Unsettled, fidgety or distracted behaviour

Parent Information
Children or adolescents can be “jumpy”, fidgety or unable to sit still for a variety of reasons. Sometimes they are worried or anxious and other times, being very active is developmentally normal (such as a young child or a long time period to sit still), in other situations the child is having more than the normal amount of trouble staying still and some of these children will have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Children with ADHD often have trouble completing tasks such as homework or schoolwork (but not necessarily computer games) and may say or do things without thinking first.

When to seek help

When the pattern of unsettled, distracted or silly behaviour is sustained over time and more than normal for that child’s age, assessment is indicated. Getting a clear picture of what is happening for the child can help, sometimes simply recognising what is going on is enough to prevent secondary problems such as getting into trouble and being seen as “naughty”. At other times, treatment is useful when the child’s difficulties are outside the normal range of activity and distractibility and/or of anxiety for the child’s age. Initially assessment is with your General Practitioner who may then refer to other health professionals such as a Child and Adolescent Psychologist or Psychiatrist.


This will depend on what is underneath the distractibility, fidgeting or difficulty sitting still and treatment needs to be directed at the most significant difficulty (for example an Anxiety Disorder or ADHD). Where the main problem is Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, the intervention will depend on how much of a problem it is causing for the child at home and at school. Where the difficulties are mild simply understanding that this is not deliberate misbehaviour can be enough. Parents and teachers responding to the child or adolescent calmly, warmly and clearly can be helpful, this can be easier said than done when the parent and/or teacher has had significant time feeling frustrated and unheard. A particular type of fish oil can be helpful for some children, whether this is appropriate or not can be advised by the child’s doctor (General Practitioner, Paediatrician or Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist).

When the child or adolescent is experiencing significant difficulties and distress, then adding medication (most often a stimulant such as methylphenidate or dexamphetamine) to the other approaches has been shown to improve outcome. This can be a “circuit-breaker” when the interaction between the parent or teacher and child has become difficult, and when the opportunity for less frustration comes up, it is easier for the parent or teacher to respond calmly, warmly and clearly which is of additional benefit to the child’s outcome.

In Australia, prescribing these medications requires an assessment by a paediatrician or psychiatrist who is accredited to prescribe stimulant medication.

Useful websites

Australian Psychological Society: ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) in children
Raising Children Network (AUS): Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)