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Parenting

Child Health & Nutrition

Parenting a child with ADHD, age-by-age

Jessie Day, Senior Parenting Editor  |   17 Jan 2024


Getting started

Before getting started, it’s not that we’re not talking about parenting an ADHD child age by age, here. ADHD may be part of what makes a child the unique, wonderful person that they are. But at this stage it doesn’t define them – maybe one day they’ll proudly feel that it does, and if so, amazing! 

Our aim is to provide information and support, not shorthand for your child or labels. With all of that said, time to dive in.

How can I help my child with ADHD?

ADHD – short for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder – can present very differently and with unique challenges as our children grow. From pre-diagnosis as a baby and toddler to young childhood, tween years and as young adults, techniques for parents will also shift and change. 

A primary goal, for parents and caregivers, will be helping a child with ADHD build confidence, while supporting their overall development. And a big part of this will involve building a solid network, including your household and family, your child’s school or education setting, their peer groups and specific, expert support. 

That’s the first step – building out your support network – or beginning the process. 

From there, what specific actions can we take, age-by-age, to support a child with ADHD? Let’s dig in to the latest tips and guidance. 

ADHD diagnosis

With attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), we’re talking about a neurodevelopmental disorder, which can cause problems with:

  • attention
  • hyperactivity
  • impulsivity.

Currently, there’s no single test for ADHD. Diagnosis is usually based on a combination of symptoms, medical history, and family history, meaning our awareness and observations – as parents and carers – can be key.

Is ADHD genetic?

Before we look at attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in very young children – and babies – it can be helpful to go back a step, to pre-birth and even pre-pregnancy. Is there a predisposition or genetic link? 

If so, knowing the risk factors may help parents prepare a baseline support network, and tool kit. We’re not into labelling, or helicoptering children as they grow and develop. But information can be empowering, as you move forwards into family life. 

According to the NHS, the exact cause of ADHD isn’t fully understood. It does, however, set out a combination of factors which may be responsible: 

  • genetics – ADHD does often run in families, and it’s thought that genetics are a significant factor in likelihood of developing the condition
  • brain function and structure – research suggests the way our brains are formed and structured may be a factor, as well as neurotransmitter imbalances or function
  • increased risk factor for babies born prematurely (before 37 weeks) or with a low birth weight, people with epilepsy or those who’ve experienced brain damage

A note from our Senior Editor, Jessie Day – 

“My daughter was born quite early at 35 weeks, and I can’t help wishing we’d known a little more about these risk factors, at the time. It would have helped us prepare, especially for the nursery to primary school transition, here in the UK. 

She’s now aged five and thriving, but ADHD has come up as a possibility. I know there are some wonderful groups and resources I could have tapped into earlier, had I known more about the potential for ADHD.”

Risk factors covered, let’s move on to ADHD in babies. If we match up with any of these risk factors, is it possible to see signs of ADHD pre-toddlerhood, and put any early techniques into play, to support?

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ADHD in babies

Before we get going, it’s important to flag that a formal diagnosis won’t – in most cases – be possible until a child is around four years old. 

But if we’re being proactive – and especially if we’re working with any of the risk factors covered above – developing research into ADHD in infancy, and food for thought, can be extremely useful. And, the latest studies and work around ADHD suggests that earlier diagnosis and treatment may help reduce any negative effects the condition could have. 

In 2019, research published in European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry found that signs of ADHD can be seen in infancy. ADHD may not be recognised as a disorder until a child is much older – at least past age four – but further, limited research suggests that early markers can include: 

Again, the aim here isn’t to label (or deliver fresh worries for already overburdened parents!) All children, at various times, will show their own version of a ‘challenging temperament’. 

But if the goal is to understand what we may be looking for, age-by-age, and adjusting our focus and perspective accordingly, these markers may be handy. 

Things to do and try

Really at this age, the best support is tuning in, and building awareness of your child’s development. Your GP or health visitor should invite you for a developmental check as/when your baby reaches age one, which is a great time to bring up any observations or concerns. 

