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ADHD: Reading the Symptoms Properly

By Amanda McLean, Ph.D.

Children in the classroom working on classwork with the teacher.

Symptoms of ADHD typically become apparent when the child enters into a more structured educational setting. When task demands become more challenging, symptoms can arise as early as preschool or kindergarten and most symptoms occur before the age of 13.

What symptoms should parents look for?

The first sign is often hyperactivity. Children exhibiting hyperactive and impulsive subtypes of ADHD will often begin to exhibit the following symptoms as early as the preschool years:

  • Difficulties waiting their turn during play activities, while waiting in a line, or during conversations
  • Often doing the first thing that comes into his or her head
  • Frequent interruptions
  • Excessive movement and excessive talking

For individuals with the inattentive type of ADHD, symptoms often become more apparent in middle to late childhood when the expectations to work independently and maintain organization become more challenging.  These symptoms may include:

  • Difficulties resisting distractions
  • Having a hard time with following through on tasks independently
  • Frequently losing school assignments and other belongings

What common mistakes do parents make when reading the symptoms?

Children with ADHD often struggle to manage their emotions because they exhibit difficulties stopping an immediate emotional reaction to an event.  As a result, parents and other caretakers may mistake anger outbursts or excessive emotional reactions for depression or they may believe that the child is simply being stubborn. It is important to remember that children with ADHD may need assistance in learning to deal with their emotions.  

Because many children with ADHD are impulsive and therefore act without thinking, parents and other providers often find themselves using high rates of punishment to address misbehaviors. This is often ineffective as punishment alone may only work for a short period of time. Therefore, it is important for caretakers to use proactive strategies to address behavior including:

  • Frequent reminders of the rules and expectations
  • Frequent praise and acknowledgement for acceptable and desirable behaviors

When does your child need help?

If you are noticing that your child is exhibiting any of the above symptoms and these symptoms are interfering with their academic development, friendships, or family functioning, schedule an appointment with your child's pediatrician. If the pediatrician suspects that your child may have symptoms of ADHD, it is helpful to obtain a referral to a psychologist so the child may receive a thorough assessment prior to initiating any treatment.