What is ADHD?
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a neurodevelopmental condition that affects behaviour and concentration.
Children and young people with ADHD often seem unusually restless, impulsive or distracted. They may speak or act without thinking, struggle with organisation, find it hard to focus or appear to be always on the go. Some people with ADHD do not experience hyperactivity though, and this is sometimes called attention deficit disorder (ADD).
ADHD is not a mental illness or a learning disability, though children and young people with ADHD may also have other conditions or experience mental health problems.
Living with ADHD can be very challenging, for children and young people as well as for their parents and carers. But the right diagnosis, treatment and support can make a big difference to a child’s learning, life skills and relationships, as well as making family life easier. There is also lots you can do as a parent/carer to help your child manage the things they find difficult.
What are the most common symptoms of ADHD?
A child with ADHD may be:
- easily distracted, finding it difficult to start or finish tasks
- often unable to concentrate
- often restless or fidgety
- very talkative, often interrupting or blurting things out
- impulsive, acting before considering consequences, prone to taking risks
- easily angry or frustrated, struggling to deal with emotions
- finding making or maintaining friendships difficult
- disorganised, for instance often losing things or being late
- lacking awareness of time
Every child or young person with ADHD is individual and they may not display all of these behaviours. And many of these traits and behaviours are typical in younger children, or can follow a traumatic experience – they don’t necessarily mean your child has ADHD.
Age and gender can also affect how someone with ADHD behaves. This can make it harder to spot signs of ADHD, particularly in girls, who are more likely to be undiagnosed or wrongly diagnosed with other conditions(i).
Typically the symptoms of ADHD develop in early childhood and they may become particularly noticeable at times of significant change, such as starting or changing school.
What to do if you think your child might have ADHD
If your child frequently experiences some of these symptoms; this is affecting their day- to- day life; and it’s happening in more than one setting (for instance at home and school), discuss your concerns with your child’s GP. Before doing this, talk to your child’s teacher and the school special educational needs co-ordinator (SENCO) about what they have noticed.
The GP may want to refer your child for assessment, as ADHD can only be diagnosed by a specialist such as a child and adolescent psychiatrist or paediatrician.
Sometimes parents are reluctant to pursue assessment. They may be worried about ‘labelling’ their child or about stigma, or they may prefer to watch and wait. These feelings are normal. But parents and young people who do seek diagnosis can find it helps them access the right support; understand and manage challenges; and identify individual strengths.
We have more information about getting support from the GP, CAMHS or school in our guide.
ADHD diagnosis, support and treatment
ADHD assessment is usually done through the specialist Children and Young People’s Mental Health Services, commonly referred to as CAMHS.
Diagnosis is most commonly made in childhood, and in the majority of cases, symptoms affecting daily life continue into adulthood(ii).
There is no single, definitive test for ADHD. Specialists will base clinical diagnosis on a combination of observations of your child; discussions and questionnaires (with you and your child); and information from your child’s school.
They will consider how long the symptoms have been present; their impact on your child’s daily life; and whether they might be due to another condition. Approximately 60-80% of children with ADHD have at least one other condition,(iii) (such as autistic spectrum disorder, dyslexia, dyspraxia, anxiety or behaviour problems) and your child may be given more than one diagnosis.
Support and treatment options
You and your child should be offered support and advice to help manage ADHD in their day-to-day life.
ADHD can also be treated with medication and/or therapies. These should be discussed with you when your child is diagnosed, and are set out in the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) guidelines on ADHD.
ADHD can be treated with therapies such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). For more information about therapy, see our parent guide to counselling and therapy.
There are a number of types of medication. These are not a cure for ADHD, and many children do not take them, but they can help manage some of the symptoms. Medication must be prescribed and overseen by a specialist.
You may also be offered ADHD –focussed parent training. This does not mean your parenting is somehow wrong. It is designed to provide support and specific strategies and skills to help you and your child thrive.
How can I help my child with ADHD?
Remember your child cannot help having ADHD, so try not to get angry or frustrated with them because of it. Separate the child from the behaviour.
Make sure they are looking at you so you have their attention. Talk slowly and calmly. Break tasks like getting ready for school down into steps, e.g. ‘first brush your teeth then put on your shoes’.
Explain ADHD to siblings and family members and discuss how everyone has different needs. Make sure attention isn’t always focussed on the child with ADHD, recognise the potential impact on siblings, and avoid labels like ‘the naughty one’.
