ADHD in Adolescents & Children Causes, Symptoms & Signs

The signs of adolescent ADHD can often be difficult to identify. Once an individual identifies the symptoms and side effects of adolescent ADHD, the next step in the recovery journey become clear.

Understanding Adolescent ADHD

Learn about adolescent ADHD

There is a difference in the rates at which children mature. Children also differ in temperamental qualities, such as preference for novelty and energy levels. Some children are constantly in motion, while others are content to read on the couch. Yet at different times in the child’s development, it is normal to see distractibility, impulsivity, and difficulties concentrating. Parents often have a difficult time with this, believing that children “should” want to do well in school instead of joking around with peers, “should” want to pay attention to their teacher so they know how to complete their homework, or “should” want to control their impulsivity especially when it gets them into trouble. Yet children aren’t born with an inherent reward system for these types of tasks and often need extra instruction, rewards, or consequences to learn appropriate behavior.

Sometimes, these normal childhood characteristics are mistaken for Attention Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). The behaviors in a normally developing child and symptoms of ADHD may, at times, appear similar. However, those with ADHD have symptoms that are more frequent, severe, and long lasting compared with what is seen in normal development. The symptoms will also disrupt the child’s ability to function in more than one setting, although perhaps not all settings.

While there are ADHD symptoms that make up the disorder, there is no individual test that will provide a diagnosis. In addition, the symptoms differ from child to child and are often determined by individual differences, so the disorder is not always easy to diagnose. The symptoms most often appear between the ages of 3 and 6. Teachers frequently notice the problems first. They may notice a child can’t seem to follow rules or looks off into space or out a window, “spacing out” during a lesson. They may have trouble staying on task, appearing easily bored or quickly frustrated after a single failed attempt at an assignment. Other times the child may have difficulty remaining in their seat and appear fidgety, restless, or agitated when required to remain seated. Parents may first notice that their child loses interest in things sooner than other children, or seems continually “out of control.” Parents often report their child never stops moving and doesn’t think before they act even in dangerous situations such as crossing a busy street.

While many adults with ADHD have suffered from the disorder since childhood, recent research indicates there is a type of ADHD that begins in adulthood. While some of the symptoms of childhood ADHD may lessen with age, they are still generally displayed to a certain extent in adulthood. For those with adult onset ADHD however, the impulsivity and hyperactivity symptoms are not as severe as those who have experienced the disorder since childhood. The predominant symptoms in adult onset ADHD fall within the attention/concentration category. Thus, individuals with this type of ADHD often have trouble managing time, organizational skills, attending to tasks in a logical and orderly fashion, and setting goals. These symptoms can impact the individual’s relationships, self-concept, and lead to substance use disorders, which often involve stimulants used in an effort to self-medicate.

There has been increased attention on childhood ADHD in recent years due to the large number of children being put on stimulant medication. It is important to make sure that when a medication is recommended for a child for this condition that they have been diagnosed properly. Most practitioners in the field recommend trying behavioral strategies before moving to medication. At Riverview, we conduct comprehensive evaluations and work with family members to create the most appropriate and acceptable treatment plan for each child.

Statistics

Adolescent ADHD statistics

According to CDC, approximately 11% of children and adolescents in the U.S. have received a diagnosis of ADHD, representing 6.4 million youth. In high school age children rates differ significantly by age, with 1 in 5 boys exhibiting the disorder compared with 1 in 11 girls in the same age bracket. Furthermore, the percentage of children ages 4-17 diagnosed with ADHD is rapidly growing. Reports indicate a 42% increase of ADHD in this age range between 2003 and 2011.

Causes and Risk Factors

Causes and risk factors for adolescent ADHD

Although it is not certain what specifically leads to ADHD, several factors have strong support in literature as potential causes and further research into brain functioning continues to be pursued.

Heredity – It is recognized that ADHD runs in families, indicating that children may inherit a propensity to acquire ADHD from their parents.

Chemical imbalance – Imaging techniques have demonstrated that children with ADHD have an imbalance of chemicals responsible for communication in the brain called neurotransmitters. In particular, levels of the chemical dopamine, which has been linked to attention and concentration, have been found to be lower in many children with ADHD.

Brain changes – Examinations of brain using PET scans have shown that formations and areas that regulate attention, social judgment, concentration, and inhibition of movement display significantly lower metabolic activity in youth with ADHD compared to those without the disorder.

Toxins – There are other theories based on limited evidence that exposure to certain toxins during pregnancy due to maternal use of cigarettes, alcohol, and substances as well as exposure to toxins found in the environment may be connected to the subsequent development of ADHD.

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of adolescent ADHD

The symptoms of childhood ADHD fall into three categories which include inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity.

Inattention:

  • Failure to follow directions or complete tasks
  • Failure to listen when others are speaking
  • Forgetfulness regarding daily activities
  • Distractibility
  • Trouble organizing daily routine tasks
  • Frequent loss of items, even personal items
  • Daydreaming or “spacing out”
  • Failure to pay attention
  • Careless mistakes
  • Inability to tolerate activities or tasks requiring sitting still or engaging in a continuous, prolonged effort

Hyperactivity:

  • Inability to sit still, being forced to sit for long periods results in fidgeting, bouncing, agitation, or frustration
  • Difficulty playing quietly, with a single toy, or putting up games or toys before taking out others
  • Excessive talking
  • Refusal to stay seated when expected to do so
  • Constantly in motion, running, climbing, or a general sense of restlessness

Impulsivity:

  • Can’t wait until the question has been completed before answering
  • Trouble waiting turn
  • Interrupting others due to inability to wait until they have stopped speaking

Effects

Effects of adolescent ADHD

The effects and consequences of untreated ADHD on children can be significant.  These include:

  • Lack of productivity, failure to learn building blocks of skills needed for later learning, learning delay
  • Problems with family relationships
  • Social problems due to social rejection
  • Poor social skills due to lack of social feedback
  • Pursuit of risky behaviors
  • Sensation seeking
  • Low self-esteem
  • Increased probability of participating in criminal activities
  • Disturbances in the parental relationship, marriage, and general family functioning
  • Increased need for healthcare and increased healthcare costs
  • School refusal
  • Strained parent-child relationship
  • Disruptive behavior
  • School exclusion
  • Substance abuse
  • Conduct Problems
  • Lack of motivation due to failure experiences

Co-Occurring Disorders

Adolescent ADHD and co-occurring disorders

Children with ADHD often have other conditions and disorders that can increase problems resulting from their ADHD symptoms. These include:

  • Reading disabilities
  • Language processing difficulties
  • Behavioral and emotional regulation
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Oppositional defiant disorder
  • Conduct disorder
  • Communication disability
  • Tourette’s syndrome
  • Bipolar disorder

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