Assessing Child Maladaptive Behaviors: Distinguishing between Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Other Mental Illnesses

June 3, 2021

There are several conditions with overlapping diagnostic criteria that can look like ADHD. Let’s take a closer look at how to assess and distinguish between ADHD and some other mental illnesses.

Detecting ADHD

Refer to the ADHD clinical practice guidelines Learn more about third-party links for guidance on diagnosing, evaluating and treating ADHD. When diagnosing and treating for ADHD with medications, complete an in-person or telehealth/remote follow-up within 30 days of the member starting medication.

Other Conditions Requiring Assessment of ADHD-Like Symptoms

ADHD has diagnostic criteria which can look similar in presentation to other mental illnesses besides depression, like:

Child traumatic stress may also overlap and look similar in presentation. Additional information on child traumatic stress and treatments is available here:

Compared to other conditions, ADHD might be unique in having the characteristics of 1) unproductive hyperactivity and 2) impulsivity that is internally and not externally driven.

Comparing Characteristics of Child Traumatic Stress and ADHD


Child Traumatic Stress


Self–esteem May feel guilt or shame Variable
Pleasure May struggle Variable
Attention Easily distracted Easily distracted
Hyperactivity Hyperactive Unproductive
Sleep May be disturbed Chronic, poor, often late bedtimes
Speech No pattern Often rapid, may be pressured
Impulsivity May react to sensing threats Internally driven
Social May be fearful, edgy, on alert for threats Often poor
Academic May have difficulty concentrating and learning Often poor
Psychomotor activity May be restless, agitated Chronically agitated

Need help?

Magellan Behavioral Healthcare manages services related to mental and behavioral health care. Medicaid providers can call 1-800-327-7390. You can also review the Behavioral Health Toolkit. Learn more about third-party links

© 2020 American Academy of Pediatrics

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