Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder in Kids

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When a young person has difficulty concentrating, often acts without thinking, or does not seem to learn from mistakes, an attention-deficit disorder may be the cause.

There are three types of attention-deficit disorders:

  • The inattentive type, may be difficult to recognize as the child or youth tends not to be disruptive, but is disorganized and easily distracted

  • With the hyperactive/impulsive type, the child or youth tends to be extremely busy, fidgets constantly and makes impulsive decisions

  • With the combined type, the child or youth has symptoms of both inattentive and hyperactive/impulsive type disorders

Although the condition may be present for several years before a diagnosis is made, symptoms should be evident before the age of seven. Before a positive diagnosis can be made, other disorders must be ruled out. It is also important to remember that many of the characteristic behaviours are normal in children, the difference being the frequency or intensity of the behaviours.

Youngsters with attention-deficit disorders may have other co-existing problems that contribute to learning and behavioral difficulties. Defying authority figures, fighting or arguing with others, or learning disabilities may be signs that another disorder is also present.

Since disorders that develop in childhood can continue into adulthood, early intervention is recommended. Positive early experiences, coupled with early intervention if difficulties arise, can help the child or youth develop positive self-esteem which leads to good mental health. If unattended, the disorder can cause difficulties at home, in school, and in the community.

Children and youth with attention-deficit disorders have symptoms that seem inappropriate or excessive for their age. The symptoms occur frequently, and in more than one setting, such as at home and school.


Some signs to look for in attention-deficit disorder

In an inattentive type disorder, the child:

  • Often daydreams, or seems "spacey"

  • Makes frequent mistakes following instructions

  • Appears forgetful

  • Has difficulty with tasks requiring extended periods of concentration, such as schoolwork

  • Is disorganized

  • Fails to follow through on , parents' or teachers' requests or instructions

  • Often loses things

  • Is easily distracted

An hyperactive-impulsive type disorder may be present if the child is:

  • Unable to stay seated for long periods when requested to do so

  • Is constantly fidgeting, with fingers or feet tapping, or arms swinging

  • Blurts out answers or frequently interrupts

  • Has difficulty waiting his or her turn

  • Acts impulsively without thinking, such as running out into the street

  • Often has difficulty playing quietly

  • Acts as if driven by a motor

  • Talks excessively

Symptoms like poor social skills, and disruptive conduct, often lessen with age.

Most researchers believe that attention-deficit disorders are primarily the result of a biological and/or chemical condition in the brain. Stressors in the child or youth's life, may contribute to/or make the symptoms worse. Disorders appear to be more common in males with the exception of a small number of children who have allergic reactions to food. Theories relating the disorder to diet or sugar have been generally disproven. However, consumption during pregnancy of alcohol, nicotine and drugs may increase the risk factor.

Environmental stressors may add to a child's difficulties and include

  • Abuse or neglect

  • Alcoholism in the family

  • A mental disorder in one or both parents

Situations that can cause symptoms similar to an attention-deficit disorder include

  • Lead or other chemical poisoning

  • Infections such as encephalitis

  • Reaction to medication

  • Head injuries

These conditions also require the intervention of a physician or mental health professional.

A thorough history of the youngster's medical health, growth and development, and family and community relationships, is required to diagnose an attention-deficit disorder. A family physician, child psychiatrist, psychologist, pediatrician, or mental health worker who knows about attention-deficit disorder, can assist with this diagnosis.


Helping a young person

A child or youth with an attention-deficit disorder will need special help at home, in school, and in the community.

It's important that parents, caregivers and teachers understand attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, and work together to manage its symptoms.

Communication between home and school is critical. The child's strengths need to be recognized, and communicated, to achieve positive self-esteem and success at home, and in school. The parents and teacher may have to help the child or youth to be organized, and to manage their behavior in school. The youngster may need more help than other kids the same age. Appointing one person to coordinate the school program is helpful. Professionals involved with the youngster must support the school, and family, to help meet the child's needs.

Prescription drugs may help to:

  • Improve concentration

  • Reduce impulsivity

  • Reduce restlessness

  • Improve family and peer relations

  • And decrease aggression to some degree

There is no evidence to suggest stimulants used to treat attention deficit disorders are habit forming or addictive. They may, however, cause side effects like reduced appetite, going to sleep later than usual, headaches and stomach aches, simple motor and/or vocal tics which may cease with time, and nail picking or biting.

Counseling and support groups may help the family to cope. Counseling and other interventions need to begin as soon as difficulties are noticed. Counseling can help the young person to manage the disorder. By learning to control impulsive behavior, the child or youth may be better able to succeed at school, and in adult life.

Family members may also need help to cope with the disorder. Local support groups are often available for parents and family members, as well as children and youth.

Some changes in the home can be helpful for parents, and children. Suggestions include:

  • Giving clear, specific expectations

  • Establishing a routine

  • Setting out the desired changes, and working on a few at a time

To obtain additional help, support or information about attention deficit disorders, please contact CH.A.D.D Canada (which stands for Children and Adults with Attention Deficit Disorders). CH.A.D.D Canada is a non-profit, parent-run organization that aims to help support, educate and better the lives of individuals with attention deficit disorder and those who care for them.

In BC, CH.A.D.D Canada can be reached in the Vancouver area at 604-222-4043, in the Abbotsford area at 604-852-2686 ext 246, in the Surrey area at 604-599-0482, and in the Maple Ridge area at 604-466-9104.

You can also contact the Learning Disabilities Association of British Columbia. The society has chapters in the Lower Mainland, Southern Vancouver Island, Comox Valley, Smithers and Williams Lake. It provides programs to support and promote the education, social development, legal rights, and well-being of people with learning disabilities.

Another useful article on Children and Attention-Deficit Disorder, produced by the national office of the Canadian Mental Health Association, is available online and in hard copy.


Crisis lines aren’t only for people in crisis. You can call for information on local services or if you just need someone to talk to. If you are in distress, call 310-6789 (do not add 604, 778 or 250 before the number) 24 hours a day to connect to a BC crisis line, without a wait or busy signal. The crisis lines linked in through 310-6789 have received advanced training in mental health issues and services by members of the BC Partners for Mental Health and Addictions Information.