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What Signs Indicate Your Child Has ADHD?

Adolescence, as any parent of a pre-teen or teenager knows, is no walk in the park; it's a roller coaster ride of changes - emotional, physical and social. Not quite finished with childhood yet not quite ready for adulthood, your adolescent needs your help in navigating this unfamiliar terrain. But adolescence can sometimes be as confusing for parents as it is for their kids. Consider the following scenarios:

"Your daughter is supposed to be doing her math homework but for the third time in less than half an hour, she's found an excuse to stop working. First she had to sharpen a collection of pencils, then she insisted she needed a snack, and now she's rooting through her backpack in search of the assignment notebook she lost last week.

"The popcorn is made, the sofa cushions are plumped up and everyone in the family has settled in to watch a video -- everyone except your son. After fidgeting and squirming through the first few minutes, he insists he feels too restless to sit still. He races up the stairs to his room, only to return shortly afterward to ask a barrage of questions about what he's missed.

"Your child's teacher has requested a conference to discuss behavior problems. Now in middle school, your child still has a hard time waiting his turn. He blurts out answers before the teacher has finished asking the questions, and he consistently interrupts others."

What's going on with these kids? Is such a lack of focus, restlessness or impulsiveness "normal" for adolescents? Or could these behaviors be the result of ADHD?

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is the most commonly diagnosed behavioral disorder in children and adolescents, affecting an estimated 3 to 7 of every 100 school-aged children. Although ADHD may be diagnosed and treated during a child's elementary school years, up to 66 percent of children with ADHD will continue to exhibit symptoms into adolescence. Still, it's not always recognized as a behavioral disorder because almost everyone (and arguably, adolescents in particular) can be fidgety, restless, impulsive and inattentive at times.

So what determines whether certain behaviors are signs of ADHD or simply part and parcel of adolescence? It's largely a matter of frequency - if the behaviors are exhibited more often than just "at times" - and whether the behaviors are developmentally inappropriate. For those of us who aren't clinicians, determining what's "developmentally inappropriate" can be tough. But ask yourself:

"ADHD is one of the most common mental disorders among children. It affects 3-5% of all children, perhaps as many as 2 million American children." from National Institute of Mental Health, NIH publication No. 96-3572.

Does your child daydream more than others her age?

Is he more forgetful or disorganized than his peers?

Does she seem to have more uncontrolled energy than her friends?

Is he always losing things?

Has the teacher complained that your child is struggling academically, or that she pays more attention to the birds outside the window than to her schoolwork?

Is he socially withdrawn, or does he behave aggressively?

ADHD varies among individuals, so not all kids with ADHD exhibit the same symptoms. In fact, a misconception about the disorder is that every child with ADHD is "hyper." Actually, as many as one-fourth of children with ADHD have a subtype of the disorder known as Predominantly Inattentive ADHD, which does not include hyperactivity as one of the primary symptoms. Remember, too, that depression, excess stress or anxiety, and certain types of learning disabilities may cause symptoms similar to those exhibited with ADHD.

But if the above signs seem the rule for your teen rather than the exception, it's a good idea to seek a professional evaluation. Left undiagnosed and untreated, adolescents with ADHD generally perform below their ability in school, primarily because they are easily distracted, disorganized and inattentive. Adolescents with ADHD also tend to be more withdrawn and less communicative, which impairs their social development.

They are more impulsive, reacting to situations without considering the consequences and without regard to previous plans or obligations. This impulsivity can lead to what seems like risk-taking behavior, such as cutting school or experimenting with drugs or alcohol. (While this behavior is certainly risky, the adolescent isn't necessarily a risk taker; he simply has trouble controlling impulses and anticipating consequences.)

Having ADHD has been likened to being put in a dark room where the floor is littered with objects. Everyone else who enters the room has a flashlight and can get around just fine, but your ADHD child has to make his way in the dark, tripping over the objects on the floor until he finally determines where everything is. And then, just when he's learned the layout of the room, he's moved to a new dark room and has to start the process all over again.

Determining if your child has ADHD requires a comprehensive evaluation by a healthcare professional. There is no single test for diagnosing ADHD; it can be a long process, but the first step is often your recognizing the signs.

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