An Overview Of Common ADHD Symptoms In Toddlers

Published 10/30/2020

Most parents, especially new parents, want the best for their child. During the early developmental stages, any “abnormal” or concerning behaviors can be stressful to address. Though ADHD is not typically noticeable in young toddlers, it is important to understand the signs as child ages.

What Does ADHD Mean?


ADHD stands for Attention-Deficit / Hyperactivity Disorder. The most common understanding of ADHD is that a person with ADHD can often control what they choose to focus on.

However, there is a lot more to understand this condition, especially if it is diagnosed at a young age.

As of 2016, the Center For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated that approximately 9.2% or 6.1 million children aged 2-17 in the United States have been diagnosed with ADHD. Moreover, 388,000 of those children were between the ages of 2-5 years old.

Together we’ll review the signs and symptoms, dispel the myths, and provide guidance for understanding ADHD in toddlers.

ADHD Symptoms

Experts break ADHD up into three categories:

  1. Inattention
  2. Hyperactivity / Impulsivity
  3. Combination of both

Each category brings its own unique set of symptoms. Here are some of the symptoms that might appear in a child with ADHD:

  • Difficulty focusing on the task at hand
  • Trouble with time management
  • Struggling to organize thoughts, ideas, and plans
  • Forgetfulness
  • Excessive movement
  • Acting on impulsive thoughts
  • Unexplained mood swings

If these are some of the symptoms a person with ADHD might experience, what are the signs visible from an outside perspective, particularly with children?

What Are The Signs of ADHD?


When discussing ADHD symptoms in young children, 5-year-old children can be a good place to start. Given the significance in personality development around that time, signs of ADHD may become more prevalent.

The signs of ADHD can be slightly different than the symptoms. This is in part because of how our behaviors change as we age. Though the symptoms might not change, the signs can.

For example, depending on how the ADHD has taken effect, a child might be described as “disruptive,” while an adult with ADHD might be described as  “scatter-brained.”

These labels are not representative of the person’s capabilities, but rather a misunderstanding of how a brain with ADHD operates. 

Whether you’re a parent, or guardian of a toddler who might have ADHD, or a daycare professional trying to understand the signs of ADHD in toddlers, here are some important behaviors to take note of when attempting to identify ADHD.

  • Difficulty taking turns and/or waiting for one's turn
  • Frequentdaydreaming
  • Fidgetingorstimmingbehaviors
  • Emotional outbursts
  • Seeminglycarelessmistakes
  • “All over the place” physically, and/or mentally

Signs of ADHD in children often become more evident in a school setting, but it is important to identify as early as possible to help the child succeed in the classroom.

Many toddlers can struggle with attention, or have excessive energy, or make impulsive choices. Signs of ADHD in 5-year-old children can be missed completely because of the commonality of these symptoms. Considering the frontal lobe is still so early in its development, it can be challenging to assess what behaviors are “normal” or neurotypical in a child.

How Does The Brain Function?

Though it is not fully developed until the age of 25, the frontal lobe is in charge of judgment calls, organization, speech, memory, emotions, voluntary movement, impulse control, social abilities, and regulating motivation/the reward center.

Essentially, the frontal lobe is responsible for all executive functions.

A brain with ADHD has all the same neurotransmitters as a brain without, however, in a brain with ADHD, these neurotransmitters do not always signal to the brain to carry out some of these executive orders.

ADD Vs. ADHD Vs. Autism

ADD and ADHD are still often confused, as disorders names have morphed over the years. ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) is now regarded as ADHD - inattentive type.

A person with ADHD does not technically have to be hyperactive to be diagnosed. ADHD is an umbrella that encompasses inattentive type, hyperactive/impulsive type, or a combination type.

Considering that ADHD can manifest itself differently in different people, it can be harder to not without the hyperactivity components.

Especially with young children, parents and caretakers can frequently have difficulty discerning between ADHD and Autism.

Is ADHD A Form Of Autism?

Depending on how the ADHD has established itself in a child, it can often appear similar to ASD (autism spectrum disorder). While a child with autism can also have ADHD, they are not interchangeable.

ASD has very specific criteria to meet for an official diagnosis.

  1. Social Skills: A person with ASD can have more “abnormal” approaches to social settings, including but not limited to:
    • Trouble initiating conversation or carrying a conversation
    • Troublesharinginterests
    • A lackofnonverbal cues
    • Struggles understanding relationships and therefore difficulty maintaining them
  • Restricted and/or Repetitive: How severe are the behaviors and what are the patterns?
    • .Obsessiveness with routine, and an inflexibility to do otherwise
    • Repetitive motor behaviors sometimes (stimming - see below)
    • Attachment to highly specific and unusual objects
    • Reactiveness to the senses and overstimulation
  • Pre-existing Symptoms muexistent at an early age, even if unidentified, for a diagnosis occurrence.
  • Learning: Symptoms have a major effect on the ability of a person to learn, work, or operate in everyday life.
  • Uniqueness: Symptoms cannot be explained by intellectual development disorder.

