What are the 16 common ADHD signs to watch for in children?

When kids seem to be scattered and struggle with sitting still, focusing, or getting things done without constant reminders, many parents question whether their kids have ADHD, are overly energetic, or just lazy and need to pull up their socks. There are several common signs of ADHD to watch out for, which I have outlined in this article.  

ADHD can look like a lack of motivation and drive, which can be infuriating for parents. Especially when kids can’t focus long enough to finish a short math worksheet or simple chore but have no problem spending hours on video games.

Yes, lots of kids have trouble applying themselves when they have to do things that are not fun. And yes, everyone exhibits some difficulties with attention at times. But, ADHD makes these difficulties much worse and they occur more often than those without, making it hard for kids to complete even basic tasks. It is not a matter of willpower; these difficulties are NOT under voluntary control. Kids with ADHD ARE trying. Often times, really hard. But their brains are not wired to help them be successful.

ADHD is real!

Kids with ADHD have different brains than peers. The growth and development of their brains is affected and different parts of the brain don’t communicate efficiently.

Essentially, their brain is immature for their age. This is why some kids with ADHD may seem socially and emotionally immature for their age. Further, they have a harder time focusing, transitioning from playing video games to dinner, keeping their cool when their sibling says something cheeky to them, and remembering to do what they need to do.

Figuring out if kids do have ADHD is critical to ensure they get the support they need to be successful because they can have more difficulties than kids without ADHD, which affects self-esteem, emotional well-being, social success, and learning. Don’t wait to see if your child will “grow out of it.” If there is ADHD, it is best to get help as soon as possible.

ADHD has three main symptoms:

  1. Inattention
  2. Hyperactivity
  3. Impulsivity

There is also a lot more to ADHD to consider than just these three symptoms. Not all kids with ADHD struggle with all of these; some may be more inattentive while others are more hyperactive. ADHD looks different from one child to the next and varies across the ages, which can make ADHD hard to recognize.

Below are several common signs of ADHD to watch out for. This list is not meant to diagnose your child; if you have any concerns about your child’s development and social, emotional, behavioural well-being, consult your child’s doctor or psychologist as soon as possible to reduce any difficulties and promote long-term success. 

The common signs of ADHD in kids

1. Poor focus (or too much at the wrong times)

Kids with ADHD often have trouble with focus; either too little focus or super focus to the extreme.

When both are present, many parents complain that their child can pay attention – but only to things that they are interested in. Thus, they may think focus is willful behaviour. But it isn’t willpower for kids with ADHD. Most of the time, they want to pay attention but their brain makes it hard for them to. Telling them to pay attention better isn’t helpful. It is out of their control! It’s like telling kids to see better when they can’t see without glasses.

Different parts of focus

Kids with ADHD have trouble with three key aspects of focus. First, they have trouble sustaining their attention and are easily bored, easily distracted, and have trouble sticking with it until they are done the task.

Second, they have a hard time knowing what they need to pay attention to. The ADHD brain cannot filter out irrelevant information very well. Unfortunately, the most important information they are supposed to pay attention to is not usually the most interesting or memorable information. Kids with ADHD can therefore easily become focused on the wrong (but more interesting) information, such as what Johnny is doing in the corner (rather than what the teacher is saying).

Third, they have trouble shifting attention away from things they like. So, when they are told to come eat dinner or some other boring thing when they are doing something they like, they aren’t very successful.

If interested, you can read more about the ways that kids with ADHD have trouble with focus.

2. Avoidance

Many kids with ADHD tend to avoid/dislike things that take too much brainpower/effort/time, such as schoolwork. Although some kids are stimulated by a challenge, if kids think something is too hard (or is going to be boring or is going to take too long), it is hard for them to get started on something and stay engaged until it is done. Some kids will do whatever it takes to get out of it in the first place, include fighting about it.

3. Forgetfulness

Kids with ADHD typically have good long-term memories and can remember things that happened even years before. However, they have a hard time with working memory and remembering what they need to do right now, like chores, homework, or other daily routines. They may also forget to hand in assignments, to bring their agendas home from school, where they put things, or what someone said to them. Remembering more than one thing at a time can be tough, which is why they feel nagged a lot (and we feel like we nag a lot) because we adults are forever needing to remind them what to do.

Kids with ADHD also have a hard time remembering what they want to say, which is why they can become overly upset if they can’t say it right away or if they are interrupted.

Kids with ADHD may have a hard time recalling things they have already learned, which is a problem in test situations. Because they can only remember one thing as they work, trying to remember a math equation as they are solving a problem can be tricky.

Writing is particularly challenging because kids have to remember what they are supposed to write about, plus their ideas, plus grammar, plus sentence structure, plus spelling rules, plus capitalization and punctuation. That’s a lot to remember. Kids will often rush through their work to get their ideas out, but then miss all the other writing rules, resulting in messy and disorganized work.

