What Is ADHD?

9 min
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The saying “my brain feels like it has too many tabs open” is one that’s become increasingly common in the last few years, used to describe the feeling of multiple thought patterns running through your mind at the same time一wherein you’re somewhat overstimulated and struggling to focus on one thing. And in some ways, it’s a good means of describing what life often feels like for some people who have ADHD.

ADHD is a mental health issue that often begins in childhood, or primarily affects the young. While ADHD may be experienced more often with children, it still exists among adults一and while some do outgrow it with time, equally, signs of ADHD in children can often continue into adulthood. Studies show that an estimated 5% of children worldwide are affected by ADHD, 2.58% of adults are diagnosed with persistent adult ADHD, and 6.76% with symptomatic adult ADHD. It’s a commonly-faced issue all over the world, and the number of people being diagnosed (of all ages) have increased over the past decade. 

Living with ADHD is more than just finding it hard to concentrate at times: the symptoms, which can exist on a spectrum of varying intensity, can involve different degrees and manifestations of hyperactivity, recklessness, impulsiveness, and yes, difficulty focusing or paying attention. ADHD can make someone struggle to control their emotions ー particularly in children ー which can lead to social problems. Aspects of everyday life can become challenging, from being productive at work to staying on top of household chores, and even impacting our relationships. For this reason, it can be difficult for the people living with it, as well as those in partnerships with or caring for someone with ADHD. 

Learning more about ADHD and understanding how to interact with someone who has it ー or learning how to interact with others more fluidly, if you have it ー can be a key part of support in overcoming this challenge. Read on to discover the causes and symptoms of ADHD, common ways to treat it, and what to do if you, your child, or someone in your life has it. 

Is it ADD or ADHD?

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a mental health issue characterized by an ongoing pattern of inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity. Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) is now considered an outdated term, and was previously used primarily to describe inattentive-type ADHD. People with ADHD struggle to get things done that other people do easily. For example, during conversations, they can struggle to focus on what’s being said as they become distracted by things happening around them.

ADHD can make it difficult to focus. As a result, it can affect one’s ability to perform well at work or in school. Children with ADHD tend to have trouble regulating their attention, making it harder for them to pay attention in classes in many traditional schooling settings. This doesn’t mean that people with ADHD can never focus, though: while it’s easy for them to become distracted when they’re working on tasks they find tedious, they can find deeper levels of concentration when it comes to activities they are genuinely interested in. Unfortunately, many people with ADHD have experienced being called lazy, unmotivated, or being told that they’re not putting in their best effort 一 when, in fact, they may just need a different way of finding focus or directing their attention.

What Are 3 Types of ADHD?

ADHD exhibits itself in many different ways. Under the umbrella of ADHD, there are three typical presentations of symptoms:

ADHD Inattentive Type

This is the “not able to pay attention type,” which is also sometimes called Attention-Deficit Disorder (ADD). This type of ADHD is characterized by inattention and distractibility. People experiencing this also tend to find it hard to focus on things, have difficulty following instructions, and may have a tendency to make careless mistakes. They can find it challenging to pay attention while listening to others, and often daydream during conversations.

ADHD Impulsive-Hyperactive Type

This is the “not able to sit still type,” characterized by impulsive and hyperactive behaviors. People with this type of ADHD tend to fidget and squirm on a regular basis. As a result, they may have trouble staying seated (especially for longer periods of time), and find it challenging to engage in quiet activities like reading and writing. People with this type of ADHD are often viewed as the “restless child” when they are young, since they have a tendency to climb around a lot, including over furniture. This type of ADHD can also make people feel more impatient, particularly while waiting or taking turns.

ADHD Combined Type

This is a combination of inattentive and impulsive-hyperactive types, and it’s also the most common. People with this ADHD type tend to show a variety of symptoms from the other two types, and when diagnosing it, professionals tend to look for six or more signs of inattention, and six or more signs of impulsivity and hyperactivity.  They may start projects but struggle to finish them, rush through chores carelessly, not listen to what others are saying, blurt things out or interrupt others, get bored quickly with a short attention span, easily forget to do things, feel the need to fidget or get up and move around frequently, daydream a lot, and not do well at following verbal directions or instructions. 

