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How ADHD Is Different in Adults and Kids — and Why It Matters

Children with ADHD playing at nursery school
Getty Images / Rawpixel

Life gets more complicated as an adult. Understanding how ADHD changes with age can help, says Terry Matlen.

People sometimes insist that children outgrow ADHD. Many don’t. And when children with ADHD become adults with ADHD, life gets more complicated. Here’s why it’s important to know the differences in child and adult ADHD, and tips to manage the condition when you’re older.

ADHD symptoms in children and adults

Like most children with inattentive ADHD, I wasn’t hyperactive. I was quiet, obedient, and well-liked by my teachers and peers. But even though my body was still, my brain was hyperactive. I ruminated, fantasized, and worried. Exploring my internal world was more interesting than learning long division.

As an adult, I have many of the same ADHD symptoms as I did when I was a child. They just play out differently.

As an inattentive child with ADHD, I didn’t hear homework assignments and didn’t hand in my work the next day. As an inattentive adult, I space out at weekly work meetings.

A hyperactive child with ADHD might end up in the ER with broken bones from falling off the monkey bars. A hyperactive adult might subtly jiggle their legs, tap their fingers, or stroke their hair.

I’ve also struggled with organization throughout my life. My childhood bedroom looked like someone blew it up with a cannon. Cleaning it up was akin to climbing Mount Everest backwards hopping on one foot. One complaint I often hear from adult women with ADHD is the challenge of keeping up their entire homes, not just their bedrooms.

Therein lies the main difference between ADHD in children and adults. As children grow into adults, they’re responsible for more. They often have full-time jobs, bills to pay, meals to make, holidays to plan, and children to raise.

These tasks are all the more challenging when you struggle with inattention, distractibility, hyperactivity, time management, trouble multitasking, and other common ADHD symptoms.

Why it’s important to understand adult and childhood ADHD

It’s important to understand how ADHD plays out in children so you can recognize ADHD in your own kids, grandchildren, and students. You’ll empathize with their struggles.

Understanding the symptoms of ADHD in adults helps you to believe in your own ADHD diagnosis. Some research has suggested that more than half of all kids with ADHD continue to have significant ADHD symptoms when they grow up. Knowing that means you’re less likely to question your personal challenges managing the many responsibilities of adulthood.

Tips to manage childhood ADHD

The key to managing ADHD is to get diagnosed. Once your child has been diagnosed, here are a few tips that I find help manage childhood ADHD:

  • Talk to your child’s pediatrician about treatment options.
  • Consult with a child therapist about behavior therapy.
  • Look into parent training so you can better help your child.
  • Use visual cues like bulletin boards and sticky notes to help remind your child of chores, homework, and other daily tasks.
  • Limit choices so your child won’t feel over-stimulated. For example, ask your child if they want to wear a red sweatshirt or a black hoodie.
  • Create and follow a regular routine.
  • Help your child keep their things organized and limit distractions (like the TV) when work needs to get done.

Tips to manage adult ADHD

Have you been diagnosed with adult ADHD? Here are a few of my top strategies to cope with some of the most common symptoms:

  • Discuss medication and therapy options with your healthcare provider.
  • Use a planner every day and check it frequently to stay on track.
  • Spend five minutes each day organizing your paperwork and bills before they become unmanageable piles.
  • Set multiple alarm clocks in various parts of your bedroom to ensure you’ll get up in time.
  • Set reminders on your watch, smart phone, and other devices to remind you where you need to be and when. You can also write reminders to yourself on sticky notes that you leave throughout your home.
  • Store the stuff you use most frequently, like your keys and wallet, in the same spot.
  • Use fidgets such as stress balls, spinner rings, and even a string wrapped around your wrist as reminders.
  • At work, take water cooler and bathroom breaks to help clear your mind and stay on track.

As an adult with ADHD, it’s easy to believe that you’re lazy or incompetent. You’re not. You’re an adult with an ADHD brain. That makes seemingly easy tasks like cleaning your bedroom very difficult. Remember: ADHD is just as real in adults as it is in children.

The information presented is solely for educational purposes, not as specific advice for ADHD evaluations, management, or treatment. Please consult with a professional who can apply best practices and appropriate resources to your situation.


The individual(s) who have written and created the content in and whose images appear in this article have been paid by Teva Pharmaceuticals for their contributions. This content represents the opinions of the contributor and does not necessarily reflect those of Teva Pharmaceuticals. Similarly, Teva Pharmaceuticals does not review, control, influence or endorse any content related to the contributor's websites or social media networks. This content is intended for informational and educational purposes and should not be considered medical advice or recommendations. Consult a qualified medical professional for diagnosis and before beginning or changing any treatment regimen. 


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