When Misbehaving
Is Something More

Some children are always out of control. Sometimes it's naughty behavior, sometimes it's the result of poor parenting, but sometimes out-of-control behavior is caused by a mental health disorder known as ADHD.

Misbehaving Boy

ADHD Defined

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a condition that surfaces in some children of preschool or early school age. Experts estimate that three to five percent of children in the United States – approximately 2 million kids – have ADHD, making it one of the most common mental disorders that develop in children.

Children with ADHD find it hard to control their behavior and/or pay attention. They act without thinking, are hyperactive, and have trouble focusing. Even if they understand what is expected of them, they may have trouble following through because they can't sit still, pay attention, or concentrate on details.

But most children act this way at times, so how can you tell if your child's behavioral issues are caused by a mental disorder and not by, say, poor parenting? The difference with ADHD is that symptoms are present over a longer period of time and impair a child's ability to function at home, at school, and with their peers.

ADHD Symptoms

Symptoms of ADHD appear over the course of many months, even years. The principal characteristics are inattention, impulsiveness, and hyperactivity. Based on these characteristics, ADHD is broken down into three subtypes:

The Inattentive Type of ADHD
This type may be the most difficult to diagnose. Rather than throwing fits or running wild, the Predominantly Inattentive child may sit quietly and appear to be working or perhaps daydreaming. In reality, this child has significant problems paying attention. Even though this child's behavior is less disruptive, he needs help just as much as other ADHD children.

Inattentive types display specific characteristics which may be overlooked including:
• inability to focus on details, resulting in careless mistakes
• short attention span
• listening problems
• difficulty following instructions
• easily distracted by irrelevant sights and sounds
• forgetful with regular tasks
• tendency to lose things

The Hyperactive-Impulsive Type of ADHD
This child demonstrates an "ants in her pants" behavior. She's constantly in motion or on the go. She can't sit still for dinner or school lessons. She's disruptive and distracting. She acts quickly without thinking without regard for consequences. These behaviors may affect her performance in school, on the playground, and at home, and she may be labeled "a discipline problem."

The hyperactive-impulsive child is characterized by these traits:
• fidgeting, squirming, restlessness
• difficulty remaining seated at appropriate times
• excessive running or climbing
• difficulty playing quietly
• excessive talking, problems with interrupting or intruding
• blurting out answers before hearing the full question

The Combined Type of ADHD
The most common form of ADHD, this type is a combination of the other two listed above.

ADHD – The Diagnosis

Not everyone who exhibits hyperactive, impulsive, or inattentive traits has ADHD, so how is a diagnosis made? It is important that a child receive a thorough examination and appropriate diagnosis by a qualified professional. Since ADHD has a strong genetic link and tends to run in families, the doctor will need the child's complete medical history.

To rule out other medical problems, hearing and vision problems should also be considered, as they could contribute to similar behaviors.

If ADHD is suspected, a specialist should be consulted for a formal diagnosis. Developmental/behavioral pediatricians, clinical social workers, behavioral neurologists, child psychiatrists, and psychologists are qualified to diagnose ADHD.

Since the characteristic behaviors of ADHD are common among typical children, a diagnosis requires the following:

• the behavior is demonstrated to a degree that is more severe than other kids the same age
• the behavior appears before the age of seven
• the behavior continues for at least six months
• the behavior creates problems in at least two area's of life: home, school, daycare, playground

A child who shows some symptoms, but whose home life or schoolwork or friendships are not impaired would not be diagnosed with ADHD. Likewise, a child who is unable to concentrate at school but performs well in other areas of his life would receive a diagnosis of ADHD. Additionally, it's important to consider whether or not the symptoms are linked to a stress-related life change at home – like a divorce, a death in the family, or a move. Reacting to life events as such is not considered ADHD.

The Bottom Line

Society is fortunate that modern doctors and educators are gaining a better understanding of mental disorders. No longer is a disruptive child automatically discounted as a "problem child." It is now understood that kids with ADHD aren't being "bad" on purpose.

A child with ADHD will face challenges, but with help from parents, counselors, and the public education system, he or she can live life to the fullest.

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Comments on "The difference between bad behavior and ADHD"

Jodie November 08, 2013 | 1:20 PM

Ron, I would like to know the answer to the question about the child not recieving proper limitations or boundaries. If you ever find out, please let me know.

Laura July 22, 2013 | 9:45 AM

This is a great article. And provides a simple answer to parents: if you cannot attribute your child's behavior to a big event or to bad parenting, it may be a good idea to discuss ADHD with a professional. For me, I knew my son was different than his siblings and other kids his age, so clearly something else was going on in him.

Bethany May 29, 2013 | 10:05 AM

I have ADHD

Ron Mackey March 26, 2013 | 4:10 PM

The question I have is, what if parents fail to set limitations and boundaries, for their child by the time that they reach the ages of one year to 18 months, and never correct them in errant behavior? Could that be a sign to the child that any behavior that they participate in is acceptable, whether right or wrong? Then, the parents take there out-of-control child who never learned what is acceptable or unacceptable from them and take them to be diagnosed for ADD, or ADHD. Is it true, or not, that 65 percent of children who are diagnosed with ADD, or ADHD are given medication on the first visit?

Diane December 09, 2011 | 4:44 AM

I am Jojo Grandmother. His moms name is Megan and his great grandmother is Joann. Joann is 70. Her parents were killed when she was 9. Her only 1 aunt could not take her so she was put up for adoption. She was adopted to good parents but was spoiled rotten. When Megan was born Joann started getting her every weekend of her life. Megan is 25 with 3 sons. She isn't married she doesnt work and never has. Joann pays all her bills including an apartment. Nothing is expected of Megan therefore she does nothing. She is not a good mom. Her sons only routine is that Joann picks up jojo every morning takes him to school then picks him up from school at noon, takes him to the store buys him a gift everyday not matter what. She spoils him bad just like she did Megan. Jojo only wants Joann. When jojo is around myself and my husband we take him fishing (which he has no problem concentrating) he fishes he cast his fishing pole. We take him hunting. He sits in a deer blind very quietly watching the deer. Last night we found out that Joann and Megan have taken him to the doc and had him put on Ritalin. He is 5. When he acts up its because Joann is not catering to his every whim because she does this every day of his life. She has him spoiled rotten just like Megan was spoiled and to this day Megan is not a functioning member of society. Megan took ADHD med throughout her life. My husband and I feel he misbehaves because of his daily routines with Joann and mom. There is no structure in Megans life for the 3 boys. Joann keeps jojo the whole day, feeds him supper, gives him a bath and only takes him home when it is time to go to bed. My husband and I think he has behavorial problems cause he is back and forth between mom and joann. He is constantly spoiled. He is always rewarded for bad behavor by joann and megan doesn't really care - she is really not a good mom. Joann wanted to be saved by someone when she was adopted and she always felt like she was saving Megan throughout her life saving her from mom and dad and now she thinks she is saving jojo from him mom. I know its a screwed up mess but I am really upset that they have medicated him. We do not think he has ADHD but we are not sure how you can tell exactly. Anytime a child goes to the doc; of course the doc listens to the parent. So when there is disfunction at home and of course the doc does not know about this; how can you tell if a child is misbehaving or if the child has adhd. jojo gets into trouble at school but it always stems to the fact that he wants his way. He always gets his way when he is around Joann. And she rewards him for bad behavior she enables him to do wrong and rewards him for it just like she has done megan all these years. So as jojos grandparents what should we do because we do not believe that medicating him for something they have caused is the correct thing to do.

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