Causes of ADHD

ADHD is most commonly thought to be related to genetic factors, although studies have also shown that it can be caused by non-inherited factors. It’s such a complex issue that research into its various nuances is still ongoing, but below are some factors that have been commonly attributed to an increase in the risk of developing ADHD: 

  • Genetic Factors: Evidence suggests that ADHD can be inherited from blood relatives. People with parents or siblings who have ADHD tend to have a higher chance of developing ADHD themselves. The family connection has been linked to the fact that specific genes can influence the production of the neurotransmitter dopamine, such that lower amounts of dopamine may increase the risk of developing ADHD. 
  • Environmental Toxins: Some studies have linked the development of ADHD with high levels of environmental toxins - such as lead, aluminium, and mercury - in the blood. These toxins can be found in (and ingested through) foods, flooring, and even personal care products. 
  • Brain Development Differences: People with ADHD have different brain structures than those without it. In some children with ADHD, the development of specific brain regions was found to have been delayed for around three years. These brain regions affect cognitive development, attention, and sensory processing, and include the cortical surface and the frontal brain region.
  • Unhealthy Habits During Pregnancy: A study that looked into pregnancy-related maternal risk factors of ADHD found that an expecting mother's habits during pregnancy may affect the child's development and risk of developing ADHD. These risk factors included consumption of alcohol, smoking or the use of tobacco, or the use of drugs. Interestingly, the research also claimed that “birth by cesarean section was more common among mothers of ADHD children”, suggesting trauma to the abdomen during pregnancy could be another predictor or potential risk factor for the development of ADHD in a child. 
ADHD in Children

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Symptoms of ADHD

ADHD in Children

ADHD can restrict one’s ability to learn under most conventional methods, and this can affect both children and adults. As a neurocognitive disorder, symptoms of ADHD can usually appear in a person as young as three years old. As time passes or as a person grows, ADHD symptoms typically become more and more recognizable. Below are some signs ADHD children commonly show:

  • Inattention: Children with ADHD may find it challenging to pay attention, and can quickly get distracted. This short attention span can affect their lives through decreased performance in school, or reduced listening skills. ADHD children may avoid doing their homework, or be flighty when trying to complete tasks that need concentration. They may also make unintentional, thoughtless mistakes more easily, and daydream excessively. 
  • Hyperactivity: To others, children with ADHD may appear to be exceptionally active or energetic. While having a naturally high energy level isn’t a bad thing, in children with ADHD, this may mean it’s hard for them to participate with more quiet activities, such as reading or painting. They can also have trouble with remaining seated and focused in class, making it difficult for them to learn in traditional classrooms. 
  • Impulsivity: Children with ADHD can be impulsive and impatient When playing games that require taking turns, they can find waiting difficult. Their impulsivity can also impact their social communication skills一for instance, they may often interrupt conversations and answer questions before anyone else has had a chance to, or before the person asking the question has even finished asking it. 

ADHD in Adults 

Although ADHD is usually discovered when a person is young, adults can also be diagnosed with it. Like children, adults with ADHD can also present symptoms of inattentiveness, hyperactivity, and impulsiveness一yet they may exhibit themselves in a slightly different way. Here are some examples:

  • Carelessness: Adults with ADHD may lack attention to detail, causing them to lose or misplace things frequently, or make careless mistakes often. For example, people with ADHD may often forget where they put their phone, or find that doing chores has slipped their mind despite reminders to do so, as they’re easily distracted by other external stimuli. 
  • Difficulty Prioritizing Tasks: People with ADHD may find it hard to prioritize tasks due to their inability to concentrate. As a result, ADHD adults may often multitask or even plan on or start a new project before finishing older tasks. This inability to prioritize well can lead to poor organizational skills, and may negatively affect their performance at work. 
  • Inability to Handle Stress Well: ADHD people can easily become worried or anxious, and find it challenging to stay calm when dealing with stressful events, such as overly-large workloads or conflicts with a partner. 
  • Difficulty Staying Quiet: Much like children with ADHD, adults with ADHD can find that their impulsivity means they’re often uncomfortable keeping quiet. During conversations, people with ADHD may interrupt others while they speak, or they may feel bored when being alone. 
  • Impatience and Irritability: Like kids with ADHD, adults facing this challenge may be impatient and have a quick temper. For example, they may become angry when they are told to wait. ADHD adults also tend to have mood swings, as their moods can be easily affected by external factors. 

While many of these symptoms can occur among people who don’t have ADHD, one determinant factor of whether a person has ADHD or not is how these symptoms affect their daily functioning. A person is more likely to be diagnosed with it if these symptoms significantly impair their normal adaptive functioning—for example, in their performance at work or school, or in their relationships with friends and family, or their peers. 

