What if not all attention problems are ADHD?

Diagnosing ADHD can be a complex process.  Unfortunately, online forms are used by many parents to diagnose their children. However, its common symptoms can be indicative of other disorders. Let’s examine normal development and other potential causes of attention difficulties.  

What is ADHD?

ADHD includes three different kinds of behaviours:

Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a behavioural disorder that often becomes obvious early childhood ( before 12). It is usually diagnosed by a specialist clinician such as a Paediatrician, Psychiatrist, Specialist Nurse etc.

What are the Symptoms of ADHD?

  • Inattentive behaviours, in which a child has trouble paying attention
  • Hyperactivity being on the go, restless and fidgety
  • Impulsive behaviours, in which a child has too much energy and has difficulty controlling their impulses

According to the Royal College of Psychiatry:

ADHD can present with different behaviours depending on the age, setting (i.e. school, home, playground), and even motivation (e.g. when doing an activity or something a child likes).

Not all children have all the symptoms. Hence, some can have problems with poor attention, while others are mainly hyperactive.

Note: Girls are often undiagnosed!

They may be more likely to receive an incorrect diagnosis of another mental health or neurodevelopmental condition. 

Children with problems with attention can appear forgetful, distracted, not seeming to listen and disorganised. As a result, your child takes take ages to start something.

Children with hyperactivity seem restless, fidgety, and full of energy, ‘always on the go’. Therefore, they may seem loud and noisy with continuous chatter. 

Children with symptoms of impulsivity do things without thinking. Consequently, they have difficulty waiting for their turn in games or a queue. You may notice your child often interrupts you in conversation.

Why can some children with ADHD play video games for ages but not do their school work?

Experts say what’s disordered is the child’s ability to control and direct what he’s/she’s paying attention to.

Most children with ADHD can focus intensely on things that are exciting to them, like video games. Still, they can’t maintain that kind of focus on things that aren’t immediately rewarding, like schoolwork or putting on their shoes or going to bed.  

Here is an excellent video from the National Centre of Mental Health to explain ADHD to children.

What’s typical development?

Many children, especially those under-five, have attention difficulties; this does not mean they have ADHD.

Are children not born with the capacity for self-control? Helping your child regulate is one of the essential tasks in parenting and within ourselves. Learning involves using the brain’s executive functions, particularly the ability to focus, pay attention, engage with a task, and use working memory.

Self-regulation is the capacity to manage emotions and behaviour following the demands of the situation. We can also calm/self soothe when upset and be flexible to a change in an expectation or routine. It means your child can stay focused on their goal even though there may be internal and external changes.

Often parents mistake difficulties in emotional regulation and deficits in executive functioning skills for ADHD.

You can find out more at my blog here Executive Functioning Skills versus Emotional Regulation.

Other Reasons For Attention Difficulties

To avoid misdiagnosing your child, you may want to consider other possibilities such as:

Stress or Trauma?

Children can also suffer from inattention when they have been impacted by trauma. Children who’ve witnessed or been exposed to violence or other disturbing experiences may demonstrate difficulty paying attention and a persistent sense of insecurity called hypervigilance. There is a possibility that this may lead to PTSD, whose symptoms are similar to those of ADHD.  


A child who has trouble focusing at school may suffer from chronic worry. As a result, the anxiety makes it difficult for them to stay on task, and teachers often feel they are not paying attention. Many anxious children worry about speaking aloud in class or making a mistake, which may cause them to look distracted and not pay attention to avoid connecting with the teacher.


Older children often suffer from OCD. Consequently, obsessive thoughts and compulsions prevent them from paying attention and concentrating in class. In my experience, many teenagers go to great lengths to hide their symptoms.

Sleep Disorders

A psychiatrist named Vatsal Thakkar writes about the relationship between sleep disorders and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in both children and adults. It is a great article, and you can read it here Diagnosing the Wrong Deficit.

It is also possible to mimic ADHD symptoms if you do not get enough sleep or have interrupted sleep. You may be hyperactive and unfocused, for example. If you think your teenager has ADHD, remember that the symptoms have to be present throughout childhood, not just now. As a result of work pressures and the use of screens in their lives and the effects of the pandemic combined with extensional anxiety for the future, many teenagers are simply not getting enough sleep.  

Learning Disorders

Children with undiagnosed dyslexia might fidget with frustration or feel ashamed that they can’t seem to do what the other children can do. Children may have an undiagnosed sensory processing disorder or working memory and processing difficulties. If children don’t understand what’s happening around them, it’s hard for them to focus and join in classwork. Often teachers think a child may have ADHD.

In Conclusion

As you can see, there are many reasons your child could be struggling. Any child deserves a complete and thorough assessment to receive the correct diagnosis and suitable treatment intervention.

Remember: parenting is hard work, and you all deserve support. And when it all starts to feel impossible, ask for help. If you need help and support, contact me for a consultation or join my newsletter communityWith Gratitude Catherine 

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The content of my blog is provided for general information only. They are not intended to, and do not, amount to advice you should rely on. They are not in any way an alternative to a specific direction.

Therefore, you must obtain the relevant professional or specialist advice before taking, or refraining from, any action based on the information in this blog.

If you have questions about any medical matter, consult your doctor or another professional healthcare provider without delay.

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