Use this guide to find out more about your baby’s developmental review schedule, and alongside this, organisations like Speech and Language UK and the NHS Start for Life provide fantastic tips, next steps and pointers. 

In the US, understood.org provide expert information, and cutting-edge support.

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Age 1-4

Some children do get an ADHD diagnosis before age four, but it’s uncommon. Once they hit that age four to five patch, start school or become settled in an education setting, diagnosis frequency starts to pick up.

As children develop through the toddler years (usually defined as age one to three), however, early markers of ADHD become easier to spot, and work with, particularly in a childcare setting. 

The problem is, typical ‘toddler behaviour’ can really cross over with some of the key signs of ADHD in young children. Difficulty listening or paying attention is super-common in toddlerhood, for example, as is lots of fidgeting and jumping up from their seat. 

If your child is in a nursery setting, or other childcare, ask their keyworker, teacher or carer whether they’ve noticed any of these (if they’re not in childcare, have you spotted any yourself?) 

  • frequently disruptive behaviour 
  • excessive running or climbing
  • squirming while sitting, and/or excessive fidgeting with hands or feet 

Alongside harder-to-spot listening and attention behaviours, these markers can help parents and caregivers make a few early adjustments. 

Things to do and try

If you think your toddler may have ADHD, a good first step is to make a list of the markers you’ve noticed. Make sure you include the context – for example, were they at a birthday party at the time, or playing in their bedroom? – and how often they happen. 

From there, you may choose to book an appointment with your GP or pediatrician, and share this list as a prompt for next steps. If your toddler is in a childcare setting, do get their teacher or keyworker’s professional input too, to build out your observations. They may also be able to point you to professional resources and support, to get a few balls rolling. 

If your toddler has a diagnosis, you’re quite far into the process or they’ve reached age four and ADHD has come up as a possibility – now is a great time to get support from a qualified practitioner or therapist. They can help you put specific techniques into play, any help with any behaviour queries you might have. 

PsychCentral puts together some fantastic sets of ideas here – from expectations setting and being super-clear with your child, to creating routines and using visual prompts and encouragement. 

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Age 5-8

At around age four to five, routes towards an ADHD diagnosis for your child become more straightforward. 

If they’ve started at school or in an education setting, share any concerns or thoughts you have with their teacher. Very often, they’ll be able to coordinate support – or start the process – and can also adjust their own techniques, in class. 

A formal ADHD assessment will usually be carried out by a health professional – in the UK, this will be via the NHS, and in the US it’s usually through your healthcare provider. However, education settings should be able to point you in the right direction for specific support. 

Things to do and try

Once assessments and a path to diagnosis are underway, your practitioner will begin talking through various options for treatment. Alongside expert therapy and medication options, they may also set you up with options for parenting support – for example, ADHD-focused parent training. 

This sounds a bit formal – and the idea of ‘parent training’ sessions can be difficult to get on board with. But it’s crucial to remember that these options don’t mean your parenting is ‘wrong’. ADHD is a complex condition, and no-one is expecting you to simply adapt and get on with it, without support. Or, we shouldn’t be. 

These sessions are really designed to provide expert support, and empower. YoungMinds in the UK add a bit more info here, saying,

‘You may also be offered ADHD–focused parent training. This does not mean your parenting is somehow wrong. It is designed to provide support and to empower you with specific strategies and skills that can help your family thrive.’ 

YoungMinds also deep-dive specific ADHD parenting techniques and strategies for families, including: 

  • giving simple instructions
  • setting clear boundaries 
  • building healthy routines
  • helping with organisation
  • praising, encouraging and recognising strengths
  • managing triggers
  • finding local support

Take a look through their list for rich support and signposting to specific resources. 

On your list

Keen for help with ADHD age 8-12, and teens? Look out for part two, where we’ll cover techniques to support older kids, secondary and high school prep and more. 

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Did you catch this podcast? Baby & toddler sleep FAQ – a sleep coach answers your questions 

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