Treatments for ADHD

Providing support for people with ADHD is important, since it can affect one’s ability to learn through traditional methods, and how they interact with others socially. Treatments for ADHD usually involve therapy, medications, and support from other people. Below are some common methods:

  • Behavioral Therapy: This method educates people with ADHD on managing their symptoms by regulating their behavior. Generally speaking, behavioral therapists aim to teach them to replace negative behaviors with positive behaviors. There are various different kinds of behavioral therapies, such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), which helps people with ADHD understand how their thought patterns can influence behavior, and how to promote more positive behaviors by altering their thoughts. 
  • Medications: Certain medications can treat ADHD symptoms by increasing one’s ability to concentrate, reducing impulsivity, and helping them feel calmer. Common medications for ADHD include methylphenidate (usually sold under the brand names Ritalin or Concerta), which helps to increase brain activity and control attention, and lisdexamfetamine (also known as Vyvanse), which works by activating specific brain regions to help manage impulsive behavior. However, it’s important to be aware that many medications have side effects, and that one should always consult with a qualified medical professional before taking any  medications. 
  • Social Skills Training: This treatment aims to improve social interaction and prevent possible interpersonal difficulties by teaching people with ADHD ways to behave more suitably in social situations, often through workshops. Social skills training can also enhance problem-solving skills, control of emotions, and verbal and nonverbal communication. 
  • Parent Training Programs: This approach focuses on parent-child interaction as it allows parents to learn about the psychology behind this issue and how it influences the child’s behaviors. The programs are typically group-based and last for around two hours. Through them, parents of ADHD children can learn specific ways to interact with their children and improve their attention and behavior. 
Raising a Child with ADHD

Photo by LSOphoto on iStock

Raising a Child With ADHD

Parenting a child with ADHD can be tricky, especially when you don’t have anyone going through similar challenges to relate to. Below are a some practical tips that can help if your child has ADHD:

  1. Seek Out Support - If your child has ADHD, you don’t have to be alone in dealing with this challenge. You can seek out support by reaching out to teachers, the school administration, and if there is one, the counselor at your child’s school. Discuss your child’s ADHD with them, so they’re aware of the issue. Outside of the schooling system, you can also turn to a psychologist or mental health professional for advice and support.
  2. Don't Ignore It- Leaving ADHD untreated can be harmful to your child’s growth and development. Research has found that children with untreated ADHD may wind up abusing substances, or having interpersonal problems, as well as challenges in the workplace when they become adults. ADHD adults may also be more likely to encounter accidents because of their lack of attention to detail.
  3. Never Blame Yourself Or Your Child - If your child has ADHD, it’s not your fault, nor your child’s fault. Don’t believe that “something is wrong with them” when you interact with them, as they can pick up on these signals, which could make them feel shameful and guilty for having ADHD. Instead, acknowledge that it is nobody’s fault, and that every individual is beautiful in their own way. Placing blame won’t help the situation, and will only lead to an unhealthy parent-child relationship.
  4. Understand How ADHD Affects Your Child - If you’re already trying your best to parent your child, you may wonder how or why the situation is not improving. First, understand that ADHD is a neurocognitive issue that affects your child’s brain structure. Parenting a child with ADHD can be difficult, and can require strategies above and beyond what many other parents have to offer. Your child may need different parenting strategies to learn different behavior. Since every child is unique, you may discover the right parenting style for you by learning about the causes and symptoms of ADHD and acknowledging how ADHD children process information differently.

Living with ADHD, or interacting with people who have ADHD, can be challenging, but with the right treatment and lifestyle changes, symptoms can be managed, and it is possible to use these methods to create a life that’s more organized, focused, less anxiety-inducing, and generally smoother, with a greater sense of control. As with most conditions, it all begins with education and understanding of how to approach it, how to cope, and learning to live with it in a way that makes life easier and happier for all those affected by it.

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All of the content on our website is thoroughly researched to ensure that the information shared is evidence-based. For more information, please visit the academic journals and other resources that influenced this article: ADHD Statistics: New ADD Facts and Research; ADHD; Symptoms - Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD); Treatment - Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD); Social Skills Training for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) in Children Aged 5 to 18 Years; Does Behavioral Therapy for ADHD Help?; The ADHD-Dopamine Link: Why You Crave Sugar and Carbs; Pregnancy-Related Maternal Risk Factors of Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder: A Case-Control Study; Foods, Toxins, and ADHD; Brain Development Delayed in ADHD, Study Shows; Parent Training in Behavior Management for ADHD; The Effect Of ADHD On The Life Of An Individual, Their Family, And Community From Preschool To Adult Life; The Prevalence Of Adult Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder: A Global Systematic Review And Meta-Analysis; An Overview of the Genetics of ADHD

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