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The Great 'Medicate' Debate

Should you try medications with your ADD/ADHD child?

“The teacher says I should medicate. The doctor thinks so, too. But I am just not sure.”

Of all of the conversations I have with teachers and parents of children with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHA), this is the topic that seems to create the most angst and controversy. Should or shouldn’t you medicate your child for ADD/ADHD treatment?

Well, let’s back up. ADD and ADHD are not diseases. They are also not bad things. Unfortunately, we consider them to be “bad” when the conditions interfere with children’s production on schoolwork. We also consider them “bad” when they lead to disruptive behaviors in the classroom or other settings that require self-control for extended periods of relative boredom or inactivity. Sorry teachers, but in the traditional school setting, this relative boredom can consume a good portion of the day.  

All kids get bored sometimes, and when they get bored, they respond by occupying themselves in some way. For the ADD child, this may be daydreaming, doodling, or talking to other classmates. For the ADHD child, this may include whole-class disruptions such as shouting out, getting out of one’s seat, or bothering classmates.

In both cases, independent quiet work on mundane classroom tasks may seem like an impossibility. It is no wonder a teacher wouldn’t prefer to quiet those behaviors when trying to teach a class of 32 or 36 students, and medication often seems like an easy go-to solution.

However, many parents are adamant against trying a drug-based treatment with their child for a “diagnosis” that they may not even consider a problem. They fear that medication will have adverse health effects or will deaden the lively, creative “spirit” of their child.

On the other hand, I have met many parents and students who are grateful for the opportunities that medication allowed them. They experienced increased focus and attention to tasks, improved their academic success, a calming of their impulses, resulting in regaining a positive social status with their peers.   

I do not think there is one right answer. However, when discussing this issue with your doctors, teachers, spouses, and of course, your child, there are many factors to consider.   

The Medical Option

  • The purpose of ADD/ADHD medication is to increase focus, allowing for better work completion, and to limit impulses that lead to disruptive behavior. If the medication does not reach those goals, it is not working. Quit the medication or try a new one.
  • Know what your expectations are. Are you trying to calm spastic behaviors?  Is your child getting into too much trouble at school? Is your child failing subjects or classes? What behaviors would make you feel better about your child’s schooling?  Will medication satisfy your expectations? If not, consider other non-medical options.  
  • The field of medicine is rapidly changing. There are so many new drug options for ADD/ADHD and each is designed to respond to different types of children. Discuss all of the options with your doctor and do not settle for a medication that is not achieving your desired outcome.  
  • The goal of any successful ADD/ADHD plan is to keep your child motivated to learn and to keep self-esteem up. If medication helps with this, than go for it! If not, remove it.  
  • Kids just want to fit in. If they cannot control their outbursts, they become labeled as dumb, the class clown, or a weirdo. This is devastating to a smart child, and most ADD/ADHD children are exceptionally bright. If medication can calm the behaviors that make them stand out negatively, it may help with their self-esteem.  
  • Watch for adverse health effects like weight loss, loss of appetite, lethargy, apathy, inability to sleep, or a loss of creative motivation.
  • Know your child. If you decide to try medications, keep an eye out that ALL of your goals for the medication are being met. If you see improvements in focus but notice a drop in the other sparks that you love about your child, consider other options.  
  • Remember to keep medication from other children. If you have ADD/ADHD medications in your home, keep them safely away from other children in the household. While they may calm and quiet your ADHD child, they can have quite the opposite effect on the rest of your children!

I have spoken at length with family, friends, and parents of my students about their experiences with this issue. For some, medication was a game-changer, bringing out the best in their children and allowing them to flourish in school in a way that they never before could. It increased their grades, their self-esteem and self-confidence, and improved their social status at school. For others, medications caused such negative effects that the improvements in some areas did not outweigh the overall change in their child.  

Unfortunately, these testimonials provide no clear “right-choice.”  All you can do is know your own special child and make decisions accordingly. The one thing about trying medication is that you can always stop giving it if you do not see your desired results. If you never try them, you will never know what could be.  

My dad, my brother, and several of my best friends have ADD or ADHD tendencies. I love them because they are the most creative, thoughtful, inspired thinkers and problem solvers I know. But school was a nightmare for each of them. They look back on their schooling with anxiety, anger, and sadness. They were not good at the game of school. Square pegs in round holes. It didn’t have to be like that for them.

Medication was an option for some, but at the time, there was only one drug choice. Perhaps if they were growing up today, things would have been different for them.  

I have so much to say about ADD/ADHD and the myriad issues surrounding this diagnosis that I just cannot cover in this brief piece. Future articles will delve deeper into what ADD and ADHD are and for strategies and schooling alternatives for helping children feel good about themselves and their educational abilities. 

Editor's note: Long is an elementary school teacher of 10 years and a private tutor for students between the ages of 5 and 18 who struggle in school. She has master's degrees in education and in sociology, as well as a bachelor's degree in psychology. Her articles give parents tips for their children on how to navigate the "game of school."

Beth Luttrell June 17, 2011 at 05:23 AM
This article was so helpful to me. I raised my grandson with ADHD, it took me over two years to decide on medication. His life improved considerably when I realized he needed help. He was able to focus, get along with his peers and become a successful young man. There are times that I questioned the choice of medicating, but in the long run I have been thankful for having made that choice.

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