The decision to medicate (or not) is an agonizing one. Here, find answers to common questions, and factors to consider — like possible side effects of ADHD medication — when determining how to manage your child’s symptoms.
When a child is diagnosed with attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD), parents are faced with an unbelievably tough choice: Use medication to treat symptoms? Or try alternative routes?
You wonder: What if... the medication harms my child’s health? ...it changes her personality? ...I'm just failing as a parent? Naysayers argue that parents rush to medicate their kids, but we know this is a decision you agonize over. Here, learn what considerations convinced other families to use or not to use ADHD medication. And take heart: You are not alone.
"It is a parent's decision about how to care for her child. People who live with ADHD, or have a loved one with ADHD, know how serious and real this disorder is. The ones who do not have ADHD in their lives cannot fully understand this, and it’s not their place to do so." –April, Texas
"I haven't medicated my son yet, but I will probably do so in the next year. If anyone says I rushed to do it, I will tell them that they have not lived with him for the past six years!" –An ADDitude Reader
"As an RN, I am all over this. I will agree with the person who says I'm rushing medication, provided they can testify to the fact that the child of whom they speak was never tested nor given behavioral options – just given drugs. That usually ends the conversation." –Ann, Tennessee
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Does He Really NEED Medication for ADHD?
This is the first question parents often ask after an ADHD diagnosis. The answer is, if your child’s symptoms are interfering with social, emotional, or academic life, it might be time to think about medication. Alternative treatments like behavioral therapy can help kids to control behavior, but often when kids struggle, they need more help with focus, self-control, and organization. Medication can help.
"We had exhausted all 'natural' options first and he was only getting worse. With meds he can actually learn and even excel!"–Errika S.
ADHD medication is a proven, safe, and effective treatment for ADHD. Years of research and clinical trials show that trying out medication makes sense after a careful diagnosis. The risks of using these medications are small — and generally reversible. If side effects do occur, a physician can reduce the dosage, change it, or discontinue use. The trick is careful monitoring and parent-doctor communication.
"We have changed meds and increased dosage twice. It's a process, continually changing." –Carolyn H.
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What About Side Effects?
The most common side effects are appetite suppression and loss of body mass. Others include headaches or trouble falling asleep. Lowering the dose, changing meal schedule around medication, or switching medication can help. Most side effects of stimulant medications resolve in three to five days (with the exception of appetite suppression). Your physician can help you address and manage any unpleasant effects.
"Do your research, know the side effects, and if it completely changes your child for the worse, then switch meds." –Jocelyn S.
"There are downsides and side effects and they don't work for everyone. But if they do work for you, or your child, the change can be profound." –Angela T.
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How Do We Know ADD Meds Will Work?
Talk to your doctor about a trial period. Short-acting forms of methylphenidate, amphetamine, and mixed amphetamine salts are effective within 45-60 minutes, and last about four hours. If symptoms don't improve, parents can always reassess treatment options with the doctor.
"We decided to give it a month on medication. Within a week he was a calmer, more emotionally steady little boy. We didn't look back after that!" –Carolyn H.
"We didn't want to medicate, but after a well-designed trial our child's ability to learn and his ability to sequence and function at school improved so much." –Jill W.
"I did not want to put him on drugs at first, but then I realized that if I didn't like the effect, I could always take him off." –KC W.
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Can We Take an ADD Medication Vacation?
Some children can successfully take a break from ADHD medication when school's out. This should be done with a doctor’s supervision, and can sometimes be helpful to determine if a change in therapy is needed when you taper off. But if your child is anxious, constantly in trouble, or unable to enjoy his favorite activities while off of medication, it's worth asking whether the break is counterproductive.
"He is medicated for school only, otherwise he gets to be himself in all his crazy, beautiful, energetic glory every night, on the weekends, and alllllllll summer long!" –Pamela D.
Drug therapy for ADHD is not a cause for shame. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad or incompetent parent. It shows that you care about your child, and you want him to have the best chance at success.
"One day I sat back and thought to myself, 'Am I not medicating because it's what's best for her or because I will feel like it's a personal failure?'" –Shelly J.
"We realized that our youngest was getting known as the 'troublemaker' and how that impacted her relationships within the family and at school. It felt selfish not to try medication to see if that would help." –Annmaria T.
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Do the Research
Talk with doctors and other parents who have experience with the medications your are considering. Research the medications online, and read the latest news. Ask questions until you feel comfortable that you understand all of the benefits and risks. Make sure to separate myth from fact, and hold off on a decision until you have all the facts.
"We leaned on the advice of the school psychologist. Read everything you can, and remember if one plan doesn't work, you can try another." –Debbie G.
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Get Kids Involved
Medication should never be forced on a child. Involve your child in the decision process. Ask, “What do you know about medication? What have you heard — good and bad?” Talk about children’s fears or embarrassments, and their biggest frustrations with having ADHD. Share the facts that you have found, and let kids participate in making the final decision.
"Listen to your child. We decided to finally medicate in second grade when our son came home and said that he had a broken brain, no longer liked school, and his friends did not like him anymore." –Jennifer J.
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Go With Your Gut
Medications can work wonders when they are used in the right frequency and dosage. They can be dangerous if they are used improperly. Don't start a regimen until you are totally comfortable with your decision. And never begin a treatment plan of any kind without a doctor's supervision.
"Trust your instincts, you know your child better then anyone." –Jocelyn S.
"I instantly knew in my gut that without medication my son would lose his self-esteem in school when he couldn't succeed because his brain wasn't working 'right' and other kids didn't like his behavior." –Pamela D.
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Don’t Let Naysayers Dissuade You
Some people will say, “I would never give a stimulant medication to my child,” or “Ritalin is kiddie cocaine.” Chalk it up to their lack of knowledge and move on.
"When I was making this decision, someone asked me, 'Would you withhold medication from your child if she were diabetic?' It really made me think." –Marti R.
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Be Patient with Yourself
Every family has different preconceived notions about what medication means. Go slow with your decision making. Take time to assess how you feel, and select a physician who will work with you to find the best treatment plan – not just the fastest fix.
"We decided to medicate my son after speaking with our developmental pediatrician. He did a full evaluation and told me, 'It's not your fault, but we need to help him. Let's figure out how.'" –Julie S.