The Decision to Medicate

When Parents Disagree About ADHD Medications

Disagreements over ADHD medications are common, but they can still be challenging for families to overcome. Here’s what to do when you say yes to meds, but your spouse says no.

Two parents disagreeing over their child's ADHD medication
Two parents disagreeing over their child's ADHD medication

You and your son’s doctor believe that he should be on medication, but your spouse refuses: “There’s nothing wrong with my son. I won’t let you put him on medication.”

Your parents or in-laws insist that there is nothing wrong with their granddaughter: “You just need to be more firm with her.”

You are divorced and have shared custody. Your ex refuses permission for you to administer medication, or even threatens to go to court to stop you from giving it to your child.

Raising a child or adolescent with ADHD is not an easy task. Ideally, both parents participate in the evaluation process. The physician explains to them in person what ADHD is, how the diagnostic process works, and why medication may be necessary.

Thus, both are committed to the line of recommended treatment, and they can rely on each other for support. But too often, the reality looks more like one of the scenarios above.

Family conflict can mean a major crisis for you and your child. Parents often try to dodge the problem. “Don’t tell Dad that you’re taking these pills,” or “When you visit Grandma, don’t let her know about your medicine.” But such approaches place your child in a difficult position. She might begin to think that there is something wrong about the fact that she takes medication. Or she might be upset that she is being asked to lie to her father. And in the case of divorce, not only does the child feel caught in the middle, but she’ll be off her medication when visiting your ex on weekends or vacations. Is there a solution?

Try Talking First

I have faced these problems many times in my practice. If both parents weren’t involved in the diagnosis or if the ex refused to participate, you must try to educate the person who wasn’t there.

In person: I’ll invite this person to come in to discuss any concerns or fears. On occasion, I have met with grandparents, along with both parents (or parent and ex), to explain what ADHD is and why there is a need for medication.

On the phone: If a parent refuses to meet with me, I might call and say, “I understand that you are uneasy with the idea of Billy taking medication. May I try to answer your questions or address your concerns?” It’s hard for the parent to run away once you have him on the line.

Reading material: Another option: Find a book that clearly explains ADHD and its treatments. You might highlight key chapters or sections before giving the book to this person to read. Dr. Larry Silver’s Advice to Parents on ADHD is a good place to start.

Involve the School

If none of these approaches works or if the other adult refuses to participate, move on to more intensive techniques. Offer to get a second opinion. Sometimes, this professional reinforcement helps the other adult to accept the need for treatment. Or you might ask friends whose children take medication to speak with this adult.

Another approach that I try when nothing else seems to be working takes a little more effort but it might pay off. Let’s say you, the mother, understand the need for treatment and are willing to try medication. In my experience, this happens because, whenever the child has difficulty in school with attention, learning, and/or behavior, mothers are most often the ones who get the call. The school does not call the father. Because your husband has not heard from the school about the learning and behavior problems, he doesn’t feel any urgency to do something or even understand the extent to which these problems are affecting his child. Don’t allow this to continue. You shouldn’t be the only one interacting with the school while your spouse is spared from the discomfort of dealing with the situation. Once he shares your concern, he may open up to the need for treatment.

Negotiate with the teacher and principal to even out this patriarchal imbalance. Request that at least half of the calls be made to your husband instead of you. If you are divorced, request that both parents be contacted every time there is an incident. Give your child’s school her father’s work and cell phone numbers so he can hear about the problems as they arise. Let him be the one who gets upset for a change. Do not go to meetings with the teacher or IEP team without your husband or ex. The school can help by contacting him and insisting that he attend the next meeting.

A Last Resort

If nothing else works and you feel it essential that your child be on medication, you may have to seek legal counsel. There are legal ways to prevent the other parent from blocking medication. If the grandparents are the obstacle to treatment, be more firm. Tell them if they persist in undercutting your decision to use medication, you might have to limit their visits with their grandchild.

Helping your child is your primary concern. When those who should be supportive are non-supportive or present barriers, it is essential that you do what is best for your child. Persuading these family members will be difficult, but in my experience, you shouldn’t have to go further than getting the school involved.

1 comment

  1. This is another article pushing the Big Pharma agenda. There are so many reasons not to take these pills it is silly to be arguing. The bigger issue is parents are too busy (or frustrated) to be parents. Rather than deal with the challenges of life, many are choosing to drug their children. A drooling zombie is certainly more likely to “behave.” What will we do when our kids go to college or join the workforce? What message are we sending the kids? You are not good enough as you are. You need medication to operate in the world. If you have a problem, take drugs. Let me know how that works out for you.

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