What are the risk factors for developing ADHD?

Illustration of child at school with hand on their head

Here we’ll discuss the risk factors for children to develop Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and how to recognise the symptoms. We’ll also explain what to do if you think a child in your care is exhibiting symptoms of ADHD.


What is ADHD?

ADHD is sometimes called “hyperkinetic disorder”. It is also, at times, referred to as “attention deficit disorder” (ADD) if problems are mainly due to difficulties with attention rather than overactivity.

It is a behavioural disorder that is characterised by difficulties in the areas of attention, level of activity and impulse control. These difficulties are present before the age of 7 years and can affect many areas of the child’s and family’s life. About 1.5% of 5-15-year-old children in the UK have ADHD at any given point. The prevalence can go up to 4-8% in the general population and up to 20% in children and young people with intellectual disability. It is more common in boys.


Who came up with the term ADHD?

There are a few references to conditions with similar symptoms to ADHD as far back as the 1700s. ADHD was defined more specifically in the late 1800s by the so-called ‘father of British paediatrics”, Sir George Frederick Still. “He described 43 children who had serious problems with sustained attention and self-regulation, who were often aggressive, defiant, and resistant to discipline, excessively emotional or passionate, who showed little inhibitory volition, had serious problems with sustained attention and could not learn from the consequences of their actions; though their intellect was normal.”

However, it’s only within the last 30 years or so that the American Psychiatric Association agreed ‘ADHD’ was the best term to describe the condition. It’s a relatively new disorder, with much uncertainty and stigma attached to it. This is why the charity Nip in the Bud is passionate about educating people on what ADHD is and how to recognise the symptoms.


The symptoms of ADHD in children

The symptoms of ADHD can be categorised into three main difficulty areas: namely attention, overactivity and impulsivity.


Children with ADHD may have listening difficulties and find it hard to follow instructions. They may make careless mistakes in their schoolwork and be easily distracted, often daydreaming and losing things.


A child with ADHD may be seen squirming or fidgeting, standing up and leaving the room without permission or talking too much. They often move quickly and forcefully, with no awareness of their impact on those around them.


ADHD can make it difficult for the child to wait for things and they often interrupt conversations or have trouble taking turns. They’re easily tempted and are prone to risk-taking, with little sense of danger.

What are the risk factors for ADHD?

ADHD is not caused by “bad parenting”. The true cause for all cases of ADHD is still unknown, but there are a few things that may contribute.

Genetic vulnerability could play a part; ADHD tends to run in families. However, inheritance is complex and is unlikely to be related to a single genetic fault.

Brain function and structure can also feature. Sometimes people with ADHD exhibit size differences in particular areas of the brain or a chemical imbalance.

Other potential contributors include being born prematurely, having a low birth weight, brain damage (for example, physiological, or due to alcohol/smoking/drug intake while pregnant).


How to seek help for ADHD

Many children will show some level of inattentiveness, overactivity or poor impulse control especially when they are very young, anxious or when they have special learning needs.

However, when these symptoms are more than one would expect for the child’s age and level of development and they are interfering with learning and other aspects of functioning at school, a referral to a specialist should be considered. Even when tantrums and other disruptive behaviours are more evident than anything else and it is difficult to identify ADHD symptoms, it is always wise to refer to a specialist so that ADHD can be appropriately assessed.


Whom to refer to

The GP or school SENCO (Special Educational Needs Coordinator) or teacher can help by making a referral to the local mental health service such as CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service), community paediatrician or another appropriate local support service.

After a child is accepted to an appropriate mental health service, they will undergo an assessment to better understand their difficulties and recommend treatment.

You can also visit the Where to get help page.


About Nip in the Bud

Nip in the Bud® was set up to encourage awareness about mental health disorders in young children. Our films illustrate the behaviours common in different conditions in children, along with explanations and information on how to follow up and get help.

Watch our films.