Unmasking ADHD: From Children to Adults
Ever thought those quirks you had as a kid might not have been just regular childhood behavior? If you're now diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or considering that you might have it, you're probably looking back to see if the symptoms were there from the start. This is a typical journey for adults with ADHD, as figuring out if you have it often means checking for early signs from your childhood.
In this article, we’ll unravel the complicated nature of ADHD, exploring how childhood traits can echo and evolve into adulthood.
We’ll look at:
- Childhood vs. Adulthood ADHD and the history of common misconceptions (e.g. adults don’t get ADHD).
- Impulsive ADHD symptoms and how they show up in different life stages.
- Inattention, boredom, and creativity and how ADHD symptoms that show up in work meetings might echo our experiences of school.
- Forgetfulness: from school bags to missed appointments.
- Organization skills and how you can either be messy and disorganized or overcompensate and become the most organized person ever.
- Emotional regulation and how it can be a struggle to keep emotions under control without having outbursts or breakdowns.
- The importance of having the right support.
Ready to learn the differences and similarities between child ADHD and adult ADHD?
Let’s dive in. 👇
Child ADHD vs. Adult ADHD: Is There a Difference?
Until the 90’s, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) only had a diagnostic criteria for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in children and young adults - not older adults. This was because it was widely believed that ADHD symptoms faded with age. 🤔
Now, the American Psychiatric Association recognizes that many children with ADHD tend to grow into adults with ADHD symptoms like impulsivity, inattentive traits, and hyperactive tendencies.
ADHD doesn’t fade, it evolves.
For example, findings from one study published in JAMA Psychiatry highlight that a significant portion of individuals diagnosed with ADHD as young adults did not meet the criteria for the disorder in childhood, and conversely, many children diagnosed with ADHD no longer fulfilled the diagnostic criteria in adulthood. This suggests that ADHD symptoms can indeed evolve over time, but not necessarily in a linear or predictable way - ADHD can manifest and change throughout an individual's life.
Interestingly, the researchers in this study also argue that adult onset ADHD and childhood ADHD are two distinct neurodevelopmental disorders, and should be treated as such.
If a child is diagnosed early, they may still have ADHD in adulthood, but it might not be as obvious. That’s because it’s often much easier to manage the symptoms in the long term if the child is taught coping skills and benefits from behavior therapy from an early age, while their brain is still developing.
Why isn’t everyone diagnosed?
There are a lot of children and adults who struggle with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) but are undiagnosed.
This is often because it isn’t always easy to find a suitable mental health professional to diagnose you. 👩⚕️ Countries with free healthcare, like the UK, typically have waiting lists of over a year.
If you have to pay or want to so you can skip those waiting lists, a private diagnosis can be expensive. Many people with untreated ADHD already struggle to manage their finances, so this can create a barrier to getting the right help. Given that ADHD frequently occurs within families, parents may also face difficulties affording private healthcare for their child's diagnosis.
As adults, some can manage their ADHD symptoms pretty well, particularly their hyperactive symptoms, and don't see a need to treat their ADHD. They might even think they have ‘cured’ or outgrown the ADHD traits they experienced while they were younger.
Finally, some people may not receive a diagnosis because it never even occurred to them that they may have ADHD - I didn’t even start to consider an ADHD diagnosis until my late 20’s.
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Uncovering Childhood ADHD: Symptoms and Traits You Might Have Missed
Let's delve into the ADHD symptoms and traits you experienced in childhood but didn't recognize as signs of ADHD.
Initially, these traits may have presented differently than in adulthood, evolving as you navigate life's changes. Over time, you might have learned to manage or even outgrown some of these symptoms, highlighting the dynamic nature of ADHD across different stages of life.
Impulsive ADHD Symptoms
ADHD is a complex disorder that can be difficult to understand. I still find it confusing sometimes, even after getting diagnosed and living with it all my life.
I never thought about my behaviors as a child until I got an official ADHD diagnosis. During my (very detailed! 🥱) comprehensive assessment, the doctor asked me about my experiences during childhood and young adulthood.
That’s when I started to reflect, particularly on how my impulsivity had shown up.
I was always interest-led. If I saw something that excited or intrigued me (or, let’s be honest, was shiny), I’d impulsively feel the need to buy or beg for it, without thinking about my monthly allowance or what else I’d be giving up.
