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ADHD in Young Children

Understanding Early Symptoms of ADHD


Updated June 19, 2014

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ADHD in Young Children

Understanding and identifying signs of ADHD early on and getting interventions and supports in place can make a big difference in your child's success.

Photo © Frank Rosenstein

The Importance of Early Detection

It's so important to learn about the early symptoms of ADHD in preschool-age children -- and about the ways ADHD can impair a child’s behavior and learning. When parents, caregivers, and teachers are aware of and educated about ADHD, they can be more proactive in getting positive strategies in place and intervening before the child develops a pattern of negative behaviors or damaged self-esteem. Early intervention may also potentially prevent the emergence of further symptoms and secondary conditions such as anxiety or oppositional defiant behaviors. In addition when parents and teachers are able to recognize these signs and impairments, they are likely to be more tolerant and understanding of these preschoolers and are more apt to utilize helpful interventions and get an effective plan in place to address the problems as opposed to responding in ways that may exacerbate the symptoms.

Understanding Early ADHD Symptoms

It is important to note that it can be very difficult to tease out and differentiate the normal development of regulation of attention and impulses along with the ability to focus and control hyperactivity from abnormal ADHD symptoms. Diagnosing ADHD in a preschool age child requires great clinical expertise. At this young age it is much harder to separate and distinguish the behavioral features associated with ADHD from behaviors that occur in typically developing children. This article will focus on the some of the possible early behavioral features that are most likely to be associated with ADHD at young ages starting with impulsivity.

Signs of Impulsivity in Preschool Age Children

  • Difficulty waiting turn
  • Interrupts others
  • Invades space or boundaries
  • Blurts out verbally
  • Reacts without thought – or is accident prone
  • Difficulty with delayed gratification
  • Difficulty managing unhappy feelings

Kids who are impulsive have trouble inhibiting their behaviors and responses. They tend to react in a rapid way without considering consequences. They go full swing into situations, are often accident prone, and tend to place themselves in potentially risky situations without thought – running out in the street to get a ball, climbing out the second floor window to see the view, being bitten by dogs whose space they have invaded and whose nose they have poked! The amount of constant supervision these little ones require can be exhausting for a parent and teacher.

As parents or teacher it helps to keep in mind that behavior is a problem, but the child isn’t necessarily a behavior problem. So the point is that kids with ADHD just don’t think the problem through, they simply react and afterwards they may feel awful about what happened. Usually their intentions are good, but the outcome of their behavior can create quite a bit of chaos because they are so driven by the moment.

Waiting turns and being patient is extremely difficult. The ability to delay a response, as well as delayed gratification or waiting for larger rewards is very hard for a child who is impulsive. They tend to interrupt, intrude and invade others space. Their life may feel so out of control at times that in order to counteract these feelings, they react by trying to have more control, becoming bossy and taking over charge of play with peers or in interactions with adults. Their behaviors can be very off putting and they can certainly become aggressive and destructive, as they react impulsively to frustration with hitting, destroying or throwing things. Interactions can quickly become confrontational.

Impulsive kids often have a hard time regulating their feelings especially difficult feelings like anger and frustration. They may have frequent meltdowns or temper tantrums – that are not only more frequent than a child without ADHD but are also more intense and emotion filled. Their moods may be unpredictable – you may never know what you are going to get from day to day, hour to hour, or even minute to minute. One minute they may explode and then the next they are able to move on and are uncertain what the fuss is all about. On the other hand they may explode and take a long time to settle and calm back down.

These kids can also be very sensitive - they feel things very deeply – wearing their heart on their sleeve. They can be very vulnerable and the transition to preschool can be quite challenging. Preschool is a time where children begin to socialize and learn about interacting and getting along with others. They need to learn how to interact in a group setting (cooperate, wait turns, share, delay gratification), but for kids with ADHD this can be a very difficult transition.

The impulsive behaviors may be viewed as demanding or selfish and can alienate others - especially when the child shows little remorse for his or her behaviors and doesn’t seem to learn from mistakes. Excessive moodiness, quickness to anger, being easily upset by things, low adaptability, problems adjusting to change – these issues make day-to-day tasks and interactions all the more difficult.

Possible Signs of ADHD in Preschool Age Children continued on page 2.

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