ADHD in Children: Causes, Risk Factors, Signs, Symptoms, Diagnosis, Treatment and Overview

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder is a condition that affects millions of children and often continues into adulthood.

Children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) have trouble paying attention and often display hyperactive and impulsive behaviors . These characteristics of ADHD often affect a child’s relationships with family, friends, and teachers.

How old are children diagnosed with ADHD?

Most children with ADHD are diagnosed during their time in elementary school. The average age ADHD is diagnosed is 7 years old.

Children with mild ADHD are usually diagnosed around the age of 8, and children with severe ADHD tend to be diagnosed earlier, at age 5.

Possible causes and risk factors that point to ADHD being visible in childhood

Genetics

  • The mother uses drugs, alcohol or smokes during pregnancy or is exposed to environmental toxins during pregnancy.
  • Premature birth or low birth weight.
  • Central nervous system problems at critical moments of development.

Studies have shown that the following can be early indicators of ADHD. It is important to note that just because a child has some of these signs and symptoms does not mean they have ADHD:

  • Decrease in the growth rate of the head.
  • Delayed motor development, speech and language.
  • Behavioral difficulties.

One study shows that a third of children with ADHD had delays in speech development by 9 months of age. Two-thirds experienced a speech and language delay at 18 months.

Some researchers suggest that ADHD can be reliably diagnosed in children through comprehensive evaluations as soon as they reach 3 years of age.

A study of school-age children notes that mothers reported ADHD symptoms starting at age 4 or earlier in two-thirds of children.

While there are no criteria for diagnosing young children with ADHD, research shows that 3-year-olds with ADHD symptoms likely meet the diagnostic criteria for ADHD by the age of 13.

Early Signs and Symptoms of ADHD in Young Children

It is difficult to notice ADHD symptoms in children younger than 4 years old. Children at this age change rapidly and are not always capable of the behaviors listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-V) for ADHD.

Children who are very energetic, or very active, and who do not have ADHD can usually focus when necessary for stories or to look at picture books. They can also sit and do a puzzle or put away toys.

A young child with ADHD may have a hard time concentrating and calming down.

However, children with ADHD often cannot do these things. They can exhibit extreme behavior that disrupts activities and relationships. They must also display these behaviors for at least 6 months in more than one setting, such as home and daycare.

Young children with ADHD may exhibit behaviors such as:

  • Restlessness (runs, climbs, jumps over everything).
  • It is constantly “in motion” or appears “Powered by a motor.”
  • Talk non-stop.
  • You cannot concentrate or listen for long.
  • Finds it difficult to settle down, take naps, and sit down to eat.

However, some children with ADHD may focus on things that interest them, such as particular toys.

Short attention span, impulsivity, tantrums, and high levels of activity are normal during certain stages of development.

If a parent or caregiver believes that their child is exhibiting excessive, intense, frequent behavior that affects family life, they should speak with their child’s doctor for an evaluation.

Diagnosing ADHD in Young Children

There are no guidelines for diagnosing and evaluating ADHD in young children. However, the guidelines state that a doctor should evaluate any child between the ages of 4 and 18 who shows behavioral problems and symptoms of ADHD, including inattention, hyperactivity, or impulsivity for ADHD.

To diagnose ADHD, a doctor can:

  • Carry out a medical examination.
  • Look at personal and family medical history, as well as school records.
  • Ask a family member, teachers, babysitters, and coaches to complete a questionnaire.
  • Compare symptoms and behavior with ADHD rating scales and criteria.

Diagnosing the disorder in preschoolers or young children is challenging.

Developmental problems, such as language delays, could be misdiagnosed as ADHD.

Other medical conditions can cause symptoms similar to ADHD. These include:

  • Brain damage.
  • Learning or language problems.
  • Mood disorders including depression and anxiety.
  • Seizure disorders
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Thyroid problems
  • Vision or hearing problems

Preschoolers and younger children who show symptoms of ADHD should be evaluated by a specialist such as a speech pathologist, developmental pediatrician, psychologist, or psychiatrist in order to arrive at a reliable diagnosis.

Treatments for ADHD in Young Children

Medication

There are currently no guidelines available for treating ADHD in young children.

To diagnose ADHD in a young child, a doctor can look at many different symptoms and behaviors.

For preschool children ages 4 to 5, several treatments may be recommended. One of them is behavioral therapy, which is evidence-based behavior therapy administered by parents or teachers.

Another is the medication methylphenidate for ADHD. If behavior therapy does not significantly improve the child’s symptoms or if the symptoms continue to be moderate to severe, this option should be considered.

If medications are prescribed, a physician will monitor and alter the dose administered to the child to ensure maximum benefit is obtained while minimizing side effects.

This drug is not approved for use in children younger than 6 years old. The drug has not yet been studied in this age group.

Some studies show that stimulant ADHD medications, such as methylphenidate, affect children’s growth, while others show that this is not the case. More research is needed.

Parents have reported the side effects of these medications as:

  • Weightloss.
  • Insomnia .
  • Loss of appetite
  • Emotional outbursts.
  • Anxiety.

ADHD therapy

While medication works on a neurological level to regulate the brain, behavioral therapy addresses specific problem behaviors by structuring time at home, establishing predictabilities and routines, and increasing positive attention.

Behavior therapy operates on a simple premise: Parents and other adults in a child’s life set clear expectations for their child’s behavior: they praise and reward positive behavior and discourage negative behavior.

Behavior therapy requires the participation of parents and teachers.

Diet and nutrition for ADHD

Poor diet and eating habits do not cause ADHD. However, parents of children with ADHD are finding that while whole foods may not be a panacea, dietary changes can make a big difference for some children with ADHD.

Research shows that diet and nutrition affect cognition, attention, sleep, and mood.

Some studies show that people who eat “clean” or “whole” diets high in vegetables, fruits, unprocessed grains, and lean meats are more likely to experience better emotional health and 25 to 35 percent less likely to experience depression.

Studies have shown that protein triggers alert-inducing neurotransmitters, while carbohydrates cause drowsiness.

These findings support the popular belief that people with ADHD improve after eating a high-protein breakfast and lunch.

For optimal brain performance, children should eat more unprocessed foods, complex carbohydrates, proteins, vegetables, and fruits.

That means avoiding artificial colors and flavors, chemical preservatives, and over-processed foods, all of which have been shown to exacerbate ADHD symptoms in some people.

Natural supplements for ADHD

It’s true that not everyone eats the right foods to reach beneficial levels of certain nutrients, especially picky kids.

But it is also true that our bodies do not always produce the nutrients we need, so we must obtain some of them through supplements.

There are many vitamins, herbs, and supplements that can decrease ADHD symptoms or address medication side effects in some individuals: Omega-3, Zinc, Iron, Magnesium, Vitamin C, Valerian, Melatonin, Ginkgo, and Ginseng.

However, “all natural” is not synonymous with “safe.” Many herbs and supplements have side effects, they can cause or worsen health problems, or interfere with prescription drugs.

Talk to your child’s doctor before starting any supplements. When your doctor asks if your child is taking any medications, be sure to tell him about all the vitamins and supplements he takes daily.

Panorama

It can be difficult to diagnose a child with ADHD before the age of 4 or 5. If parents or caregivers suspect that their child may have ADHD, they should see a doctor.

A doctor will first rule out other possible conditions. If, after the evaluation, a doctor diagnoses a young child with ADHD, they will offer advice, support, and information about behavior therapy. With treatment, ADHD symptoms can be managed effectively.