I see a new hobby, and I’d invest what little pocket money I had to buy everything I could ever need - only to lose interest just as quickly.
Another way my impulsivity would show up as a kid was by interrupting people; my parents, friends, teachers - it was as if, once I had a thought, I just had to share it immediately.
That impulsivity followed me into adulthood. I have to actively try to control my impulse spending, especially when there’s something I desperately want or a new hobby that will ‘change my life’.
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), impulsivity can be one of the most common symptoms in ADHD assessment.
There are lots of impulsive symptoms that we can experience aside from impulse buying. Impulsive behavioral symptoms also include interrupting people and butting into conversations, talking excessively, and having difficulty waiting in line.
Impulsive symptoms are often the reason for risky behaviors later in life, either as young adults or adults. These can have serious consequences and include things like unsafe sex and teenage pregnancy, substance abuse, stealing, and binge drinking. Sometimes, this may be diagnosed as conduct disorder, particularly in young adulthood.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, children diagnosed with ADHD have a higher likelihood of being diagnosed with behavioral disorders, including Oppositional Defiant Disorder or Conduct Disorder, compared to their peers.
Inattention, Boredom & Creativity
Young children often experience inattentive ADHD symptoms, but as kids are naturally curious, creative, and often in their own worlds, it can be difficult to identify them as symptoms. Their attention naturally jumps from thing to thing as they take in their surroundings - and, as children are constantly experiencing things for the first time, it can be difficult to pinpoint if it’s a natural part of their development or an attention deficit disorder.
Children with inattentive ADHD presentations are often daydreamers bursting with creative thoughts (especially during lessons when they’re supposed to be listening), but often forget what they’re supposed to be doing next.
Boredom often sparks creativity, leading to experimentation. However, combined with impulsivity, this can mean we’ll probably make a few more mistakes than everyone else.
We tend to be adventurous, which can be either a good or a bad thing. While we get to explore new things and widen our perspective, we can also develop habits that are hard to break and can hurt us in the long run.
Many adults with ADHD may also experience difficulty in having sustained attention and get bored quickly, especially when they are forced to do something they aren't interested in.
Common examples of such activities are seminars, conferences unrelated to their field, or projects they find tedious. When this happens, they may start doodling on their notebooks or papers, playing with their pens, or worse, falling asleep, just like a child might.
Children with the hyperactivity-impulsivity presentation of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder are usually constantly tapping, fidgeting, or finding some way to move. This stereotype is generally associated with hyperactive boys - and while these symptoms are more likely to present in males, they also do show up in girls.
Sometimes, hyperactive children 'mellow out' as they get older, but sometimes, they become adults who are always on the go and unable to relax. They might not be physically running around the office, but their leg starts tapping a mile a minute under the table during a boring meeting.
The switch from kid to adult ADHD isn't just about changing how hyperactivity looks; it's about feeling like you're constantly trying to channel this energy into something productive, or at least not disruptive. As a kid, it was all about physical movement. As an adult, this inner restlessness is like mentally pacing back and forth, looking for the next thing to jump to.
Managing this involves finding new ways to cope with this endless energy, from tapping into hobbies that keep your hands busy to mastering the art of multitasking without losing your mind. It might also involve stimulant medications, which can help settle the unique way in which hyperactivity appears in adulthood.
Who says being forgetful is only as you get older? I’ve been losing and forgetting things for as long as I can remember (which isn’t long, obviously 😂).
Looking back, my parents were always telling me off for forgetting my school stuff. I don’t know how I expected to learn anything without a pen and paper, but my ADHD brain thought it was an interesting challenge.
This was usually because of my procrastination. I’d put off organizing everything I needed for the day until the last minute. And because I had trouble sleeping, woke up late, and wasn’t great at knowing how long my routines would take me, I’d have to immediately grab everything and go to school.
Sometimes I’d remember what I’d forgotten on the way there, but often it wouldn’t be until I was faced with an activity that required a very specific thing that I’d realize my mistake. Quite often, that was my homework.
As an adult, our working memory still prevents us from remembering essential details we need to accomplish.
