Are ADHD Medications Really the Solution for My Kid?

The decision to medicate can be a difficult one.  Here is a quick guide to help you decide whether ADHD medications are the right solution for your child.

Whether or not to medicate a child with ADHD is a delicate topic.  Some parents and caregivers are overeager to start giving medication, thinking it will solve all their problems.  Other parents resist medication, even when all other alternatives fail, and medication is clearly needed.  In order to make the right decision for your child, you need to be able to step back from the situation, enough to weigh the pros and cons of medication versus alternative treatments.

ADHD presents a difficult situation.  The medications used to control the symptoms have side effects that need to be understood, yet without proper treatment, many kids struggle unnecessarily with school.  Parents need to be able to weigh the side effects against the benefits, and decide whether medication is the right solution for their child.

Here are a few things to keep in mind when considering the treatment options available to your child.

Side Effects of ADHD Medication

The side effects of ADHD medication are one of the main reasons why some parents balk at medicating their child.  Most ADHD medications are stimulants, which actually tend to have a calming effect on ADHD children.  Non-stimulants are also used, albeit a little less commonly.

Of course, these are some serious medications, and as they are often taken for many years, can have some serious side effects.  Some side effects are short term, while others are longer term.  Side effects may include:

  • Trouble sleeping (for kids on stimulants)
  • Drowsiness during the day (especially for kids on non-stimulants)
  • Lack of emotion
  • Mood changes (such as depression, anxiety, and irritability)
  • Lack of appetite
  • Stomach upset and intestinal problems
  • Rebounding (an increase in ADHD symptoms as the medication wears off)
  • Heart problems (long term)
  • Stunted growth (long term)
  • Liver problems (long term)
  • Psychiatric problems (rare)

There are, of course, ways to circumvent some of these side effects — for instance, giving a prescribed stimulant after breakfast instead of before can help avoid stomach upset and loss of appetite before that all-important morning meal.  Daytime sleepiness can be solved by giving non-stimulants before bed instead of in the morning, or splitting the dose so that your child gets half at bedtime and half at breakfast.

The best way to avoid side effects, however, is to medicate as little as possible.  Whether that means a low dose or alternative treatments, or both, is up to you and your child’s doctor.

Alternative Treatments for ADHD

Sometimes, depending on the severity of a child’s ADHD, alternative treatments can be used instead of medication, or with a lower dose.  Here are a few ways you may be able to control your child’s symptoms with minimal medication.

  • Diet – Sometimes diet can worsen ADHD symptoms, or even cause them altogether.  For instance, studies in the U.K. have found that several color additives can cause ADHD-like behavior in children.  Dietary treatments for ADHD usually involve eliminating caffeine, additives, and/or allergens from your child’s diet.  Generally this is done by taking your child’s diet down to the bare bones, and adding back potential problem foods one at a time, so that you can observe your child’s behavior and look for changes in symptoms.  Any problem foods you identify are then removed from the child’s diet permanently.
  • Supplements – Some herbal supplements are taken as an alternative to ADHD medication, including pine bark extract, gingko biloba, and St. John’s wort.  However, keep in mind that 1) studies have not conclusively proved that these supplements help, and 2) supplements aren’t regulated, so you may not be getting what you think you’re getting.
  • Feedback – There are several alternative methods of treatment that use feedback to help ADHD children develop concentration and improve their academic skills.  For instance, neurofeedback tracks children’s brain waves during short sessions in order to help them learn better control.  Another type of feedback therapy uses music and tones to help children learn greater focus.
  • Other alternative treatment options – For mild cases of ADHD, less organized treatment plans have been found to be effective.  For instance, some parents swear that learning a musical instrument helped their child learn to focus better, while other kids seem to benefit from daily massages.  (I know I would!)

Deciding whether to give your child ADHD medication is a big decision, and not one that is easily made.  Both parents should be a part of this decision, and it is important to also consult a professional (or more than one, if you feel you need a second or even a third opinion).  Also, don’t be afraid to experiment a little — the right choice for your child might be a combination of alternative treatment methods and/or medication, and with a little trial and error you will find the right balance for your child.

Katharine Swan is a former preschool and after-school program teacher who has worked with many ADD and ADHD children. She also has a bachelor’s degree in English literature with a minor in psychology. Despite interest in a forensic psychology degree or a masters in psychology, however, writing is her first love.

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