Managing Treatment

How Can I Get My Kid to Take Their ADHD Medication?

What happens if your child refuses to take their ADHD medication? To encourage adherence, be honest but gentle with your child about the medication’s purpose and the condition it is meant to help. And remember that, ultimately, ADHD medication is only one component of a comprehensive treatment plan.

Girl taking her ADHD medication with breakfast
Girl taking her ADHD medication with breakfast

Q: “I am in tears as I write this. I am the mom of a 10-year-old son who was diagnosed with ADHD and ODD a couple of years ago. He absolutely refuses to take any of his prescribed ADHD medication. We’ve tried crushing tablets and opening capsules and putting the medicine in spoonfuls of pudding. However, he is clever enough to know that the medication is in the concoction, and refuses to take it. My husband and I have tried everything. He did great for a week or two (on a variety of oral ADHD medications), then decided he didn’t like the ‘taste’ and ‘texture.’ He cannot swallow capsules or pills, but we are working on it. We are not sure what to do.” – Julie

The dilemma this mom describes is common. Parents everywhere struggle with their children over taking medication for ADHD, in itself a sometimes complex, emotionally fraught deliberation. They often encounter the problems Julie describes – a child not wanting to take medication after all, disliking the taste of the medicine, or complaining about how the medication makes them feel (real or perceived). You quickly learn that “taking medication” is far more complicated than you’d thought. Oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) only complicates matters for families like Julie’s.

I have several suggestions for Julie — and the many other parents who wrestle with this issue.

How to Get Kids to Take Medicine for ADHD

1.Let the person with ADHD, regardless of age, make the decision about taking medication. It is your role to advise, supervise, educate, encourage, reassure, remind, and assist, but not to demand. The same applies to me as a doctor. I put the ultimate decision regarding medication in the hands of the person taking the pill.

2. Be honest. Don’t trick your child into taking the medication. If you put the pill into a spoonful of ice cream — an excellent way to get the pill down the hatch — tell your child the pill is in the ice cream. And let them choose the flavor of the ice cream. The more control your child has in the process, the better the results will be.

[Read: When Your Teen Refuses to Take ADHD Medication]

3. Explain the diagnosis of ADHD from a strengths-based framework. The analogy I use is to tell the child that they have a Ferrari engine for a brain, but with bicycle brakes. “Your brakes aren’t strong enough to control your powerful race car brain,” I might say. “The medication is like brake fluid that allows the brakes to work.”

4. Understand that medication is not an essential component of treating ADHD. It works 80 percent of the time, and many people do not want to try it, regardless of the medical facts. Knowing that medication is only one tool in the toolbox, make use of a comprehensive treatment plan. In our new book, ADHD 2.0 (#CommissionsEarned), John Ratey, M.D., and I highlight treatment interventions other than medication, including:

  • Engage in physical exercise
  • Try special balancing exercises that stimulate the cerebellum
  • Develop a creative outlet (really important!)
  • Manage your default mode network
  • Create stellar environments
  • Sign up for coaching
  • Tap into human connection in its many forms

Taken together, this program should help parents address the conflicts over ADHD medication. Although many people fear medication, it can be a godsend if used properly, and under medical supervision. Learn enough facts about medication that you feel comfortable giving it to your child, and make it one element in a multi-modal treatment plan.

How to Get Kids to Take Medicine: Parent Tips

“I make my child take a selfie while taking her medication and text it to me.” – Kiki

“I try to help my child understand why the medicine helps, and I ask her how she feels every day at dinner.” – Stephen

“We make taking medication part of his morning “health routine,” which also includes washing his face and brushing his teeth and hair. We keep it visible near his toothbrush.”

“I call his medication the “vitamin for his brain” and I take my own vitamin at the same time to encourage him.”

“We use an enormous, loud alarm that has unique tones specifically for taking medication.”

“My children don’t get their phone in the morning until I see them take their medication. With an hour long bus ride, it’s great currency!” – Amanda

“Our son has a token jar that helps motivate him. Each time he takes his medicine without complaint or push back, he gets a token. When he reaches 7 tokens (1 for each day of the week), he earns an hour of Minecraft on the weekend.” – Erin

How to Get Kids to Make Medicine: Next Steps

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1 Comments & Reviews

  1. I had a teenager who was struggling in the first month with a few side effects (which were made worse because of his inconsistency in taking his medication). But I sat with him and talked about my own experience – “ADHD is a condition that is controlled by people who don’t have it. In order for you to take control of your Own experience you need to have the knowledge of different situations. You’ve spent 15 years without medication so you have that knowledge, but you don’t have the first hand experience of medication yet. Give yourself that knowledge and then you can make your own choice based on actual experience. Take your medication everyday for 6 months… and then see if it was worth it. The problem with medication and ADHD is that the improvement isn’t instantly felt by the taker… but the outcomes of being able to better control your emotions, executive functioning and focus take time to show – in 6 months you can look back and see – do I have better relationships; am I losing/forgetting so many things; do I feel like I’m constantly in trouble before I know it…. The answer could be yes or no… but unless you do this you won’t know for yourself… you’ll always be basing your choices on the opinions of other and you will not really be in an educated place to have true control over how your condition is managed.”
    Let’s just say he is now nearly 19 and still on his medication. He was able to see for himself the huge improvements it brought to his life and how he could now put all his energies into what he loves (music) rather than fixing up the various complications his unmediated ADHD dumped on him during the day. He also now can make choices about when he might choose not to take his medication (very rare – but when he has a no responsibility day and wants to just set the sparks free so to speak and come up with something really random, or just go into some crazy hyper focus!) But he can make that choice based on his own experience and knowledge not on something someone else said.

    I am an adult with severe ADHD who was diagnosed over 28 years ago. The worse thing about ADHD is that even as an adult, the treatments are still strongly determined by people who don’t have it; whether through psychiatrists trying every other condition before conceding it’s ADHD; the shame and stigma around the person with ADHD making them doubt themselves and the validity of their condition; societal structures that expect the opposite of what they have to give to the world (like school!). So I am always sad to hear when parents take a hard stand on no medication or give up with out trying both types or for a long enough period for it to change the chaos and allow the person who has the actual condition to see the long term impact. It feels to me like that person has now been robbed of the knowledge to make informed and educated decisions about their own condition. Sometimes a parent has to help the child get the knowledge they need (which means short term lose of control so they can live in full control as an adult).

    Obviously my approach was easier for a teenager to grasp but it may help if you can find a way to get a similar message across in a different way.

    Hope this helps. 😀

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