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The difference between bad behavior and ADHD

Mary Fetzer is a freelance writer and marketing consultant with a marketing degree from Penn State University and 15 years of international business experience. Mary specializes in writing about parenting, children, pregnancy, college, h...

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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