4. Disorganization

Kids with ADHD have trouble getting and staying organized. Keeping their belongings neat and tidy can be hard, resulting in messy rooms, backpacks, or lockers.

Beyond belongings, kids with ADHD cannot keep track of tasks effectively, which makes it hard to remember and prioritize things like homework assignments and tests they need to study for. Projects with more than one step are hard to do. They often don’t know how to get started and end up procrastinating. They also have trouble organizing their thoughts, which can make learning hard and their work might be messy and disorganized.

5. Losing things

Another result of forgetfulness and disorganization is that kids with ADHD often lose things they need to complete tasks or activities, such as pencils or papers. Some kids also lose other things like water bottles, toys, books, glasses, phones, and, if they are like my daughter, even shoes. That they were wearing. (Still have no idea how that is possible…)

6. Poor time management

Time is elusive for kids with ADHD. They tend to live in the NOW. So, anything outside of the now – even in five minutes from now – is unimportant and easily forgotten. Time management is therefore near impossible because kids cannot keep track of time and don’t know how long it actually takes to get anything done.

Things can take kids with ADHD an extraordinary amount of time to get done. However, they often underestimate how long things will actually take them; thus, they end up missing due dates and often run late. Everything becomes a last minute rush.

7. Constant movement

Some kids with ADHD have a hard time sitting still and may fidget and squirm to the excess, especially when they have to sit for long, such as in the classroom or even watching a movie. Some are constantly on the go and have a hard time slowing down to do things carefully, like pouring milk without spilling.

When fidgeting is not enough, kids will get up out of their chair when they are not supposed to. They will run and climb when and/or where they are not supposed to. They might touch and play with everything they see.

The constant movement can be disruptive at school, especially during quiet, independent work. In a 3-minute span, I have seen kids get out of their chairs a dozen times when they are supposed to be doing their work. Dropped pencils, sharpening pencils, getting forgotten materials, returning the forgotten materials they didn’t actually need, going to ask the teacher a question about some random topic, checking out what others are doing, pulling out their lunch to make sure mom packed a cheese string…. the list goes on. No wonder it is hard for kids to get things done!

These difficulties cause problems with the family too, such as having a hard time sitting at a restaurant long enough to get their food or even at the dinner table at home long enough to eat. As they get older, disruptive hyperactive behaviours tend to decrease, though many teens and adults still feel restless.

8. Constant talking

Some kids with ADHD not only move constantly, they also talk constantly. To the excess, which can be disruptive in class but can also annoy others.

9. Noisy during free play

Just as some kids have a constant flourish of activity, many kids with ADHD also have a hard time playing quietly. They often make noises or talk to themselves nonstop.

Kids will be noisy because they may be easily overstimulated and go overboard in their actions. Or, they are under-aroused and need to stimulate their brain to maintain alertness by making noise. Further, that internal voice inside our heads develops slowly for kids with ADHD, so instead of talking to themselves in their head, everything comes out for all to hear.

Often, kids with ADHD are unaware of being loud. With a reminder they may be quiet for a time, but they will soon forget as they re-engage in play and become loud again.

10. Don’t think before acting

Kids who engage in impulsive behaviours respond automatically, without thinking first. Impulsive behaviours looks different for different ages. For example, young children will grab things without permission and might impulsively lash out at a peer when upset. Teens may do stupid things like see if they can jump from a window 20 feet in the air or fit through the milk trap in a door (I have seen both attempts – not pretty).

Whether young or old, kids with impulsive behaviours fail to consider the consequences of their actions and have a hard time responding thoughtfully. They often lack judgment, make hasty decisions, and jump to conclusions. They may start a task before the instructions are given (which becomes really frustrating when they do the wrong thing and have to start over again). They may choose less-than-ideal friends. They may seek activities in which there is an immediate reward or thrill, resulting in stupid and risky behaviour.  

11. Trouble waiting

Another result of impulsivity is trouble waiting. Whether it’s waiting in line, waiting their turn when playing a game, or waiting to get the treat they want, kids with ADHD can be impatient and want things now. Delaying rewards for the future (e.g., needing to do their homework an entire week before they can go see a movie on the weekend) is hard.

12. Socially Intrusive

Kids with ADHD can become so consumed by the moment and overly self-focused (i.e., on their own thoughts and feelings) that they can’t pay attention to how others are feeling or what others need. If they do something annoying or upsetting, they may not be aware of the effect their behaviours have on others. As a result, they don’t realize they are being annoying and so don’t change their behaviour.

