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Can ADHD Cause Memory Recall Issues and Memory Loss?

Kids with ADHD can struggle with memory recall and memory issues because of how ADHD affects the brain. Learn about the connection between ADHD and memory and how to improve memory recall skills.
Can ADHD Cause Memory Recall Issues and Memory Loss? 
Updated: March 14, 2023
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Kids with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) struggle with inattention, impulsivity, and executive function skills. They may also be fidgety and have trouble staying organized, according to the American Psychiatric Association. But did you know that ADHD can also cause memory problems?

Forgetfulness is often an overlooked or less-known symptom of ADHD. But addressing memory impairment by helping kids form memories can make a big difference for kids who have an ADHD diagnosis.

It's very characteristic of children with ADHD to do poorly in school because they forget to do their assignments, or they forget to turn those assignments into the teacher – even when they've done them! 

Related: Tips to Help Teens with ADHD Prepare for College

Retention of information and recall of skills learned is erratic and inconsistent. In addition to building memory strategies, these children typically need accommodations for their memory weaknesses and should be allowed to use tools to bypass those weaknesses.

Does ADHD Affect Memory? 

Kids with ADHD are known for being forgetful in their daily life, but it’s often assumed that their memory issues are caused by their difficulties with paying attention. While it’s true that distractability is part of the picture, it’s not just that these kids forget what they are doing.

Instead, distracting thoughts and feelings may actually get in the brain’s way of forming a memory (encoding) in the first place.

Take an example: When you tell your child to remember his helmet when he bikes home from school, it’s not necessarily that he got so excited about hopping on his bike or that he was so distracted chatting with his friends that made him forget the helmet.

Instead, it’s that his brain became occupied with some small distraction right at the moment you finished reminding him. That distraction got in the way of forming a memory in the first place. If you would have asked him what you just said a few moments after speaking, it’s likely he would not know.

ADHD and Short-Term Memory

Short-term memory refers to what a person can recall after a short period of time, such as a few seconds to a few minutes.

Studies show that some children with ADHD tend to have short-term memory issues, but this does not mean they have cognitive impairment. While this does not necessarily affect all kids with ADHD, it is a common symptom. Short-term memories can be difficult to form if other stimulus gets in the way.

This can make it difficult to follow along with a conversation or complete homework assignments.

Mother give high five to daughter praising for multiplication

ADHD and Long-Term Memory

Long-term memory refers to what a person can recall over a longer period, such as months or years. Core memories like family vacations or their first lost tooth may stay in the long-term memory because they made a bigger impression on the child. These memories may also form when information is accessed frequently, like an address or phone number.

A meta-analysis in the Journal of Attention Disorders indicates that children with ADHD tend to have worse long-term memory than their non-ADHD peers. There is also evidence of long-term memory performance in adult ADHD.

When kids have trouble encoding, both their short-term and long-term memory are impacted. If something stops you from forming the memory in the first place, it’s not going to be easy to recall it at a later date.

Distractibility and a wandering mind may also prevent kids from revisiting or focusing on information that could potentially be stored in their long-term memory.

ADHD and Working Memory

Working memory refers to information that you need to hold in your head for a longer but temporary amount of time. It also refers to the ability to hold multiple pieces of information in the brain at once and to draw on this information as it is helpful or necessary to solve problems or complete tasks. Working memory is the type of memory that is most impaired in children with ADHD.

Various studies and a meta-analytic review by R Matt Alderson, Connor HG Patros, et all have found that it is quite common for children with ADHD to struggle with poor working memory.

Working memory deficits may be common in these children because not only is their ability to form memories impaired but they also struggle with multitasking and executive function.

While it may not yet be clear which came first, working memory inhibition or ADHD, these two are definitely related.

How ADHD Affects Kids' Brains

People with ADHD have a unique brain structure. Children with the disorder also experience a different pattern of brain development.

Having ADHD is associated with slightly smaller brains with a different-that-usual distribution of brain matter. Areas with less-than-normal volume include the amygdala and hippocampus. These parts of the brain are involved in decision-making, focus, judgment, and memory.

12 year old boy struggles to pay attention in classBrain function may also differ. It can be harder for kids with ADHD to regulate their moods or make connections between the different areas of the brain.

Brain development may happen more slowly in kids with ADHD, particularly in certain areas, like the prefrontal cortex. This brain part is involved in decision-making, impulse control and rationality.

ADHD has two main subtypes, hyperactive and hypo-active. Kids who are hyperactive have trouble sitting still while kids who are hypoactive tend to zone out and forget to move. These are just two different presentations

Is Forgetfulness a Symptom of ADHD

Forgetfulness may be a symptom of ADHD but it does not necessarily always present as a main symptom. Also, being forgetful does not imply that your child has ADHD—this can also be common in non-ADHD kids.

If you notice that your child’s forgetfulness is interfering with their life in a significant way, talk to your child’s pediatrician or teacher. If a seemingly-low memory capacity is accompanied by other common ADHD symptoms such as hyperactivity, lack of impulse control, or trouble focusing, you might consider an evaluation for ADHD or a learning disability.

Tips to Improve Memory for Kids with ADHD

There are a few things you can do to help your child cope with their memory struggles. In a nutshell, your goal is to provide a combination of external reminders (usually visual) and focused moments when you reinforce important information.

Supporting your child can make a big difference in their mental health. Try these tips to help jog your kid’s memory and set them up for success:

  • Use checklists and visual reminders for everything
  • Break down larger tasks into bite-sized chunks. For example, “Walk the dog,” may be too broad. Instead list out steps, such as: “Get Teddy’s leash out of drawer in the table by the door. Clip the leash on. Walk down to the dog park. After an hour, take Teddy home. Put the leash back into the drawer. Feed Teddy.”
  • Always make checklists for school projects, and check in frequently before the project is due. 
  • Allow your child to fidget. Michael Kofler, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Florida State University found that kids with ADHD had better working memory when allowed to move or fidget freely.
  • Use a big dry-erase board at home to list tasks of the day.
  • Use a monthly calendar at home and school to enter all activities and projects due.
  • Send your child to school with a notebook to list daily assignments, and check it each day. Have the teacher sign off before dismissal so there are no surprises.
  • Provide simple, written instructions and reminders of what your child needs to do.
  • Use positive feedback or rewards when your child remembers important information. This is not just to make them feel good for the sake of it—the positive feeling is really a kind of brain training. Praise may trigger a strong enough reaction in the brain that a memory has been formed.
  • Ask your child to paraphrase instructions or information to be remembered—then do a memory test check for his understanding and recall. Remember, he is not in trouble if he can’t remember, he just needs you to repeat the information and let him try again.
  • Use visuals such as photographs or diagrams to remind.
  • After your child receives directions, she should tell someone such as a parent or teacher what she is supposed to do.
  • Increase the amount of practice and review in a variety of formats.

For more helpful resources and tools that can help kids with ADHD more easily remember tasks, recall information and complete daily activities, check out our list of 22 Super Helpful Apps for Kids with ADHD! 

Elisa Cinelli

About Elisa

Elisa is a well-known parenting writer who is passionate about providing research-based… Read more

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