A Parent's Guide to Explaining ADHD Treatment

What parents can say and do to make children feel good about treating their ADHD with medication.

Learn how taking a break from ADD ADHD meds affects treatment and symptoms. ADDitude Magazine

The more your child understands the purpose of medication and how it works, the more likely she is to cooperate.

Larry Silver, M.D.

Janice knows that after her son, Billy, takes his medication for treating attention deficit disorder (ADD ADHD), he can sit and focus in class. But last spring his teachers began to complain that he wasn't getting his work done and that he was bothering his classmates.

She wondered if his medication had stopped working, or if he needed a higher dose to treat his ADHD.

One day as she cleaned out his drawers, she found his pills. When she confronted him, he snapped, "There's nothing wrong with me. I don't need pills to be good."

Some kids are even more clever. Mary learned to "check" her pills — hiding them between cheek and gum — then to leave the room and flush them down the toilet. There was no evidence that she didn't take her medication.

Another child decided not to go to his school nurse's office to get his medication. The nurse reported to his parents that it's not her responsibility to find him: "He knows he needs to come." Then the complaints from the afternoon teachers made sense.

What do you do when your child refuses to take his ADHD medication? What if each medication time is a battle, or you find out your child has only been pretending to take his meds? There are no easy answers, but here are some suggestions.

Make it mean something

Children (and adults, too) are more cooperative when they understand the reasons for something. So it's important to educate your child about why she needs medication, and to let her take an active role in managing it. When your child is prescribed medication, explain why it's necessary and how it will help her. Tailor your message to your child's age. Saying "It's just a vitamin pill" will backfire when she learns the truth. Trust and respect are necessary.

In my books for parents, I suggest how you might explain medication to your child. Use key words that kids can understand, and convey that your child's brain isn't damaged, defective, or retarded. I like to say that it's just wired differently. Here are some sample explanations:

FOR HYPERACTIVITY: "You know that sometimes it's hard for you to sit still. You might be up and down or fidget in your seat or like to tap things on the table? This is because the brakes in your brain, which slow you down, aren't working as well as they could. The medicine will help the brakes work more effectively, and help you calm down and move around less."

FOR DISTRACTIBILITY: "The brain is wonderful. It has filters that can block out unimportant sounds or sights, allowing us to focus on one thing at a time. But sometimes the filters are not working efficiently. The unimportant sounds aren't blocked, and you become easily distracted. Your medicine helps these filters work more effectively, so you can focus longer and be less distracted."

FOR IMPULSIVITY: "Our brain is able to reflect on our thoughts before deciding to act on them. This delay helps us decide what to do at any given time. If this reflector isn't working properly, we don't stop to think before we act. This is why you might call out or interrupt. (Or why you do things without thinking and feel bad about it.) The medicine will help your reflector work more effectively, so you can think before you talk or act."

Next: Time to Talk, Part 2


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