Six million children in the United States are diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and each one has parents who wonder if their child could outgrow the condition.
Everyone here at THINK Neurology for Kids — Shaun S. Varghese, MD, Cristina R. Marchesano, MD, Lorena Herbert, MD, Barbara Kiersz-Mueller, DO, Lauren Weaver, MD, Alicia Walls, MD, Sundeep Mandava, MD, Jennifer E. Martin, CPNP-PC, Tammy DeLaGarza, FNP-C, Una Childers, PA-C, MPAS, Heather King, CPNP-PC, and Robby Korah, FNP-C — would like to answer that question with a resounding yes!
However, the answer is complex. Children’s symptoms can change, improve, and even go into remission, but it’s not fair to suggest they can outgrow ADHD. Let’s explore what that means.
Changes in ADHD symptoms
With ADHD treatment, some children and teens improve so substantially they no longer have symptoms. Or, their symptoms may evolve, leading to different problems in adulthood that make it look like they outgrew ADHD.
For example, the hyperactive symptom of fidgeting in children can become internalized in adults, causing irritation and nervousness instead of a visible behavior.
Some see this progress as outgrowing ADHD. But they’ve only outgrown the condition if they never have symptoms again. According to a 2022 study, symptoms often reappear down the road. That’s why many call it remission.
At the same time, many children continue to struggle with significant ADHD symptoms throughout adolescence and adulthood.
Why is ADHD progress so unpredictable? One reason is differences in the treatment received by each person. Another variable is the fact that many children have co-occurring disorders influencing their progress, such as anxiety, depression, and autism.
However, a critical part of the answer lies in the brain changes responsible for ADHD. Children can’t outgrow the condition when functional brain problems persist. The underlying brain issues can cause symptoms to reappear in the future.
The ADHD brain
Specific brain areas and nerve networks develop differently in children with ADHD, resulting in the core symptoms of inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity. These brain changes include:
Several parts of the brain mature more slowly and stay smaller in kids with ADHD (compared to typically developing kids). These areas can’t function properly if they don’t mature.
The affected brain areas control crucial abilities, like emotional and behavioral regulation, and the ability to suppress actions that are irrelevant to the task at hand. As a result, kids with ADHD tend to have emotional outbursts, become aggressive or defiant, and can’t complete assigned tasks.
Executive function skills are also affected. When a child’s executive function isn’t working, they have difficulty listening, staying focused, solving problems, planning and organizing activities, following directions, and completing tasks.
The brain keeps growing through early adolescence, equipping teens to do a better job of managing ADHD. But the brain doesn’t reach its expected size. Adults with ADHD still have biological brain differences compared to those without ADHD.
Biological differences vary in each child, affecting the severity of ADHD symptoms and their chances of going into remission.
Nerves form extensive networks throughout the brain, using chemicals (neurotransmitters) to communicate messages that regulate emotions, behaviors, thoughts, muscles, and all bodily functions.
In children with ADHD, some nerve networks work differently and have an imbalance in neurotransmitters. ADHD symptoms in adults are also associated with disrupted nerve connectivity.
ADHD treatment makes a difference
Some children will go into complete remission. Most will fluctuate between periods of remission and times when they struggle with symptoms.
No matter how long remission lasts, they haven’t outgrown ADHD — they’ve worked hard to overcome their challenges.
While we can’t say who may successfully put ADHD behind them, one fact is certain: treatment makes a difference.
ADHD medications restore the balance of brain chemicals. Therapy teaches essential skills for managing ADHD and goes a step further.
The human brain never stops building nerve connections. As children learn new coping skills, their therapy also rewires the brain, leading to longer-lasting improvements.
Call the THINK Neurology for Kids office in The Woodlands, Katy, Sugar Land, Lakeway, or Lake Jackson, Texas, or use online booking to schedule an appointment and start your child’s journey toward overcoming ADHD.