5 common problems that can mimic ADHD

Claire McCarthy, MD

Senior Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publishing

Follow me on Twitter @drClaire

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, is very common — according to the most recent statistics, one in 10 children between the ages of 4 and 17 has been diagnosed with this problem. So it’s not surprising that when parents notice that their child has trouble concentrating, is more active or impulsive than other children, and is having trouble in school, they think that their child might have ADHD.

But ADHD isn’t the only problem that can cause a child to have trouble with concentration, behavior, or school performance. There are actually lots of problems that can cause symptoms that mimic ADHD, which is why it’s really important to do a careful evaluation before giving that diagnosis. Here are five common problems that parents and doctors should always think about:

1.  Hearing problems. If you can’t hear well, it’s hard to pay attention — and easy to get distracted. Now that more newborns are being screened for hearing problems before leaving the hospital, we are able to catch more cases early, but some slip through the cracks, and children can also develop hearing problems from getting lots of ear infections. Any child with behavioral or learning problems should have a hearing test to be sure their hearing is normal.

2.  Learning or cognitive disabilities. If children don’t understand what’s going on around them, it’s hard for them to focus and join in classwork. Children who have trouble understanding may also have difficulty with social interactions, which can be very quick, complex, and nuanced. Any child who is doing poorly in school should be evaluated and given the help they need. All public schools have a process for evaluating children and creating an Individualized Education Program, or IEP, for those who need help. Even if a child goes to an independent school, they can still get an evaluation through the public schools. Parents should talk to their child’s teacher and their pediatrician for guidance.

3.  Sleep problems. Children who don’t get enough sleep, or whose sleep is of poor quality, can have trouble with learning and behavior. Any child who snores regularly (not just with a bad cold) should be evaluated by their doctor, especially if there are any pauses in breathing or choking noises during sleep. Parents of teens should be sure that their children are getting at least eight hours of sleep and aren’t staying up doing homework or on their phones. In general, any time a diagnosis of ADHD is being considered, it’s important to take a close look at a child’s sleep and make sure there aren’t any problems.

4.  Depression or anxiety. It is hard to concentrate when you are sad or worried, and it’s not uncommon for a depressed or anxious child to act out and get in trouble. More than one in 10 adolescents has suffered from depression, and the numbers are higher for anxiety. Even more alarming, both depression and anxiety often go undiagnosed — and untreated — among children and adolescents. As part of any evaluation for ADHD, a child should also be evaluated for other mental health issues, not just because they can mimic ADHD, but because other mental health issues can occur with, or because of, ADHD.

5.  Substance abuse. This is something that should always be considered in an adolescent, especially if the ADHD symptoms weren’t present earlier in childhood (by definition, you have to have the symptoms before age 12 to get the diagnosis). Nobody wants to think that their child could be using drugs or alcohol, but by 12th grade about half of youth have tried an illicit drug at least once, and for some, it can turn into a habit — or worse.

Bottom line

Lots of problems can cause difficulties with attention and behavior. Any child who is showing those difficulties deserves a thoughtful, thorough evaluation to be sure that they get the right diagnosis, and the best treatment.


  1. Lavanay

    Excellent article Dr. Claire. People these days search for symptoms of a disease over internet and after few minutes of research come to a conclusion about the disease they are suffering from…. as if they are doctors themselves. Some even start self medication. I wonder if its costly heath care or over confidence, or ignorance that is making people experiment with their and their children’s life. Its time to force available over internet to comply with some guidelines.

    • Susan

      @Lavanay: Force guidelines? By the same FCC that just sold the internet to the service providers? I wouldn’t bet on any forced guidelines being in the best interest of consumers. And, if indeed self-diagnosis is a result of poverty, how do forced guidelines help? You may have noticed that not all doctors/medical treatment facilities agree on the correct diagnosis and treatment for many common illnesses. So who is going to author and enforce these guidelines? I just listened to Medical Myths, Lies, and Half-Truths: What We Think We Know May Be Hurting Us by Professor Steven Novella, issued by Great Courses. I recommend it.

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