They can also be overly intrusive. They might blurt out in class, needing to share the thought that is on their mind. They might need to tell you something right now, without realizing you are talking on the phone. They might butt into other’s conversations or complete other people’s sentences, unable to wait for their turn. They may jump into a game others are playing or take over something someone is doing. They may grab things, even from other’s hands, or take things without asking.

13. Driven by emotion

Kids with ADHD have trouble with frustration tolerance and controlling emotions such as anger, worry, disappointment, and even excitement. They tend to feel emotions more deeply and intensely than kids without ADHD.

Kids with ADHD can become easily overwhelmed with emotion because their brain floods with emotion, leaving little room to do or think about anything else, such as take perspective, breathe, refocus on what is important, and/or stay cool under stress. Thus, they can be over reactive and engage in emotional outbursts that are much bigger than the situation calls for.

Unfortunately, kids with ADHD tend to receive a lot of negative feedback about their overboard reactions, which can interfere with social success (especially if kids start to avoid them because they are always getting in trouble or over reacting over little things) and contribute to feelings of isolation and inadequacy.

14. Inconsistent behaviours

Kids with ADHD are consistently inconsistent, which can be extremely confusing and infuriating for parents. Kids with ADHD have what Russell Barkley, a leading expert in ADHD, calls a point of performance disorder.

Although kids with ADHD often know what they should or should not be doing, they have trouble consistently applying what they know when they need to do it. When they are having a good day and are engaged, they can do everything they need to do; whereas the next day they cannot do the exact same thing they just did the day before. Or even the minute before.

15. Slow processing

Some kids with ADHD tend to process information slowly and inconsistently, which can make it hard to interpret information accurately and respond appropriately. They work and move slowly, taking inordinate amounts of time to get things done and are unable to pick up the pace when they need to.

Conversely, some kids cannot slow down enough to process the information. They may rush through their work too quickly, unable to slow themselves down to monitor their work or check for mistakes.

16. Regulating sleep

Alot of kids with ADHD have a hard time getting enough sleep because their brains tend to race uncontrollably at bedtime, unable to fall asleep at a decent time. Once they do fall asleep, some have a hard time getting up in the morning.

When to get help

When you see several signs that affect your child’s success

Many of these signs, on their own, are normal for kids. And adults. In fact, most people around the world likely daydream or bounce their leg or finish other’s people sentences at least some of the time. However, a diagnosis is typically made when:

  • Kids experience difficulties that seem to go beyond what is normal for their age (e.g., it is normal for 3-year olds to lose focus after a few minutes but a 10 year old should be able to follow classroom instructions)
  • These difficulties persist for more than six months
  • These difficulties affect kids’ daily functioning and success in more than one place, such as home, at school, with friends, and/or in other places like within extracurricular activities; and/or is starting to affect their self-esteem.

While the most rambunctious of kids with ADHD are often spotted early, there are a lot of kids who are missed because they are quiet and generally seem to do well. Sometimes they are caught when the executive demands of school (e.g., organization, managing time, planning, and finishing multi-step assignments) become overwhelming and start to affect kids’ success in school and self-esteem.

When kids are still missed, the tremendous amount of effort and time they take to finish basic tasks and to study often leads to anxiety and depression.

When you are concerned

If you have any concerns regarding your child, even if you are not sure whether it is ADHD, seek professional support. Don’t wait to see if your child outgrows it. If your child does have ADHD, it is critical to get the support they need as early as possible to promote brain development and self-esteem, while also maximizing important learning and social opportunities.

Make an appointment with your doctor or psychologist to discuss the next best steps for you and your child. Be sure you see someone who is knowledgeable about ADHD to ensure a proper diagnosis.

What to do before your appointment

  • If your child exhibits several difficulties listed above, take notes on the specific behaviours and difficulties you are seeing, from lack of focus to emotional outbursts. You can use this tracking form to help identify what your child has the most trouble with. You may start to see patterns – take note of those as well. Although there are real brain differences in the ADHD brain, a diagnosis of ADHD is currently based on behavioural observations, so having this information is critical when you go to your appointment.
  • Get more information. Before you go to your appointment, talk with the other important adults in your child’s life, such as teachers, coaches, and childcare providers. Discuss the concerns you have at home and ask what behaviours they see in other settings. Collaborating together can help develop a thorough understanding of what is going on for your child and what supports might be needed.
  • While you are waiting to determine whether your child has ADHD, there are other things you can do right away to help your child. We know a lot about ADHD and how we can help them be their very best.
    • Learn more about executive function difficulties that your child may have and how to help them.
    • Focus on your child’s strengths and be sure to acknowledge all of your child’s successes.
    • Practice patience. If your child’s brain is different from other kids, there is nothing wrong with that! (The ADHD brain is actually pretty awesome). There is nothing to be ashamed of. BUT, it is still developing and your child needs your help, which starts with patience and connection.

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