Many adults with ADHD tend to forget a lot of things, especially when they are under a lot of stress. This can be things like an appointment with the doctor, meeting up with friends, or deadlines at work. 📅 When these things happen, our adult lives can seem like a mess because of the number of things we need to remember, and just can’t.
This can be a big source of shame for many with ADHD and is where specific support may help. For children, this might include parent training; for adults, it might include executive coaching.
Parents can also support their children with ADHD by teaching them organization skills, such as using a planner or setting up an alarm on their phone to remind them of their tasks.
When it comes to childhood ADHD, it isn’t obvious whether a kid is organized or not. After all, there’s a good chance that their parents are doing everything for them. Plus, it’s usual for kids to be ‘messy,’ so there isn’t much to gain from labeling them as disorganized so early in life.
But once they reach school age, we can start to see the signs, as they’re now expected to do things independently. This is where we can usually tell if they can follow instructions, remember the steps of a task, or complete a project on time.
A child with ADHD may struggle to:
- Set and stick to routines,
- Structure their school work and learning,
- Hand in homework on time,
- Avoid distractions,
- Keep belongings in their designated spaces,
- Remember where things are
This is why parents need to support and teach their children with ADHD organization skills, rather than constantly criticize. I don’t know about anyone else, but I can’t stand being nagged. I tend to have very strong reactions and avoid the task I’m being nagged about doing.
Since I was undiagnosed as a child, my parents just couldn’t understand why I was so messy and couldn’t put things back where they belonged. It was a source of friction between us, as I couldn’t explain why I just couldn’t.
Many adults and young adults with ADHD, on the other hand, either get way too organized to mask their symptoms and overcompensate, or just let their environment be a mess because they can't seem to manage anything. Some even miraculously manage to do both.
If you’re the former, super organized type, it may mean that you are constantly trying to ensure everything is done perfectly to avoid making any mistakes and being judged by people. 😔That perfectionism often makes us procrastinate even more than we already do.
On the other hand, if you’re in the disorganized camp, it can mean that your environment is usually cluttered and messy because you can't seem to put anything in its proper place. This can be a problem at work when your desk is always messy, and you can't find anything when you or your colleagues need it. It can also, unfortunately, affect people’s perceptions of you.
Let’s also take into account that you may have other comorbid disorders, such as generalized anxiety disorder or depression. These, too, can affect your organizational skills.
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)can often cause challenges with executive function.
People with this neurodevelopmental disorder typically have a ‘weaker’ prefrontal cortex which is the part of the brain responsible for executive function.
Executive function is essential in helping us manage day-to-day tasks and cope with psychosocial treatments and interactions. It’s also directly linked to emotional regulation which is why it can be so difficult to keep emotions under control.
Children with ADHD typically experience more meltdowns, as they have difficulty understanding and dealing with their emotions.
Young adults and teenagers are also dealing with puberty, and the hormonal changes combined with ADHD can be extra challenging.
Regardless of which ADHD subtype or presentation you have, or the age you are, emotional dysregulation can have a huge impact on your life. Many children with ADHD tend to get easily upset when they don't get what they want, can get too overly excited over little things, or may have difficulty transitioning from one activity to another.
Child psychology suggests that parents should understand and not dismiss the child's emotions. Instead, they can help their children understand why they are feeling a certain way and how they can cope with these feelings.
Additionally, adolescent psychiatry research advises parents to engage in open discussions with their teens about ADHD, focusing on managing its challenges and recognizing their achievements. Encouraging teens to take charge of their ADHD management - like organizing tasks and time efficiently - boosts their independence, self-esteem, and resilience, equipping them for adulthood.
Adults with ADHD can also have challenges when it comes to managing their emotions. They may find it hard to control their temper, be impulsive, make decisions out of their frustrations, or become easily overwhelmed by their feelings.
Rejection sensitivity disorder (RSD) is another common, but not officially recognized symptom. It means people with ADHD are more sensitive to perceived rejection of any shape or size, even something like someone not replying to a message quickly enough.
As mentioned earlier, people with ADHD often experience other mental disorders like depression and anxiety, especially as young adults, which are even more difficult to manage without emotional regulation.
This can pose problems in their lives, such as at work, in personal relationships, or in handling tasks and responsibilities.
The Importance of Having the Right Support
ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder that can cause struggles at any age - and these struggles may change with time.
