Dear Dr. Poussaint:

I have a 4-year-old son who seems overactive. He is always up to something and gets into everything. It's like he can't sit still. I buy him lots of toys, but he loses interest quickly.

He's really wearing me out. It's not just me -- other people also find it hard to take, and sometimes our children don't like to play with him because he always seems nervous.

One of my neighbors suggested that my son be put on drugs to calm him down. I don't like the idea of drugs, but right now I'll do anything to get some peace. If it will help him, should I try pills? We don't have a regular doctor, but could I take him to the hospital clinic? What would you suggest that I do? K. K., Washington, D.C. Dear K. K.:

According to your description, it may be possible that your son is a victim of the hyperactive child syndrome. However, it's difficult to make an assessment from the brief information you provided.

Parents often incorrectly describe their children as being hyperactive. In such instances, parents expect and wish for a very quiet child, and they are exhausted by the activity and curiosity of a normal child. Children are very demanding and often have a short attention span. They like activity and may become restless when they are bored. You mention that your child loses interest in toys quickly, but it's important to know how quickly. The degree to which your child loses interest is what's most important.

Children become nervous and tense if there are problems at home, particularly constant fighting. But they also may show anxiety if they feel rejected or threatened by parents. You must be sure that your son is receving the love and attention he requires. Such increased effort can change a tense and rebellious child into a calmer and more cooperative one.

Don't confuse a child's difficulty in responding to discipline with overactivity. Consider how you approach discipline with him and whether other strategies would be more effective.

If you have made these attempts and they don't help, perhaps your son is suffering from hyperactivity. However, this conclusion requires that a group of symptoms, rather than just one, be present. Most psychiatrists and psychologists use the following criteria:

General hyperactivity for the child's age. In preschool youngsters such as your son, there may be constant impulsive crawling, climbing, running and jumping. The child is like a nonstop dynamo. Compared to other children of the same age, he would stand out as physically overactive.

Trouble in maintaining attention and focus. Such children have difficulty completing tasks and appear disorganized. They may forget what they were just about to do or what their parents just demanded or requested. Parents may perceive this behavior as disobedient when, in fact, the child lacks the ability to listen in the manner that the parent would like or expect. l

Impulsive or inappropriate behavior. This may include becoming frustrated easily as well as the inability to be patient and wait. It also includes interrupting people's conversations and speaking out of turn with an inability to remain quiet or still for any length of time, particularly in the classroom. These children, who are easily frustrated, may readily get into fights with others and consequently appear "spoiled."

Such symptons must be present for at least one year. If your son has been in his present state for just a few months, you should consider other explanations at this point.

On the other hand, if he seems to fit the picture described above, take him to a local clinic. There are several stimulant drugs that help hyperactive children. But it's important for the physician to decide if drugs are needed and if so, which ones.

Even if your child receives medication, it's important to continue to meet his psychological and emotional needs. Family interactions often are crucially important. So whether he has drugs or not, it could be important to examine the family situation with a professional counselor.