10 top tips for spotting ADHD in toddlers

By Sarah Templeton, ADHD counsellor, coach and CBT therapist

You might think it’s far too young to start looking for ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) in toddlers, but as an ADHD specialist counsellor working with children, the youngest child I have known get diagnosed with ADHD was just two years old.

It’s not unusual for parents to see the first signs from an incredibly young age so these are my top tips for what to look for in toddlers, that may indicate attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Signs and symptoms of ADHD in toddlers

1.     Hyperactivity and restlessness 

Look for toddlers who struggle to sit on the floor with other children to listen to stories. They will often be climbing on furniture, be constantly on the go and never seem to want to stop. They will be restless, fidgety and wanting to move at all times. 

2.     Distraction

If you have a toddler who seems unable to concentrate for very long on whatever activity they are doing, this could be a red flag for the condition. Even as a toddler, an ADHD brain will struggle to concentrate on one toy or game, without becoming distracted by something else. If the child is watching cartoons on the television, watch and see if they can concentrate for more than 10 minutes. An inability to do this could be an indicator. Likewise, when you are talking to them, if their eyes wander very quickly and you can tell that they are not engaged with what you are saying after only a few seconds, this could also indicate ADHD.

3.    Inattention

If you have a toddler who is constantly bumping into things, banging their head and having more accidents than other children their age, this could be a sign of ADHD inattention. ADHD toddlers will often have a short attention span, struggle to pay attention when being given instructions, and their mind will wander easily. 

4.    Impulsivity and not thinking of consequences 

These are two ADHD traits that can show up in very young children. An ADHD child, for example, may throw something heavy at another person without thinking of the damage it will do. They may impulsively let go of an adult’s hand and run across a busy road. They may get overexcited and impulsively show their emotions in inappropriate ways. For example, a toddler I know used to bite his friends because he was so happy to see them.

5.    Sensory issues

Most children with ADHD also have sensory processing disorder. This can show up in any of the senses including taste, touch, smell and sound. As a toddler, my ADHD brother was terrified of fairgrounds and circuses until we realised it was the noise he couldn’t tolerate. Often clothes and particularly labels will be a problem with ADHD toddlers, especially if they are itchy or scratchy. If your toddler is always taking off their socks and shoes and prefers to be barefoot, this is another indicator of ADHD. Something will be irritating their skin.

6.    Nothing ever being enough

This is a very common ADHD trait and is caused by lack of dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is the ‘happy hormone’ which tells the brain that everything is enough. Because a toddler doesn’t have enough dopamine, they will be trying to replace it unknowingly.  Even very young toddlers can become bored easily and however exciting an activity is at the beginning, they may soon get tired of it and want to move onto something new. 

7.    Dysregulated emotions

From birth, ADHD children have a brain that cannot regulate emotions. Quite simply the area of the brain that is supposed to regulate them, malfunctions. So, if you have a toddler who doesn’t seem to show appropriate levels of emotions, this is a big indicator of undiagnosed ADHD. Likewise, if you have a toddler who regularly gets extremely angry, bursts into tears on a frequent basis or gets frustrated and irritated more easily than others, this is another ADHD sign. 

8.    Struggling to understand instructions

This is a trait that carries on through to adulthood but can first show up when a child is a toddler. An ADHD brain sometimes has problems understanding what somebody means when they are trying to give them instructions. So, if other children are picking things up quicker than your toddler and you find yourself having to explain things over and over, this could be an ADHD indicator.

9.    Food and eating

From an early age, there could be issues with food. You might find they are extremely fussy about what they eat, or don’t like certain food touching other food, or will only eat food that is crunchy or soft, or sweet or sour, or doesn’t have sauce on it. You may also find that a toddler has a compulsive eating problem where they eat and eat and cannot regulate how much they consume until they make themselves sick. This is an early sign of compulsive eating which again is due to the ADHD brain not having enough dopamine and the toddler seeking pleasure from food.

10.    Unusual toilet habits

A large proportion of ADHD people have irritable bowel syndrome which is often confused with food intolerances. This can show up in babies and become more apparent as toddlers. So, if your child regularly gets constipated or goes to the toilet numerous times a day, this could be a very early sign of IBS and ADHD. 

On a final note, if you see indicators of ADHD in your toddler and you are their parent, start looking for the red flags in yourself and the other parent!

In recent years, medics have agreed that it is ‘as hereditary as eye colour and height’. However, the severity of it isn’t so you could have a mild condition which hasn’t been detected.

The red flags to look for in yourself are any signs of:

  • Addiction
  • Obesity
  • Promiscuity
  • Gambling
  • Spending money recklessly
  • Bad credit rating
  • Juggling too many things at once
  • Having several jobs
  • Nothing ever being enough
  • Moving jobs and house regularly

If any of this resonates with you, it’s a good idea to get tested because being diagnosed, medicated and being more aware of your own ADHD is going to hugely help you with your toddler.

For more information about screening for ADHD and support for families and children go to https://www.adhdfoundation.org.uk/services-for-families/

Sarah Templeton is an ADHD counsellor, coach, CBT therapist and author of How Not to Murder Your ADHD Kid: Instead Learn How to Be Your Child’s Own ADHD Coach. She is also author of Teachers! How Not to Kill the Spirit in Your ADHD Kids. Instead, Understand Their Brains and Turbo-Charge our Future Leaders & Winners.

Last Updated: 12 Dec 2022

Frequently Asked Questions

How do I know if my toddler has ADHD?

You can see the signs of ADHD at a very young age but health professionals will not diagnose ADHD until a child is at least six years old. Signs of ADHD in toddlers include hyperactivity, restlessness, being easily distracted, short attention span, impulsivity, sensory issues and struggling to understand instructions. Learn More

Is ADHD hereditary?

Research shows that ADHD runs in families and there does appear to be a genetic link so if your toddler is showing signs of ADHD, you could also have the condition. Learn More

What are the symptoms of ADHD in adults?

Common adult ADHD symptoms are addiction, obesity, promiscuity, gambling, spending money recklessly, moving jobs and house regularly and nothing ever being enough. Learn More