For example, hyperactive children can evolve into an inattentive adult. Because of the continuous changes in our environment and increasing demands, the way we learn, process information, and cope also rapidly changes.
That’s why it’s essential to have a support system to help us manage our ADHD symptoms and cope with our challenges. A sound support system can play a significant role in treating ADHD and recovery.
Children with ADHD definitely need their parents and other family members to help them with their symptoms in a compassionate way.
They may need help managing their schoolwork, keeping on track with ADHD treatment strategies or medication treatment, and dealing with their emotions.
A stable home and support are crucial in a child's development and progress in managing their ADHD. Their school environment can also be a factor that can either help or hinder their progress. Parents need to find a school or teacher who is understanding and can provide the necessary support for their child.
For adults, you’ll also need adjustments and support to comfortably manage your symptoms.
This may involve support in managing their workload, finances, and personal relationships. You may also want to try different treatments like stimulant medication or behavior therapy.
Adult ADHD struggles are more than just the three categories: Predominantly Hyperactive-Impulsive, Predominantly Inattentive, and Combined.
It can also come with co-occurring mental disorders, such as Oppositional Defiant Disorder, Conduct Disorder, Anxiety Disorders, Depression, or Bipolar Disorder, that can make things more complex and significantly affect your mental health.
Impulsivity, in particular, can lead to substance abuse and risky habits.
Because of this, it is essential to find the right professionals and people who can help you manage everything.
Whether you’re an adult with ADHD symptoms, one of the many young adults adjusting to adult life with ADHD, or a parent of a child with ADHD, do not hesitate to ask for help.
- Understanding ADHD Across Ages: Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder evolves from childhood into adulthood, challenging the belief that it fades over time. Early diagnosis and intervention are key to managing symptoms effectively.
The way we treat ADHD can be different for each life stage, including::
- For children, early coping skills and behavior therapy are beneficial.
- For adults, recognizing and managing ADHD requires different strategies, acknowledging that symptoms and their impact can change over time.
- Challenges in Diagnosis: Many individuals with ADHD remain undiagnosed due to barriers such as access to mental health professionals, the cost of private healthcare, and the misconception that they have outgrown their symptoms.
- Symptom Evolution: ADHD symptoms manifest differently in children and adults, influenced by life stages and individual experiences. Impulsivity, inattention, and hyperactivity are common but evolve in manifestation and impact.
- The types of support needed also evolve.
- Parental understanding, open discussions about emotions, and organization skills training are crucial for children.
- For adolescents, engaging in conversations about ADHD and encouraging self-management and independence prepare them for adulthood.
- For adults, managing emotions, work, and personal relationships requires adjustments and ongoing support.
- Seeking professional guidance is essential for diagnosing ADHD, understanding its implications, and finding effective treatment strategies. This includes therapy, medication, and lifestyle adjustments to manage symptoms and improve quality of life.
Recognizing and addressing ADHD, whether in childhood or adulthood, is a journey of understanding, adaptation, and empowerment. Whether you're managing your own symptoms or supporting a loved one, managing ADHD as a team is easier than dealing with it by ourselves. Remember that you are not alone in this journey; people care and want to help you. 🥰
If you want to find out more about ADHD, either in adults or children, check out these related articles. 👇
- Key ADHD Statistics You Should Know
- Navigating ADHD Challenges in Teenage Years
- Understanding the Full Spectrum of the ADHD Iceberg
Visualize and assess 25 ADHD traits and understand how they affect your life.Learn more
ADHD Childhood vs Adulthood: FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions)
Is it true that childhood ADHD disappears with age?
It’s a common misconception. The answer is no. ADHD does not disappear simply because one grows older.
How is ADHD different in children and adults?
The differences lie mainly on the symptoms and how the neurodivergent condition is diagnosed and managed. For instance, the common ADHD symptoms, like inattention, being distracted, and getting disorganized, are typical of children. Hence, it might be hard to diagnose it on them. Compared to adults, management of childhood ADHD is highly dependent on the support of parents.
How does ADHD change from childhood to adulthood?
The answer to this depends on whether or not childhood ADHD has been officially diagnosed and treated. With diagnosis and treatment, the childhood ADHD symptoms may improve. Without them, the growing child may either experience more challenges, develop coping mechanisms, or simply mask their ADHD symptoms.