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What is Hyperactivity?

Updated on February 25, 2011

Hyperactive children are unusually active; find it difficult to stay with tasks, particularly written schoolwork; are impulsive; and are easily excited or upset. They often are more aggressive and demand more attention than does the average child. These personality traits are so marked and persistent that parents and teachers find such children hard to manage. Because the diagnosis of hyperactivity is based on subjective reports by parents and teachers, and because most children who have difficulties with schoolwork tend to be restless and to misbehave, many children are sometimes classified mistakenly as hyperactive.

The behavior of hyperactive children is unusual by the time they are toddlers, but their difficulties become most troublesome in elementary school, when they are first expected- to do written work. Although they become less hyperactive as they grow older, they continue to have the same basic traits in adolescence and probably in adult life. There is little evidence on what hyperactive children are like as adults, but it is probable that most of them become successful when they leave: the uncomfortable atmosphere of school. The traits that suit them so poorly for classwork can be assets in later life, particularly in careers that involve action and working with people. However, hyperactive children may be predisposed to have drinking problems as adults.

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Causes of Hyperactivity

Family-history studies show that hyperactivity (which is much more common in boys than in girls) may be a hereditary trait, as are such traits as reading disability and enuresis (bedwetting).

A small proportion of hyperactive children, less than 10%, have a definite history of injury to, or disease of, the brain that preceded a change to abnormal behavior. It has not been established, however, that brain damage or malfunction is a factor in most cases of hyperactivity. Studies of many children who had difficulties at birth show no connection between such difficulties and later hyperactivity.

In most cases it is not possible to find a specific cause for hyperactivity, and it may not be appropriate to try. Since hyperactive behavior is common, starting early and persists at least into adolescence, has hereditary determinants, and also is relatively hard to change by psychological means, it may represent a type of temperament rather than a psychological or medical disorder.

Treatment of Hyperactivity

Until the 1960's hyperactive children were thought to be suffering from anxiety resulting from conflict between their parents, and together with their families they were treated by psychotherapy. Since then, stimulant drugs have come into wide use to calm hyperactive children. Drug therapy, however, is only temporary in effect and presents the danger that, if prolonged, the children may become psychologically dependent on the drugs. A promising trend in treatment is to help the hyperactive child by teaching his parents and teachers how to cope with his difficult behavior.

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