Whether diagnosed later in life as an adult or in childhood, many ADHD adults are curious about the differences between ADHD in adults and children. And I bet you’re curious about the answers to some of these questions, as well.
I hope the brief answers below will pique your curiosity take a deeper dive and learn more. Because the answers to some of these questions have implications for how you manage and treat your ADHD. So, as the title suggests, you really do want to know the answers to these questions.
What Is ADHD?
You know there is a lot of confusion and misinformation about ADHD. In fact, I’ve heard the statements below and more in my conversations with ADHD adults.
- “I got by for a long time and then all of sudden I start struggling. I had no idea I had ADHD!”
- “My therapist says I’m too successful to have ADHD.”
- “I was never impulsive or hyperactive. So, it never occurred to me that I might have ADHD.”
In simplest terms ADHD is a neurological condition that is usually genetically transmitted, characterized by distractibility, impulsivity and restlessness or hyperactivity. However, the symptoms will look different among adults with ADHD, and can present themselves differently throughout your lifetime.
Is It Possible to First Develop ADHD in Adulthood?
No, you can’t suddenly develop ADHD. But it is also not uncommon for adults to grow up with undiagnosed ADHD. And, if you were first diagnosed as an adult, you may be curious as to why it wasn’t caught sooner. While the reasons vary, below are a couple of the most common explanations.
Perhaps, you did not fit the stereotype of the hyperactive little boy — the Hyperactive-Impulsive Type ADHD — that is most familiar to people and easier to spot. So, the adults in your life — parents, teachers, doctors, maybe even mental health professionals — may not have known enough about the symptoms of other types of ADHD to consider you may have ADHD.
Another reason you may have reached adulthood before getting diagnosed is that you are so bright you developed coping mechanisms and compensating strategies to fly under the radar. You may have gotten by so well others viewed you as being successful. Even if you struggled and often felt stressed and overwhelmed, you got by. Maybe that is still the case.
So, when you struggle, you figure you just need to try harder. And when the coping mechanisms that worked for you earlier in life no longer worked as your life became more complicated — kids, new jobs/promotions, grad school, other life events — you just redoubled your efforts.
But, at some point, you became tired of struggling, just getting by. You sought out help. And were diagnosed with ADHD. It’s not that you developed ADHD as an adult. It’s just that you finally received the diagnosis. And now you know at least one of the reasons for your struggles.
Are ADHD Symptoms in Adults Different Than Those in Kids?
Yes, ADHD symptoms look different in adults than in children.
I’m sure you can think of things you did as a child, perhaps as a result of your ADHD symptoms, you no longer do. For example, you no longer throw spitballs across the room or toss yourself off the jungle gym. Nor do you sit through an entire meeting not realizing you were looking out the window the entire time.
But you may get distracted watching the bird outside before you can pull your attention back to the meeting. And you may struggle not to blurt out whatever is on your mind in the middle of a conversation with a colleague. So, you may still tend to be impulsive or inattentive because of your ADHD. But you have learned strategies to moderate your behavior.
To complicate matters, if your ADHD was not diagnosed early in life, you obviously did not receive treatment early on. As a result, you may have developed depression and/or anxiety in part because of your struggles with undiagnosed ADHD. So, now as an adult, you will need to figure out how to treat each condition
You may find, if you have depression and/or anxiety, these symptoms may decrease once your ADHD is treated properly. But you also need to treat all your conditions, of course.
Can You Outgrow ADHD in Adulthood?
It’s not possible to answer this question with a simple yes or no. It’s true you can’t cure ADHD. So, in that sense, you don’t outgrow it. But you may be able to outgrow some of your symptoms.
To see how you can do this you’ll want to look at the level of impairment you are currently experiencing in your personal and professional life as a result of your ADHD. And then consider what you can do to change that so you can minimize your challenges in reaching your goals.
As an adult, you have more agency than when you were a kid to make changes that will allow you to leverage your ADHD strengths and lessen the impact of those symptoms that interfere with your ability to do what is meaningful to you There are a couple ways you can do this.
One way is, with support and practice, to adopt the tools, strategies and skills you need to manage and lessen the impact of your challenging ADHD symptoms. And, as a result of your efforts, you will have less impairment from these symptoms.
Also, as an adult, you may have the capacity to craft your environment, so it works with your strengths, preferences and challenges, including your ADHD challenges. Whereas, as a child and adolescent you may have had to fit into a prescribed environment, whether it worked for you or not.
If you’re interested in learning more about how to upgrade the various domains in your environment to work better for you, check out ADHD and Creating a Supportive Environment. You’ll get a taste of the various ways you can design your environment to help you operate better.
Is Treatment for ADHD in Adults Different Than for Kids?
The answer is, well, “yes” and “no.” The goal of treatment for both ADHD adults and kids is to manage their symptoms so they can better operate in their daily lives. And the same treatment options are available for both.
The key, regardless of age, is to create a holistic treatment plan. And, if you’re interested in exploring your options, check out this interactive PDF workbook I created, Treatment Options for ADHD Workbook: A Guide to Exploring and Making Decisions About Treating Your ADHD.
The difference between treating ADHD in adults and kids is, again, a matter of agency. That is, if you were diagnosed with ADHD as a child, your parents made the decisions about how to treat your ADHD. And they may have used behavior modification, including rewards, to get you to buy into the treatment plan.
But, now, as an adult, you get to decide how to treat your ADHD. And, as you can see from looking at the workbook noted above, you have a lot of options beyond just medication. True, medication often is a cornerstone of treatment plans for ADHD. But it is not enough if you are seeking to work with your ADHD so you can reach your goals.
What Are the Differences Between ADHD Adults and Children
What Are The Differences Between ADHD Adults and Children
The primary differences between ADHD in adults vs children are how the symptoms manifest themselves, the degree to which they cause impairment and who makes the treatment decisions.
I know it may not feel like it some days, for sure. But you really do have the agency to make the changes that would allow you to minimize your ADHD challenges and leverage your strengths.
How do you want to start to do this?