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ADHD Meta-Symptoms

When we think of ADHD symptoms, we typically think of things like not being able to sustain attention or being impatient.

These specific, local symptoms are the basis for diagnosis, but over the course of a life with ADHD they add up to larger trends. Beyond the day-to-day symptoms of ADHD, certain patterns often show up in the lives of adults with ADHD.

ADHD Meta-Symptoms
If ADHD symptoms are the trees, meta-symptoms are the forest.

As children with ADHD grow into adults with ADHD, some ADHD symptoms tend to fade away or find ways of expressing themselves more subtly. For example, hyperactive symptoms tend to become less apparent.

However, one thing that’s less talked about is that ADHD meta-symptoms, life patterns influenced by ADHD, become more prominent with age. This happens both because adults have much more control over how they structure their lives and because the life choices you make can have a cumulative effect over time.

Some of these ADHD meta-symptoms are:

  • Frequent career changes: People with ADHD can bounce from career to career over the course of their lives. Even if they stick with one career, they might switch jobs much more than most people.
  • Frequent moves: As I’ve mentioned in previous blog posts, I’d bet good money that at least one of my parents has undiagnosed ADHD. When I was growing up, we would move every couple years, often to a completely different part of the country.
  • Dropped commitments: Many people with ADHD have trouble following through on things they’ve committed to. As a result, people with ADHD can accumulate trails of commitments they’ve failed to meet or things they’ve started strong on but then not kept up with.
  • Chronic underachievement: ADHD can get in the way of putting your knowledge or skills to practical use and focusing your energies to achieve goals. Many people with ADHD are left with a pervasive sense of underachievement in school, work or life in general.
  • Financial difficulties: when you take into account things like chronic underachievement and frequent career changes, it’s no surprise that people with ADHD end up earning less over the course of their lives. On top of that, difficulty planning ahead means people with ADHD aren’t the best at saving what money they do have, and that’s without even getting into being at higher risk for compulsive buying and gambling.
  • Low self-esteem and resentment: The consequence of living with dropped commitments, chronic underachievement or ADHD just generally screwing with your life is blame that you either internalize (as low self-esteem), externalize (as resentment) or both.

None of these meta-symptoms arise form single ADHD symptoms. Rather, they’re the additive result of multiple ADHD symptoms. For example, impersistence, boredom proneness, impulsivity and hyperactivity all factor into frequent career changes.

Of course, these life patterns aren’t specific to ADHD – there are other reasons someone might have low self-esteem or change jobs frequently. But in conjunction with actual ADHD symptoms, these meta-symptoms can be telling.

Looking for meta-symptoms in your life can spark insight into what your ADHD symptoms mean in the bigger picture. If symptoms are the trees, meta-symptoms are the forest. When I need to get perspective on my ADHD, looking for these meta-symptoms in my life helps me get a handle on what the real effects of my ADHD symptoms are over time and helps me make the connection between my moment-to-moment behaviors and the overall course of my life.

Do you have other meta-symptoms to add to the list? Please share!

Image: Orsi

ADHD Meta-Symptoms

Neil Petersen

Neil Petersen writes regularly on education, learning disabilities and technology. He received his B.A. in 2014 and was diagnosed with ADHD at the beginning of his college studies. Neil also works for a music education non-profit and hopes to help create an education system that can better serve students with ADHD.

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APA Reference
Petersen, N. (2016). ADHD Meta-Symptoms. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 11, 2020, from


Last updated: 19 Mar 2016
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