What is it?
Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a common brain-based disorder in children and youth. It affects the way people act and interact with the world around them.
Children and youth with ADHD have challenges with regulating their attention (having too much or too little focus).
Many children and youth with ADHD also struggle with restlessness and impulsivity (having impulsive actions, thoughts, or feelings).
When does ADHD first appear?
ADHD causes a variety of problems in young children, but is usually only diagnosed after they start school. Until then, children and youth usually aren’t expected to concentrate, wait their turn, or sit still for long.
Some children and youth cope with symptoms, but as they get older and there are higher expectations to be independent at home or school, they have more trouble meeting the demands and their symptoms become more noticeable. 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.
What causes ADHD?
The cause of ADHD is not fully understood, but research shows in most cases it is thought to have a genetic cause (it runs in families). The brain of a child with ADHD develops in a normal way, however, this development is slower than in children without ADHD. The environment may also play a role (for example, prenatal exposure to toxins or premature birth).
Diet, video game use, and parenting style do not cause ADHD.
ADHD is diagnosed in males more than females, especially for children who have higher levels of impulsivity and hyperactivity.
How do I know?
There are two groups of ADHD symptoms - inattentive symptoms and hyperactive/impulsive symptoms. Most children and youth living with ADHD have some symptoms from both groups.
1. A child or youth with inattentive symptoms may:
- have a hard time staying focused on tasks they find boring
- seem easily distracted unless doing something interesting
- make unintentional mistakes at school often
- appear to not be listening when spoken to
- have a hard time following directions and instructions
- lose or misplace things like toys, homework or articles of clothing
- have difficulty organizing their thoughts or belongings
- dislike tasks where they have to be focused for a longer time
- appear forgetful
2. A child or youth with hyperactive/impulsive symptoms may:
- have problems sitting still
- look very restless or fidget often
- have a hard time playing quietly
- climb and run a lot (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 tasks or conversations
- have a hard time waiting for their turn
It’s normal for children to be distracted, restless, impulsive, or disorganized at times. It’s also normal for there to be differences in energy levels and the ability to regulate attention across children.
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, school, extracurricular activities, play dates
- cause a lot of challenges, such as keeping up with schoolwork, difficulty completing day-to-day activities (such as morning and bedtime routines), conflict with peers, and challenges with self confidence
What can go along with ADHD?
Other conditions that can exist along with ADHD include:
- anxiety disorders
- mood disorders like depression
- specific learning disorder
- autism spectrum disorder
- developmental coordination disorder
- sensory processing difficulties
- oppositional defiant disorder
- substance use challenges
Your child might also have other conditions that look like ADHD, such as vision or hearing problems, side effects of medications, sleep disorders, or another medical or developmental condition. A mental health professional or doctor can work with your child or youth to figure out whether they have 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 learn ways to manage it.
Treatment for ADHD usually includes some combination of:
1. Learning about ADHD
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 learn ways to manage it. To learn more about ADHD, you can watch our webinar series on ADHD, including a webinar on the basics of ADHD, as well as our podcast episode on ADHD Basics for Families.
2. Skills Training
- Parenting skills training helps parents and caregivers learn how to:
- understand their child’s ADHD symptoms
- adjust expectations
- make home routines ADHD friendly
- increase validation and praise at home
- choose your battles
- give clear directions
- predict and solve problems collaboratively
- use rewards to shape behaviour and develop skills
- enforce rules and use punishment only when necessary
- Study skills training for youth and young adults involves:
- direct and hands-on teaching of study skills
- planning on how to study for a test
- planning on how to start and complete assignments
- learning to organize belongings and time
- reducing distractions when working (put phones away)
- incorporating movement or other sensory strategies/tools as needed
- building in incentives and rewards (this helps with motivation)
- monitoring the use of these strategies by a teacher or caregiver
- communicating with the teacher about the youth’s learning needs, and supporting your youth in advocating for their needs
A few resources to learn more about study skills training include the book 'Smart but Scattered' by Peg Dawson & Richard Guare, and the video 'How to Homework: Top 10 Tips for ADHD Success' by Jessica McCabe.
3. Changes at home
Here are a few things that may help children cope with daily routines:
- keep consistent routines (consistent morning and bedtime routines)
- break tasks down
- use visual reminders for schedules and tasks (lists, charts, or notes)
- take time to listen to your child, as children with ADHD sometimes have a hard time telling you what they are thinking or feeling
- prepare in advance for activities, and give a lot of warning before transitions
- reduce distractions and declutter their living space (their bedrooms, desk, etc.)
- regularly spend time doing things they are good at and enjoy
- celebrate all successes, big or small
For more tips and strategies, watch our webinar on ‘Parenting a Child with ADHD’.
4. Changes at school
Parents and school professionals can work together to help a child or youth cope with ADHD. Here are some changes that may help:
- ensure opportunities for movement and breaks throughout the day
- break down instructions and tasks
- encourage active learning (passion projects, group work and discussions, hands-on learning) instead of passive learning
- have visual reminders of instructions, schedules, and time (having a visible timer, show a photo of what a task should look like, visual classroom schedules)
- give them a lot of positive feedback and praise
- reduce distractions (desk arrangements, using headphones to block out noise)
- have a structured but flexible teaching style
- ask for accommodations as needed (with our without an Individual Education Plan) (alternatives to printing, adjusting assignment or test length)
- ask for an Individual Education Plan (IEP) as necessary, which can help to set individual goals and strategies for your child’s learning program
For more tips and strategies, watch our webinar, ‘ADHD Goes to School’.
There are two different types of ADHD medication:
- Stimulant medication. These medications regulate 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 and youth who have been properly assessed and diagnosed with ADHD.
- Non-stimulant medication. In some cases, children and youth with ADHD may be prescribed other types of medications.
Medication is very effective and is an important part of the treatment plan. The kind of medication your child is prescribed will depend on your child’s medical and/or mental health concerns. For more information on types of medications, watch our webinar on medications & treatment for ADHD.
6. Healthy Living
Tips for healthy living that may help children cope with ADHD include:
- good sleep habits:
- limit TV, video games, and computer time before bedtime
- try relaxing activities — quiet music, reading
- have the same bedtime every night (even on weekends, holidays and vacations)
- keep the bedroom comfortable — dark, quiet and not too warm
- a healthy diet – Canada’s Food Guide has information on healthy eating in different languages
- note: in the past, people thought that ADHD might be linked to food products and food allergies. Evidence shows that ADHD is not 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. 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)
- regular physical activity (hiking, biking, swimming, climbing, skiing, yoga)
- social interactions and leisure activities that are engaging and align with your child’s interests and strengths (your child may prefer one-on-one time with friends over large group activities)
- support groups for parents of children living with ADHD can be helpful to share information, learn new things, and stay connected with others
For additional healthy living tips and strategies check out our Healthy Living section.
Where to from here?
- For ADHD assessment and diagnosis:
- Talk to your family doctor. They may be able to diagnose and treat ADHD. You and your child may be referred to a specialist for an ADHD assessment, such as a pediatrician, psychiatrist, or psychologist. For more about how your family doctor can help and where you may be referred, click here.
- Your local Child and Youth Mental Health team may be able to help provide an assessment, or direct you to more specialized resources in your community.
- NOTE: Not all local Child and Youth Mental Health Team's provide assessments and support for ADHD. Please call your local Child and Youth Mental Health office first to ask if they provide this service.
For additional information about options for support and treatment in BC, visit our interactive ‘Ask Kelty Mental Health’ tool, where you can type in the questions you have about accessing services and supports.