Plan the day so your child knows what to expect. Maintaining regular sleep patterns, physical activity and mealtimes can help your child. Some people find dietary change and/or certain supplements helpful, but there is no clinical evidence for this and medical advice should be sought first(iv). Our young person's guide has helpful advice on sleep problems.
Checklists, visual timetables and sticky notes (in key places like the front door or desk), phone alarms and other aids are helpful. Explain their use to your child. And try not to completely take over so that your child can develop organisational skills.
Acknowledge successes (however small), but don’t patronise by over-praising. Try to praise or reward immediately and be specific about the reason to help reinforce good behaviour.
Look for signs your child is becoming frustrated or over-stimulated and try to remove them from the situation. A diary of times and triggers can be helpful. Keep playdates for younger children short to avoid them being overwhelmed.
Help your child identify their individual strengths and celebrate them. Recognise that ADHD can bring positives too, such as extra enthusiasm for a hobby, or creativity. Highlight successful role models with ADHD.
Parenting programmes and support groups can help reduce stress and isolation as well as be a source of new ideas and strategies for you. Look at your local authority's Local Offer (find their website here) for more information about in person and virtual options, and see the organisations listed on this page.
ADHD and your child's mental health
Any child or young person can struggle with their mental health and wellbeing, whether or not they have ADHD. This might be caused by things like family change, bullying, exam stress or a traumatic event.
But having ADHD may also mean your child has extra challenges – such as social difficulties, struggling to manage their emotions or getting into trouble at school - that leave them more vulnerable to low self-esteem, anxiety or depression.
Children and young people with ADHD frequently have other developmental or mental health conditions and it is important to ensure they have the appropriate support for these.
As a parent there is a lot you can do to support your child with their wellbeing and mental health:
- encourage your child to talk about how they are feeling with you. Our starting a conversation guide has ideas for keeping communication open
- if you feel your child may have a mental health problem or another condition alongside ADHD, discuss your concerns with their GP or ADHD specialist.
My son has had times of feeling down about his ADHD, but increasingly he is able to recognise that it also part of his creativity, originality and energy.
The hardest thing for me is that I get angry so easily. I can’t control it and it makes me feel awful afterwards.
He was late, losing things. It was exhausting and frustrating but learning that a lot of it was due to his ADHD gave me more empathy.
Getting my ADHD diagnosis and medication meant I could concentrate, enjoy learning and actually do really well.
Working with school if your child has ADHD
ADHD is a special education need (SEN), and it may be referred to as a specific learning difference (SpLD). Your child is entitled to appropriate support to help them thrive socially and educationally. This could include potential adjustments in certain situations, such as extra time or rest breaks for exams, movement breaks in lessons, written instructions for tasks and a seating plan that minimises distractions.
Discuss the diagnosis and needs with the school’s SENCO, taking a list of your concerns and background information to the meeting.
Your child may be entitled to an education, health and care plan (EHC plan) which details the support they need and how it will be provided. (The National Autistic Society has helpful information about EHC plans.)
Good communication between you and school can be really helpful in ensuring your child thrives in education and meets their potential. Our parent guide to support has more advice on talking to school or college.
ADHD in teenagers and beyond
If your child is a teenager or young person, their needs and the support you give may well be different from when they were younger. They may like to read our young person’s guide to ADHD and mental health. But there are still many ways you can help.
Though your child may need extra support for longer than others, it is important to help them develop independence, confidence and build self-esteem.
They should feel empowered in decisions about medication, therapies and communication with others about their ADHD and mental health.
Leaving school, starting college or university, finding work or leaving home may be especially challenging. Help them find strategies and sources of support, such as Disabled Students Allowance (DSA) or university support services.
Talking about potential issues such as taking risks, substance abuse, stress, anxiety and low mood can help them plan for and articulate challenges and feel supported.
Looking after your own wellbeing
Parenting a child with ADHD can sometimes be isolating, upsetting or exhausting. Sometimes parents feel judged or blamed by others (unjustifiably as parenting does not cause ADHD). It is entirely understandable if you are finding things difficult.
It’s important to recognise the impact the situation is having on you, and think about ways you can take care of yourself – including getting support from other people so that you can take some time off. It’s okay to ask for help when you need it, and to share your worries with someone you trust. We have advice on looking after yourself as well as your child.
Our son’s challenging behaviour with ADHD had an enormous impact on the whole family, as we and his brothers bore the brunt of his anger.
Where to get further support
If you would to speak to a professional adviser or find out more about how you can support your child, these organisations can help.