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How Do I Know If My Child Has ADHD?

Image source: thinkstock
Image source: thinkstock

Babble is partnering with PACER Center to help parents better understand and navigate the needs of children with mental health and behavior issues. This month, we’re talking about ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) and how to know if you should be concerned about your child’s behavior.

Parenting can be exhausting, especially when you have a very active 4-year-old who is in near-constant motion from sunrise to sunset. That’s how Gail feels most of the time.

The young mother used to be energized by Marcus’ constant activity and sense of adventure – the way he could climb into his highchair without help, how he had been so early to walk, his constant curiosity about games and toys and almost everything else – but lately it’s all become too much.

One morning a few weeks ago, Gail walked into the kitchen to make herself some coffee and, much to her horror, found Marcus playing in the cupboard above the stove! It wasn’t the first time his impulsive behavior had put Marcus in a precarious situation, but this was new territory. Gail carefully coaxed the boy down from the cupboard, lifting him gently off the countertop.

“What you did is really dangerous Marcus,” she told her son. “You could fall and break your arm! Please don’t do that again.”

Two days later, Gail went looking for Marcus in the backyard. When she stepped out onto the patio, Gail was mortified to see her son leap from the top of the fence and take off running down the sidewalk. She quickly went after the boy and with the help of a neighbor, managed to corral him and bring him home.

“This is more than I can take,” she thought as she sent Marcus to his room. “What am I going to do?”

It was Gail’s mother who first suggested that Marcus might have ADHD – Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder – and from what she knew of the condition, Gail agreed it was a possibility. Marcus’ high-octane behavior didn’t just happen at home. His childcare provider had expressed concern because Marcus wasn’t able to stay on task at daycare, either. He didn’t wait his turn, frequently interrupted the other children and adults, and wouldn’t sit still for a moment.

But Gail was hesitant to follow up because she had heard many stories of kids with ADHD being put on behavior-altering medication, and she didn’t want that for her 4-year-old. Eventually Gail’s mother convinced her to call the doctor.

In reality, it’s not unusual for young children to be hyperactive, impulsive, and lack focus. Every child is unique and it can be difficult to know the difference between age-appropriate behavior and actions that might indicate an emotional, or behavioral issue.

If you have a child who doesn’t respond to redirection, can’t follow your instructions, or is doing things that are dangerous, it’s probably time to dig a little deeper.

Here are a few steps you can take if you are concerned that your child might have ADHD:

1. Observe your child and take notes:

Keeping a journal about your child’s behavior for a few weeks is a good first step. Gather information from others who interact with your child – the babysitter, family members, and your childcare provider, for example. Create a checklist naming the specific behaviors you have concerns about. PACER’s handout, “When Should Parents Be Concerned About Their Child’s Behavior?” can help you get started.

2. Make an appointment with your pediatrician:

Most parents who have had their child evaluated for emotional or behavioral issues will tell you that it’s much easier once you know your child has challenges that need to be managed, versus sitting at home worrying about it. The Internet can be a helpful tool to learn more but don’t rely on your search engine to provide you with accurate answers. Call your pediatrician! Explain your concerns when you make the appointment and request a “developmental screening” for your child.

3. Be prepared for the appointment:

This is where your journal will be incredibly helpful. Because children develop on their own timeline, the behaviors you are concerned about may not seem so alarming to your child’s pediatrician. By bringing your checklist and notes with you to the appointment, you’ll have valuable information to share. A checklist also makes the discussion more objective and helps take some of the emotion out of the conversation.

4. Do your best to accept your situation:

Learning that your child has mental health, emotional, or behavioral challenges is not easy, and some parents are reluctant to hear this uncomfortable news. They worry about medication, special education at school, and what the neighbors will think. The stigma of behavioral conditions like ADHD remains a very real issue for children and families. Do your best to accept the reality of the situation. It’s up to you to get the answers you need, and learn more about your child’s situation in order to get help.

5. Remember, it’s about your child’s future:

Remind yourself that this isn’t about you. No, this is about your child’s well-being, both now and in the future. Gail knows how stressful it is to worry constantly about her child’s safety, and how uncomfortable it can be to make constant excuses for her son’s behavior, but it can’t be easy for Marcus, either.

The Mayo Clinic reports that toddlers as young as 2 or 3 years old can display the primary signs of ADHD: impulsivity, hyperactivity, and inattention. But the good news is that early intervention is usually effective, and likely to make life much more manageable for you and your child. If that sounds like your child, it’s time to take action.

Do you have a child with ADHD? Your experiences could be helpful to other parents who are concerned about their child’s behavior and are searching for answers. Please share your thoughts and experiences.

RESOURCES

These PACER checklists may be helpful as you observe your young child’s behavior:

Parent Documentation: Behavior Concern for Early Childhood (birth to 1 year)

Parent Documentation: Behavior Concern for Early Childhood (1 year to 3 years)

Parent Documentation: Behavior Concern for Toddlers ( 1 year to 3 years)

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