Similar but Different: How to Spot ADHD in Children vs. Adults

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects people of all ages. However, ADHD presents differently in children compared to adults, due to varying factors, including their stages of development, environments, and skills.

In children, ADHD symptoms usually begin in early childhood and persist through adolescence. They often struggle with completing tasks, following instructions, and staying focused for long periods of time. Especially during school, children with ADHD may not be able to focus or pay attention to classroom lesson plans. They may be underperforming due to difficulty following classroom instructions, listening to teachers, staying on top of assignments, or completing homework. These difficulties with organization and concentration can lead to low levels of school performance that do not reflect their actual intelligence (children with ADHD are often just as intelligent as other students!).

In addition, children with ADHD often struggle with peer-to-peer socialization. Their hyperactivity and restlessness can interfere with normal social experiences. Children with ADHD may have a hard time staying engaged in conversations or activities with friends and may have disruptive behaviors in social groups or struggle to participate in games or activities. It’s important to remember that children with ADHD are often longing for social participation and belonging, but without treatment of their ADHD, they struggle to control their behaviors. Additionally, the impulsiveness associated with ADHD may cause unintentional harm to others or themselves.

The behavior of children with ADHD can lead to increasingly negative feedback from parents, teachers, and other adults, which can exacerbate their symptoms. Families of children with ADHD may find themselves wondering how to provide a healthy and structured environment for their child. It is important for parents to seek support from therapists and educators who specialize in ADHD management strategies. With the right tools and support systems in place, parents can help their children develop effective coping skills that will ultimately improve family dynamics, their children’s school performance, social skills, and quality of life for everyone involved.

While children with ADHD most often struggle with hyperactivity and disruptive behaviors related to school or peers, adults typically experience ADHD differently. Adults with ADHD tend to have symptoms that are more subtle, making it more difficult to diagnose in adults. They may not manifest hyperactive or disruptive behavior, but may have difficulty with life organization, time management, and prioritizing daily tasks. This can make it challenging for keeping jobs, maintaining relationships, managing their finances, and more.

It is common for ADHD to go unrecognized and undiagnosed in adults, as many believe that the disorder is solely a childhood condition. In addition, adults with ADHD may have developed adaptive skills over the years, which helps them manage their symptoms better than children. For instance, adults may skillfully use to-do lists, alarms, and calendars to remember tasks and appointments. These adaptive skills make it more difficult to detect ADHD because the ability to adapt so effectively masks the condition. This is especially true for adults who have gone many years adapting to their ADHD symptoms so habitually that their everyday lifestyles have become very “normal” to them.

Adults with ADHD are also more likely to experience a great deal of frustration that can sometimes lead to anxiety, depression, and other problems. Frustration is a natural response to ADHD symptoms as an adult because many people have dreams and ambitions that they are trying to pursue, and ADHD symptoms can very much interfere with those goals. For example, an adult with ADHD may want to grow their career but have difficulty concentrating in the workplace or keeping up with tasks. Or someone may want to maintain a significant relationship, but have difficulty remembering details about their partner or showing up to dates on time. It might also be difficult for a parent with ADHD to keep up with their parenting responsibilities, such as keeping schedules organized for their children or completing household chores.

These struggles are often very frustrating for adults with ADHD because they know how to identify their goals, yet struggle to follow through on action steps. Sometimes an adult might seek therapy for depression, not realizing that their depression is actually stemming from frustrations with ADHD symptoms that may have gone undetected.

For both children and adults, reaching out for help from a mental health therapist is so important. ADHD can present differently between children and adults, but both groups can reach their full potential and lead fulfilling lives with proper ADHD symptom management. In some cases, medication for ADHD may be worth exploring with a doctor, but even with medication, research indicates that therapy is highly beneficial for learning the concrete skills and strategies that can be helpful in the day-to-day life of an individual with ADHD. If you or a loved one – no matter the age – are struggling with signs or symptoms that mimic ADHD, please reach out to us. Early diagnosis can be life-changing. We would be honored to talk about how ADHD may be impacting your life so that we can provide appropriate support to help you stay on track and reach your goals.

Written by Lauren Presutti

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