Does My Child Have ADHD or Is It Just High Energy?

Kids swimming in pool
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My child is full of energy! She's always on the move. Does that mean she has ADHD?

While many children with ADHD are, in fact, very energetic, high energy alone is not enough to warrant a diagnosis. In fact, children with some forms of ADHD are not high energy at all. ADD, for example, may manifest itself in low energy combined with inattentiveness and other symptoms.

So when might a child with lots of energy be diagnosed with ADHD?

In order to qualify for the diagnosis, a child must have a chronic, pervasive problem with his or her ability to regulate activity level, as well as impairment in their ability to inhibit and control impulses. The impairment of functioning or learning is the key to differentiating ADHD from normal activity.

But hyperactivity and the other primary symptoms, impulsivity and inattention, are really just the tip of the iceberg for kids who have ADHD. There can be additional impairments that may not be as obvious. For example:

  • Children with ADHD often have difficulty processing information. With the hyperactive example, it may be that the individual has trouble slowing down enough to process information accurately. This can create problems in a classroom setting where students are expected to quickly and accurately make sense of and respond to instruction.
  • Children with ADHD become frustrated and overwhelmed very easily and have trouble regulating their emotions. These symptoms can interfere with social relationships, leading to a sense of isolation and lowered self esteem. 
  • Children with ADHD usually struggle with executive function issues like organizing, planning, prioritizing, paying attention and remembering details. These issues can become problematic in a range of settings. Even in after school sports, team members are expected to come prepared, remember what they were taught, and show up on time.
  • Children with ADHD also tend to be less mature developmentally than their same-age peers. Thus, an 11-year-old with ADHD may think and behave more like a young child than like a rising teenager. This means that even as teens kids with ADHD may lack the judgment they need to make smart choices about friendships, risk-taking, and potentially harmful activities.

If your child is energetic and finds it hard to sit still, he may be displaying some of the signs of ADHD. But if he is also able to control his impulses and emotions, pay attention, and respond appropriately in school and at home, he is probably just an energetic individual. While the core symptoms that define ADHD can include hyperactivity, along with impulsivity and inattention, not all kids (or adults) with ADHD will have these symptoms in the same way or to the same degree. You will certainly see changes in the way the symptoms manifest or present as an individual moves through different stages of life.

So as you can see, for a child with ADHD, there is much more involved than simply being active and full of energy.

Nevertheless, if you have concerns about your child's development, it's always a good idea to check in with your pediatrician.

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