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Therapy: The Critical ADHD Treatment We’re Withholding from Our Kids

According to a new study, only one-quarter of children with ADHD are getting the therapeutic help they need to manage symptoms, develop better behavior, and learn to thrive with attention deficit.

September 23, 2014

What’s the hands-down best treatment for kids with ADHD? The answer, of course, varies based on your child’s specific symptoms, her related conditions, and the rate at which she metabolizes medication, among other things. Still, there is a one-size-fits-all first treatment that ADHD experts recommend for all children: therapy.

According to the new AAP guidelines, the first line of treatment for children aged 4 to 5 should be behavior therapy. For children ages 6 to 11, medication and behavior therapy are recommended to treat ADHD, along with school interventions to accommodate the child’s special needs.

Yet a recent study, to be published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Pediatrics, found that less than 25 percent of all U.S. children taking ADHD medication receive the recommended therapy — even when insurance covers it. The study looked at medical claims for more than 300,000 children with ADHD across 1,500 counties in the U.S. In 200 of those counties, it found that fewer than one in every ten kids with ADHD gets any therapy at all. Across the whole survey pool, only 7 percent visited a therapist 8 or more times.

This statistic suggests that ADHD treatment for most children in the U.S. is incomplete and insufficient, perhaps because caregivers and medical professionals often “have an inappropriate expectation of what medications can do,” says pediatrician , who has specialized in treating ADHD in Washington, D.C., for more than 25 years. “Drugs don’t improve self-esteem, time management, or organizational skills. But the problem is that most parents don’t have enough time or energy.”

“We are a quick-fix society and we want results,” agrees Dr. William Dodson, who encourages parents to reconsider the benefits of a treatment plan that includes a behavior therapy regimen developed by a mental health professional. Regular therapy can teach children how to improve their behavior using a system of goals, rewards, and consequences implemented by parents with the counselor’s help. The goal is to teach ADHD kids the life skills they need while also managing symptoms. For some children, it even decreases their dependence on medication, which in turn reduces anxiety for parents. Clearly, a win-win.

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