Is ADD/ADHD Different in Kids vs. Adults?


Although most people associate Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)—sometimes referred to as Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD)—with children who are hyperactive, the symptoms can vary, and they can change with age. ADD/ADHD, which affects millions of people of all ages, can look different in children and teens versus in adults. Knowing what ADD/ADHD symptoms to look for can help people of every age manage the condition and thrive in their lives.


ADD/ADHD, which affects millions of people of all ages, can look different in children and teens versus in adults. Knowing what symptoms to look for can help people of every age manage the condition and thrive in their lives. Click To Tweet


ADD/ADHD can have a detrimental effect on all areas of life through a person’s life, such as social connections, romantic relationships, and career and academic success. Younger children have a difficult time with social interactions, and the emotional outcome might show itself in frequent conflict with peers. Research shows that younger children diagnosed with ADD/ADHD also have a harder time regulating their emotions, especially anger, and have a more difficult time coping with frustration than their peers. Teens with ADD/ADHD are at higher risk for substance abuse and other risky behaviors, like unwanted pregnancies and unsafe driving. A 2016 study published in JAMA Psychiatry noted that adults with ADD/ADHD may have a more difficult time functioning in daily life, have higher levels of anxiety, and have a higher dependence on illicit drugs.


1. Inattention/short attention span:

Focusing on mundane tasks for long periods of time is challenging for people with ADD/ADHD, and a desire for novelty, intensity and high amounts of stimuli is needed to hold their interest. However, this shows itself differently in children and adults.

Children:  A study relating to ADD/ADHD across the lifespan concluded that in childhood, symptoms are associated mostly with hyperactivity and impulsivity, but are not as pronounced with inattention.

Behavior includes:

  • Not listening to directions
  • Starting but not finishing tasks
  • Missing details, which can result in poor grades

Adults: As people with ADD/ADHD get older, some childhood symptoms may decline, but inattention is very common and can cause adverse consequences in the workplace, academically, and personally.

Behavior includes:

  • Missing deadlines
  • Signing documents without reading them thoroughly
  • Getting bored easily and frequently changing career paths or impulsively ending relationships

2. Distractibility:

Imagine that you’re reading a book in the library, and someone walks by whispering softly. This can be distracting, but people without ADD/ADHD can more seamlessly return to their tasks. People with ADD/ADHD tend to be more sensitive to their environment and can be more easily distracted by things such as noise, bright lights, scents, certain foods, textures, and countless other sensory stimuli.

Children: Sitting in a classroom all day can be extremely challenging for a child with ADD/ADHD. A 2022 study showed that distractors in a classroom negatively affect academic performance in children with the condition.

Behavior includes:

  • Excessive fidgeting, squirming
  • Talking out of turn
  • Frequently forgetful
  • Unable to stick with tasks to completion

Adults: The term Shiny Object Syndrome (SOS), which applies to people who are always seeking the next best thing, may seem frivolous, but it is real and can negatively impact adults with ADD/ADHD. Having SOS does not mean you have ADHD/ADD, but the two have many overlapping behaviors, and adults with ADD/ADHD will often exhibit this behavior.

Behavior includes:

  • Having several unfinished projects at one time
  • Impulsive purchases of unnecessary things
  • Starting new endeavors to get a surge of excitement

3. Disorganization:

Organizing time and space are difficult for people with ADD/ADHD. A 2019 study published in Medical Science Monitor found that people with ADD/ADHD have neurological differences in the construct of time, which can cause a host of challenging behaviors.

Children: The struggle with time can begin first thing in the morning. Getting ready for school requires several tasks to be completed by a certain time and this can be challenging for children with ADD/ADHD.

Behavior includes:

  • Unaware of or unaffected by time limits
  • Messy room, locker, backpacks
  • Lack of attention to detail

Adults: Like children with ADD/ADHD, adults are often late to events and live in messy environments. However, adults usually do not have someone overseeing their schedule and therefore, the consequences of their inability to regulate time and space can be greater. Adults with ADD/ADHD have usually had it their entire life and often feel shame for not being more organized.

Behavior includes:

  • Difficulty managing time, and finishing projects when they are due
  • Chronic tardiness
  • Difficulty paying attention to detail
  • Poor planning skills

4. Procrastination:

Putting things off until the last minute is common for people with ADD/ADHD. Having a deadline nearing can sometimes be the only motivation to complete a task, and a surge of adrenaline when in a rush can be invigorating, even if it is simultaneously stressful. Research shows that both children and adults with ADD/ADHD struggle with procrastination.

Children: The dread of completing a task combined with difficulty staying focused—especially if a task is uninteresting—can negatively impact a child’s academic performance.

Behavior includes:

  • Rushing to complete assignments at the last minute
  • “Cramming” or staying up all night studying before exams
  • Having to be told to do things several times

Adults: Whether at work or home, adults with ADD/ADHD will often feel overwhelmed with the attention required to complete a task and will delay for as long as possible. A study relating to procrastination in adults with ADD/ADHD shows that there may not be a direct correlation between the two, but that other symptoms of the disorder lead to procrastination.

Behavior includes:

  • Poor performance at work
  • Hyper-focused on tasks they like while putting off unappealing tasks
  • Not paying bills on time or not making important phone calls

5. Poor internal supervision:

Impulse control and using discretion/sound judgment are challenging for people with ADD/ADHD. The desire to say something or act without thinking first is almost reflexive. This can result in poor peer relationships and chronic emotional dysregulation.

Children: School and even playtime require structure and abiding by rules. This can be very difficult for children with ADD/ADHD and can result in conflict in and out of the classroom.

Behavior includes:

  • Cutting in line
  • Blurting out responses without raising hands or following rules
  • Constantly being reprimanded for “poor” behavior, resulting in lower self-esteem

Adults: Internal regulation is important in every area of life, and when it is compromised can have a negative impact on overall confidence and daily functioning. This can result in a higher likelihood of alcohol and drug abuse.

Behavior includes:

  • Interrupting people during conversations
  • Cutting people off when driving
  • Spending money beyond budgeted amounts

Having ADD/ADHD as a child and an adult is complex but there are solutions and there is hope for managing symptoms and thriving in everyday life.

ADD/ADHD and other mental health issues can’t wait. At Amen Clinics, we’re here for you. We offer in-clinic brain scanning and appointments, as well as mental telehealth, clinical evaluations, and therapy for adults, teens, children, and couples. Find out more by speaking to a specialist today at 888-288-9834 or visit our contact page here.

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