PAMF Health Blog

Be Well, Be Well Informed

Is this Normal or Is It ADHD?

Posted on Nov 6, 2012

Today ADHD (attention deficit hyperactive disorder) is diagnosed with increasing frequency. In fact, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, ADHD is one of the most common chronic conditions affecting children. ADHD is not simply a case of a child behaving badly. This biological disorder causes the parts of the brain that control attention and activity level to function differently. ADHD’s trademarks – persistent inattention and hyperactivity – can make daily life, for the child and his or her parents, an ongoing challenge. Although ADHD is a lifelong condition, the right support and intervention can help set up your child for success for his or her whole life.

In this blog post, pediatric neurologist Sarah Cheyette, M.D., answers parents’ questions about how to recognize the symptoms of ADHD, the best current treatment options, and whether it’s different in boys than in girls.

My son can never sit still. Could he have ADHD?

Share your concern with your son’s doctor and also check in with his teacher who can give you feedback on what’s happening at school.

A child with ADHD may have one or several of these symptoms:

  • Inattention: your child may have a hard time focusing on one thing. He or she is easily distracted, often daydreams and finds it hard to stay organized, prioritize tasks or homework and estimate how much time different tasks may take. He or she may also procrastinate over projects.
  • Hyperactivity: your child is in perpetual motion, squirmy, has difficulty staying seated and may talk too much.
  • Impulsiveness: your child does things and speaks without thinking, often interrupts and can’t wait for things.

To be diagnosed, symptoms need to occur in more than one setting, for example, both at home and at school.

There’s no specific test such as a blood test or MRI to diagnose ADHD. Instead your child’s doctor will talk to your child, and gather information from the parents, other caregivers and the child’s teachers to make a diagnosis. He or she may also refer the child to a pediatric neurologist or psychologist for more detailed psychological testing and treatment.

What are the treatment options for ADHD?

There are many treatment options available that can be very helpful.

Treatment may include a long-term management plan that sets behavior goals for your child together with follow up visits and monitoring. Other components are education about ADHD – involving everyone who is directly part of your child’s life such as parents, teachers and caregivers – counseling for the child and family, and medication and behavior therapy. Setting manageable goals will help your child feel successful.

Medication can help your child improve focus, be less distracted and control his or her behavior better. There are two main types of medication:

  • Stimulants: Amphetamine-based medications (for example, Adderall, Concerta, Dexedrine, Focalin, Ritalin or Vyvanse) These are very effective, work immediately and are in and out of your child’s system within a day.
  • Non-stimulants: Atomoxetine (for example, Strattera) takes longer to work and is sometimes given together with a stimulant. Intuniv and Kapvay are two other non-stimulant options.

Like all medications, these treatments have both benefits and side effects. They can help your child function better which in turn will make your child feel better about how he or she is doing.

What’s the best way to support a child with ADHD?

The very first and most important step when a child is diagnosed with ADHD is to make sure the child doesn’t feel bad about this condition. Reassure your child that he or she is just as smart as other children; his or her brain just works in a different and very exciting way. Explain to your child that many successful people have ADHD and often bring much additional creativity and energy to projects.

There are many things you can do to help a child with ADHD lead a successful and productive life, including:

  • Structure. A structured environment at home and in the classroom will enable your child to do his or her best, stay on task and get less distracted.
  • Go for quick sprints. Children with ADHD are like sprinters and work best in short, intense bursts. Find ways to make tasks and homework less overwhelming. Use a timer and break tasks into manageable steps. For example, ask your child just to focus on the first five problems on a math sheet or fold the worksheet in half and ask your child what he or she feels she can tackle on that page.
  • Redirect. You may have to help your child refocus frequently on his or her homework or the task at hand.
  • Fun and games. Whenever possible, turn tasks or homework into a game, fun challenge or a more hands-on experience, so it’s easier to keep your child’s attention.
  • Keep moving! Regular exercise and movement will help your child get through tasks that require concentration and focus. Individual sports, such as any of the martial arts, archery and fencing, are best. In team sports, there is often too much going on at one time which can be distracting for your child.

Is ADHD different in boys and girls?

Generally girls with ADHD show more of the inattentive symptoms and are quiet daydreamers. Boys with ADHD are usually more hyperactive, squirmy, fidgety and impulsive. These symptoms get noticed sooner, so boys are often diagnosed earlier than girls.

If your child has ADHD, it’s important to seek out professional help. Children and adults with undiagnosed ADHD are more likely to achieve less and suffer from depression.

Will the food my child eats affect her ADHD?

There’s no significant evidence that a special diet, eating less sugar or avoiding certain foods has an affect on ADHD. A healthy, balanced diet and getting enough sleep and exercise on a regular basis are essential for your child to function well and feel his or her best.

Additional  Online Resources:

Children & Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder

National Resource Center on AD/HD

Sarah Cheyette, M.D., is a board-certified pediatric neurologist at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation’s  Fremont, Palo Alto and Redwood City Centers.