Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) - in Children

Young girl on swing at park

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a neurodevelopmental condition characterised by symptoms of hyperactivity, impulsivity, and inattention. It is normal for children to be energetic and have a short attention span. However, in children with ADHD these behaviours are long-term and cause problems at school and at home.

The symptoms of ADHD can be split into two categories; hyperactivity/ impulsivity and inattention. Common symptoms for children with ADHD include having a short attention span, difficulty with organisation and planning, and struggling to sit still in class. Based on their symptoms the individual is categorised as having the hyperactive/ impulsive subtype, inattentive subtype, or combined subtype of ADHD. Girls are more likely to have the inattentive subtype of ADHD. These inattentive symptoms may be less obvious and means ADHD can often go unrecognised in girls till later in life. 

ADHD can be caused by a combination of biological, genetic, and environmental factors. Risk factors include having a family member with ADHD, mother’s use of alcohol or drugs during pregnancy, premature birth, and exposure to environmental toxins such as lead.

The symptoms of ADHD can continue into adulthood. However, symptoms often lessen and change over time. With treatment those with ADHD can learn coping mechanisms and ways to effectively manage their symptoms. It is important to seek treatment as children with ADHD often struggle socially and academically, and may experience low self-esteem which can lead to other emotional difficulties such as depression and anxiety.

Common symptoms
  • Difficulty concentrating and easily distracted.
  • Short attention span.
  • Difficulty paying attention [e.g. in class, to instructions].
  • Appears ‘zoned out’, day dreamy.
  • Difficulty listening and following instructions.
  • Difficulty planning and organising.
  • Makes careless errors and mistakes.
  • Procrastination - avoids starting tasks that require attention/ mental effort.
  • Often forgets things or loses things.
  • Unable to sit still, fidgety, always moving.
  • Impatient, interrupts others, can’t wait their turn.
  • Difficulty completing tasks quietly.
  • Impulsive behaviour.
  • Runs or climbs when not appropriate.
  • Emotional, easily upset.
  • Difficulty making friends and maintaining relationships.
How common is in the general population
An estimated 5% of children globally will be diagnosed with ADHD.
Gender differences
Boys are three times more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD than girls. However, this large difference may reflect the fact that girls tend to show more inattentive symptoms which often go unrecognised.
ADHD symptoms are typically seen before age 12. Symptoms may be noticed as young as 3 years old. However, inattentive symptoms may not be recognised till later in life (e.g. when struggling to pay attention at university/ work).
Typical Course
There is no cure for ADHD but symptoms often lessen in adulthood. The type of symptoms experienced may change over time. There is often a shift from more hyperactive symptoms in childhood to more inattentive symptoms in adulthood.
Common Comorbid (concurrent) Conditions
Oppositional defiant disorder, conduct disorder, depression, anxiety disorders, autism spectrum disorder, tic disorder, tourette syndrome, learning disabilities, sleep disorders.
Common treatments

If you think your child is showing symptoms of ADHD, go speak with your GP. They may refer you to a specialist for assessment. 

ADHD cannot be cured. It is a difference in the way the brain functions. However, there are treatments which can help the individual learn how to manage symptoms. Treatment typically involves a combination of stimulant medication, behaviour therapy, and psychological counselling.


Stimulant medication can help to improve concentration, make the child feel calmer, and reduce impulsive behaviour. This can help the child to focus better at school and in therapy so they can learn the skills to manage their symptoms.

Psychological Therapy:

Behaviour management training and social skills training can help children learn skills and behaviours to improve functioning at school, home, and in social situations. Through behaviour change strategies children learn how to control their hyperactive and impulsive behaviours and learn appropriate behaviours. Approaches such as a token reward system may be used.

It is common for those with ADHD to experience low self-esteem and other emotional difficulties, such as depression and anxiety. Psychological therapy, such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), can help address these issues. 

For Parents:

Parent education and parent skills training programmes can be beneficial for parents of children with ADHD. Though these courses parents can learn more about ADHD, the role they have in helping their child, and how to practise the skills learnt in therapy at home.