
Below you will find some key resources. A full list of resources are on the right hand side bar.
A list of the top websites, books, videos, toolkits and support services.
This information booklet developed by BC Children's Hospital provides information for families on what ADHD is, the symptoms, assessment and diagnosis process, medications, parenting, school and homework, and more.