ASD is called autism spectrum disorder for a very important reason: it is a spectrum. Any given child might have very different ways in which they exemplify these symptoms. In fact, autism can look very different from one child to the next.

What is Stimming?


Stimming, or self-stimulation, is a physical behavior used sometimes as a coping mechanism, or distraction, or to relieve boredom, as a means of sensory processing.

Stimming In ASD Vs, ADHD:

  • ASD
    • Hand flapping
    • Rocking
    • Clapping
    • Aggressiveblinking
    • Repetitivemovements
    • Repeating verbal phrasesorhumming
  • ADHD
    • Legshaking
    • Tapping a pen orpencil
    • Unintentionalstaring
    • Excessivescratchingorrubbing
    • Bitingyournails
    • Pullingyourhair

Many people experience stimming behaviors from time to time. But the differences in stimming behaviors for a child with ASD vs a child with ADHD can be a tell-tale sign for initial diagnosis.

Unlike ADHD, autism can be detected as early as 18 months of age and can be diagnosed in a baby as young as 1 year old. Whereas with ADHD, diagnosis will not happen until a bit later in childhood.

Can A Two Year Old Have ADHD?

As far as researchers know, a person with ADHD is almost always born with the condition. Though environment and early developmental impacts can play a role in ADHD symptoms, the disorder is primarily genetic. Additionally, a parent with ADHD has a 50% chance of passing it onto their child.

Therefore, yes. A two-year-old can have ADHD. However, symptoms will likely not be noticeable, and diagnosis at that stage is even less likely.

Generally, ADHD will not have a significant impact on a child until they are of school age, and at that point, it’s important to notice ADHD symptoms. 4-year-old children are still sometimes too young to diagnose.

Boys Vs. Girls

Statistically, boys are far more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD. Often exemplifying the hyperactive or impulsive behaviors, it can be much easier to identify your boy's symptoms.

However, just because girls are less frequently diagnosed, does not mean they are less likely to have ADHD. In many cases, girls do not show external symptoms of ADHD, and therefore go underdiagnosed.

Why It’s Important

When undiagnosed, ADHD can lead to other mental health issues. Because of the difficulty to fit into societal standards, a person with ADHD is also at risk for anxiety and/or depression.

In fact, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, 50% of adults with ADHD also experience general anxiety disorder.

Diagnosis between the ages of 5-12 is ideal. ADHD can be debilitating for some, and can take a major toll on a child’s development, socially and academically. Diagnosis within this window allows for the symptoms to develop enough to be identifiable, but also remains early enough that caregivers can help the child manage his or her symptoms.

Consider this: a child with ADHD might have trouble keeping track of anything from homework, to personal hygiene. Once they notice that their peers have a much easier time with simple tasks such as these, self-consciousness can begin to set in.

ADHD And Nutrition


The average child tends to have noticeable reactions to sugar, high fructose corn syrup, and/or caffeine. Some call it “bouncing off the walls.” Later, this “sugar high” may end with a “sugar crash”.

For a child with ADHD, the wrong diet can (in some cases) significantly exacerbate the ADHD symptoms of inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity.

Many parents look to elimination diets, supplemental diets, or minimalist diets as a solution for their child with ADHD. Unfortunately, the correlation between ADHD and nutrition is under-researched and therefore unreliable as a sufficient solution for ADHD.

Though the role of food as it pertains to curbing ADHD symptoms is still unclear, providing a balanced, nutritious diet for a child can never hurt.

Can You “Grow Out Of” ADHD?

ADHD has traditionally been understood as a disorder only seen in children. However, over time, it’s become apparent that this is not the case. Adults can be diagnosed with ADHD, despite going undiagnosed in childhood and adolescents.

A person with ADHD cannot “grow out of it.” With the right tools, and guidance however, ADHD can be completely manageable, and with age, symptoms can subside.

How To Manage ADHD

Managing ADHD, especially for toddlers, can present a litany of challenges. Ask your doctor for an ADHD test for toddlers to start.

Providing structure for a child with ADHD, and reducing stress for the rest of the household can be intimidating. Remembeofchild's behaviorsild with ADHD are not intentional, and not meant to harm or make life more difficult for anyone else. Try to practice routine, reward association, standardized consequences, and make ample time for sleep.

In the meantime, follow the link below to take this short, free assessment to evaluate if your child might be at risk for ADHD.