How Common is ADHD in Children?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

The issue of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or ADHD in children is an exceptionally complicated one. There are those who believe ADHD is routinely overdiagnosed leading to the medication of children who do not require it. At the same time, others worry that too few children receive needed diagnosis, based on statistical evidence. In fact, both concerns have a certain truth-value, often having to do with socioeconomic circumstances, but even with this information deriving a percentage of children who actually have ADHD is rather difficult.

Increases in school hours, such as full-day kindergarten, may have led to the rise in ADHD diagnoses.
Increases in school hours, such as full-day kindergarten, may have led to the rise in ADHD diagnoses.

First, ADHD in children is not diagnosed in all countries, and mostly gains recognition in the developed areas of the world. In these areas, and especially in places like the US, percentages of children with this condition range in appraisal. Some believe ADHD in children occurs in about 3-5% of the population and others suggest the percentage is higher and approximately 7% of kids will be diagnosed with the disorder during childhood. This latter statistic bears some scrutiny since there is misdiagnosis of ADHD in children, and the statistic does not fully take this into account.

Children with ADHD may have difficulty paying attention in class and having long conversations.
Children with ADHD may have difficulty paying attention in class and having long conversations.

Whether ADHD in children occurs at 3% or 7%, there are other calculations that need to be considered. One of these in the US is that Caucasian children are much more likely to be medicated for the disorder, even if they don’t have it. Overmedication or inappropriate diagnosis seems more common. At the same time in the US, certain populations are less likely to get the treatment they need, especially kids of African American descent. This is partially explained by lower socioeconomic status and less access to medical treatment.

It’s easy to see then that there can be overdiagnosis and underdiagnosis at the same time. This means some children are being treated who shouldn’t be, and this justifies the opinion that diagnosis of ADHD in children is being overused. Yet, depending on population, diagnosis is also being underused.

There are other statistics on ADHD in children to evaluate. For instance, roughly 75% of ADHD cases occur in boys. This does not mean the condition is exclusive to males, but given prevalence of boy diagnosis, the disorder might be less suspect in girls. The idea of overdiagnosis can be considered in this light too, since boys tend to be less attentive and more energetic than girls. They have a much higher expected rate of misbehavior and attentional difficulties in early school years. With increases in school hours, such as to full day kindergarten, the condition may be suspected sooner, though a full evaluation should look at behavior over a several year span.

Perhaps the most important thing to consider is that it is not possible to make a casual diagnosis of ADHD. No matter how common the disorder is in kids, and no matter how likely or unlikely the disease seems in one child, real observation and diagnosis should be undertaken to determine if an individual child has ADHD. Even if a child’s behavior seems like ADHD or doesn’t, parents should suspend judgment until they get an evaluation from an appropriate source, if recommended or desired. It’s also worth noting that there are other conditions that may look like this disorder, but require completely different management strategies.

Boys account for approximately three-quarters of children who are diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Boys account for approximately three-quarters of children who are diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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I think that adhd is really common. My daughter had a few symptoms similar to adhd but the doctor diagnosed her to be normal and healthy. The doctor had an assessment chart with a long list of items that test adhd. He did several different exercises with my daughter and spoke to her and us to find out the details. It really was an extensive list, I think about 70 questions and if more than 20 of the symptoms exist, the child is said to have a tendency towards adhd.

I was really happy and content with the doctor's techniques and analysis and I think that if all doctors are the same, adhd should not be over diagnosed. If many children are being diagnosed with it, then, I think that it really most be a common disorder among children.


This is interesting. I wonder if the prevalence of adhd diagnosis in Western developed countries hints at some cultural differences? Or maybe it just means that in the West, parents have greater understanding of this disorder and also more means to look into it and deal with it?

My family moved to the U.S. when I was in grade school. I heard about adhd for the first time here, as quite a few of my friends in grade school were diagnosed with adhd and took medication. But the whole concept did not make much sense to me. The male peers who were being treated with adhd did not act much differently than my brother. He also had a very short attention span (still does) and was extremely active as a child, but these characteristics are common, in fact expected qualities of a male child in our culture.

My parents never even thought that something was wrong with my brother. Despite his inability to pay attention for a long period of time, my brother never had any problems in school because he is really smart. I hear a lot of parents who have kids diagnosed with adhd say the same thing- that their kids are really intelligent but just can't pay attention.

Could this be an oversensitivity on the part of Western parents? Or maybe the cultural expectation that kids should behave in a certain way is causing parents and doctors in developed countries to consider these differences in behavior as abnormal?

At the same time, I'm sure that many children in developing countries who really have adhd are not receiving any attention or patience from their parents. In developed nations, parents try to help their kids reach the same levels and success as their contemporaries, whereas in developing countries; there seems to be a tendency to label some children as "unintelligent" or "incapable" and accept this to be the child's destiny or fate.

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