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Five red flags that rule out ADHD in children

Vol. 1, No. 4 / April 2002

Making a quick diagnosis in a hyperactive, inattentive child is often difficult. The National Institutes of Health concluded in a consensus statement that no independent diagnostic test for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) exists. 1 Furthermore, the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) issued a treatment guideline classifying ADHD as a clinical diagnosis.

With the time constraints imposed by managed care organizations, questioning and history gathering must be precisely aimed to elicit specific information. Over the years, I have identified the following 5 red flags that help distinguish ADHD from mood problems,2 anxiety, psychosis, obsessions, and other psychiatric disorders.

  1. Moodiness is not part of ADHD. The DSM-IV criteria for ADHD do not include elevated mood. “Mood swings,” persistent clowning, or angry affect should prompt further questioning about similar features in relatives. Frequently we hear that “his father was never diagnosed with anything, but he was the class clown.”
  2. ADHD is not an intermittent condition. By asking if the child has “good days and bad days,” we can obtain valuable information. ADHD has a biological basis and is present every day, like Parkinson’s disease or diabetes. Obviously, some days can be more challenging than others, but if a parent says, “Some days she is a perfect child,” the possibility of ADHD is small.
  3. Symptoms are not present in kindergarten. The child with ADHD begins to show signs of this condition very early in life; parents are frequently informed of problems by preschool and kindergarten teachers. The usual complaints are inability to stay with a task and disrupting the class. Start of these symptoms as late as first or second grade is a red flag to question the ADHD diagnosis.
  4. More than one diagnosis probably means “none of the above.” When a child has been diagnosed with conduct disorder (CD) and/or oppositional-defiant disorder (ODD) along with ADHD, chances are that we are missing the real diagnosis. I have seen cases of social anxiety disorder that had been diagnosed as ADHD/ODD because the child was inattentive secondary to nervousness. Incidentally, DSM-IV does not allow the diagnosis of ODD in the presence of CD.
  5. Worsening of symptoms is not an expected outcome of stimulant medications for ADHD. Lack of response to psychostimulants or only mild improvement may occur in ADHD. Frequently, however, we see children with histories of getting worse after starting medication for presumed ADHD.


1. NIH Consensus Statement, 16(2), Nov. 16-18, 1998.

2. Biederman J. Childhood mania: it does exist and coexist with ADHD. American Society of Clinical Psychopharmacology Progress Note, 1995.

3. Mota-Castillo M. ADHD or Bipolar? What Parents Need to Know. Segraf, 2002.

Dr. Mota-Castillo is staff psychiatrist at Florida Psychiatric Associates, Orlando.

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