skip to Main Content

ADHD in Childhood versus Adulthood

Adult ADHDers were once daydreaming and/or fidgety kids who struggled to pay attention to their teachers, parents, and peers. Childhood ADHD is often overlooked and written off as being “difficult,” “lazy,” or “careless”. As a result, children with ADHD struggle to make sense of why they are constantly being punished or criticized for simply being themselves. A lack of discourse around neurodivergence as a viable reason for these traits can lead to a sometimes shocking, and often relieving, diagnosis in adulthood. When I was 35, it happened to me.

As a child, I knew I was different than my peers, and my teachers certainly reminded me of that every time I would forget an assignment or let my mind drift away in class. In fact, on one elementary school report card my teacher wrote, “While Adrienne is a strong student and sweet kid she spends too much time daydreaming in ‘La La Land’ “. Can you say green flag for ADHD or what?! 

Like a lot of other ADHD kids, I was often punished for just existing in the world as I knew it. The same world that isn’t often designed with neurodivergent people in mind. Bracing myself for the bright fluorescent lights in the grocery store, crying about the seams of my socks being in the wrong spot (making me late for school again), or keeping to myself in a room full of people I “should” talk to. These everyday situations challenged my sensory processing and executive functioning differences in a big way, but I was expected to “get over it”, “suck it up” or “quit whining and move on”. Do ADHD kids understand these unhelpful responses? Absolutely not. They internalize it as something being chronically “wrong” with them (hello, shame!) and learn how to mask it. 

Childhood ADHD and adult ADHD really aren’t that different:

  • Impulse control issues in childhood look like stealing another kid’s toy or interrupting when someone is talking. In adulthood, we impulse buy, overeat, and still interrupt others unintentionally.
  • Struggling to pay attention in school and needing more structure is the same for ADHD adults at work. Remember when you forgot it was picture day and you showed up to school with messy hair and wearing your shirt inside out? Well, now you’re an adult, and you forgot it was the first of the month and your rent or credit card bill is overdue. 
  • Rejection stings the same to the ADHD child getting ignored on the playground as it does to the ADHD adult who just got broken up with. 

So why is childhood ADHD written off as a phase when it’s really innate neurodivergence?

Innate neurodivergence is exactly that, our brains are simply wired that way and there is nothing to “fix”— it just is. The funny thing with innate neurodivergence is that most likely, one of your parents most likely also has ADHD. Yep, it’s genetic. In fact, ADHD has been found to be one of the most heritable forms of neurodivergence at an average rate of 80%1. And yep, some parents might in denial about their own neurodivergence, especially if they came from a generation that misunderstood and shamed ADHD or other neurodivergent traits. 

The ADHD neurotype is actually really cool. I won’t science-speak to you, but I will tell you about the traits that aren’t appreciated enough in both child and adult ADHD:

  • Creativity is something that comes naturally to a lot of ADHDers. A lot of the ADHD clients I work with are fantastic artists, musicians, chefs, fashion experts, interior designers, and writers! 
  • Compassion is also a great strength of ADHDers, I mean I practice compassion for a living over here. ADHDers have a deep sense of empathy and sensitivity to others’ emotions, which is why we often get labeled as children as being “too sensitive”. 
  • Hyperfocus can be an incredible strength of ADHDers, what we may lack in time management, we make up for in the ability to zone in on a task and get it done in record speed; if it’s interesting or stimulating that is

There are tools that can help ADHDers, big and small, function in this neurotypical world. Not all tools work the same for everyone, as we all have different levels of support needs even if we have the same neurotype. And that’s kind of the cool thing about neurodivergence, everyone is unique

So maybe your ADHD support toolkit looks like this:

  • Taking a stimulant medication
  • Having a fidget toy in your pocket
  • A structured schedule that is written out in a fancy planner 

Or maybe it looks like this:

  • Watching your comfort TV show while you cook dinner or clean
  • Body doubling with friends or family to stay focused
  • A daily sticky note to-do list with Alexa reminders to manage your time 

Whatever works for you is a-okay!

Unfortunately, the tools that are often presented to ADHD children are not widely accepted or used just yet. Fidget toys are being banned from classrooms for sake of “distractions,” stimulants are hard to dose for small kids (and becoming harder to get, due to shortages), and socks apparently need to have that sensory-overload-inducing stitch at the toe.

How can we get to a place where ADHD kids don’t have to struggle and develop into confused, overwhelmed ADHD adults? We talk about it with kindness, acceptance, and validation. 

The more conversations we have with our friends, parents, coworkers, and online communities, the more we educate others on what ADHD looks like in different developmental stages. Your friend’s moody teenager that can’t stay awake in class? Might be an ADHDer. Your nephew that just can’t wait to play with you so he screams really loudly in excitement? Might be an ADHDer. Important disclaimer though, don’t go around diagnosing people or their kids. I’m a mental health professional and I don’t do that.

Instead, I focus on sharing my own lived experience and how my perspective on ADHD has changed as I have learned about my traits and how much my life has improved by understanding my brain. Folks tend to be much more receptive to this approach because unfortunately there is still a lot of stigma around neurodivergence. Sharing our own experiences, or those of our loved ones, models a new way of thinking that plants seeds for others to contemplate and helps to dismantle stigma one conversation at a time.  

Today, here I am, a fully formed adult who is proud to be an ADHDer. Still daydreaming, interrupting, forgetful, creative, compassionate, and sensitive. These traits are part of what makes me who I am, and it took me a long time to accept that there isn’t anything “wrong” with me. Yeah, I interrupt my husband (who is also an ADHDer) when I get excited about what I’m saying next. I have neon sticky notes and whiteboards all over my house to make sure I get my tasks done. Fidget toys live on my coffee table, Alexa is programmed to remind me to manage my time on easy-to-forget tasks (aka laundry!), and I hyper-fixate on things and projects. Being an ADHDer helped me become a therapist who specializes in neurodiversity-affirming care, allowing me to help other people whose experiences look a lot like mine. I know that somewhere in my psyche, my inner child is in there beaming, so proud that adult me is able to accept myself and use my compassionate nature to undo the hurtful things that I and others like me experienced. 


Back To Top