One of the problems with medication is that teenagers with ADHD don't always remember to take it. As one psychiatrist said, "If a teen can remember to take his medicine consistently, he probably doesn't have attention deficit."
When our son, Alex, was in high school, he went through periods during which he stopped taking his medicine. His reasons varied: Sometimes he forgot, and other times he was frustrated by having to take medicine every day. Knowing that he could be impulsive and daring, we were worried until we got through those rough spots.
One thing we learned: Nagging your teen to take medication doesn't work. Imagine an irritable women being asked by her husband, "Did you take your hormone pill today?" Many teenagers don't mind taking their medication because they know that it helps them succeed in school, sharpens focus, and improves their driving skills. The big challenge is to make it a consistent thing. Here are some strategies that worked for us, and, I'm sure, will work for you.
> Don't assume the worst. "Medication refusal," which sometimes occurs during adolescence, may be "medication forgetfulness." If parents mistakenly assume the worst -- that the teenager is willfully refusing to take the medication -- it will set off a power struggle. A teen will tune you out or flush the pill down the toilet to get even.
> Create a reminder system. We filled our son's weekly medicine container and placed it by his breakfast plate. That way, we knew at a glance if he'd taken his medicine, and didn't have to nag him about it. If he forgot, we handed him the container and said nothing. If we were away from home, we would text him a reminder.
> Talk amongst yourselves. When Alex refused to take medication, we asked him why. We listened, discussed his concerns, and made adjustments. Sometimes giving him a sounding board was enough. When your teen ticks off his complaints about medication, you might say, "I know you get tired of taking it. It stinks that you need medicine every day. I know how you feel" -- then give him a hug. "I'm in the same boat. I hate it that I have to take blood pressure medication all the time."
> Make your child an expert. Soon after Alex's diagnosis, we educated him about medication and how it worked to improve his focus and impulsivity. He became an expert of sorts by participating in teen panel discussions about ADHD and medication. His expertise helped him understand how valuable meds were to his everyday success. Talk with your local CHADD group about setting up a teen panel on medication.
> Connect him with other ADHD teens. Getting advice directly from other teens with ADHD helps. Alex and I created a DVD, called Real Life ADHD (available at amazon.com and chrisdendy.com), in which teens explain that medication makes life easier. Emily explained, "My grades went from Ds to As and Bs when I started taking medicine." Anthony adds that while "it stinks" to have to take meds, he couldn't do college work without them. Max summed it up when he said, "Medicine brings out your whole potential."
> Go med-less for a while. On one occasion, when Alex was adamant about not taking medication, we permitted him to go med-less for a while. We said, "OK, Alex, we need to set up a scientific way to see how you do in school without meds. Let's give it a six-week trial. You can tell us how you think you're doing without medication in school each week. We'll check with teachers for an update midway through the six weeks." After a week, we asked Alex how things were going. He admitted that he was struggling and agreed to go back on medication.
> Lay down the law. The rule in our house was: If you're driving, you have to take medicine. It wasn't negotiable. Without the benefit of medication, Alex was likely to have an accident.
> Involve your doctor or treatment professional. If the family can’t resolve the medication problems, set up an appointment with your doctor or treatment professional to discuss solutions.
This article appears in the Fall issue of ADDitude.
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To discuss ADHD medication with other parents of ADHD teens, visit the Parents of ADHD Teens support group on ADDConnect.