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ADHD in Children

Which Treatment Should My Child Have?

For children with ADHD, no single treatment is the answer for every child. A child may sometimes have undesirable side effects to a medication that would make that particular treatment unacceptable. And if a child with ADHD also has anxiety or depression, a treatment combining medication and behavioral therapy might be best. Each child's needs and personal history must be carefully considered.

Medications

For decades, stimulant medications have been used to treat the symptoms of ADHD. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently approved a medication for ADHD that is not a stimulant. The medication, Strattera®, or atomoxetine, works on the neurotransmitter norepinephrine, whereas the stimulants primarily work on dopamine. Both of theses neurotransmitters are believed to play a role in ADHD. More studies will need to be done to contrast Strattera with the medications already available, but the evidence to date indicates that over 70 percent of children with ADHD given Strattera manifest significant improvement in their symptoms.

Some people get better results from one medication, some from another. It is important to work with the prescribing physician to find the right medication and the right dosage. For many people, the stimulants dramatically reduce their hyperactivity and impulsivity and improve their ability to focus, work, and learn. The medications may also improve physical coordination, such as that needed in handwriting and in sports.

The stimulant drugs, when used with medical supervision, are usually considered quite safe. Stimulants do not make the child feel "high," although some children say they feel different or funny. Such changes are usually very minor. Although some parents worry that their child may become addicted to the medication, to date there is no convincing evidence that stimulant medications, when used for treatment of ADHD, cause drug abuse or dependence. A review of all long-term studies on stimulant medication and substance abuse, conducted by researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, found that teenagers with ADHD who remained on their medication during the teen years had a lower likelihood of substance use or abuse than did ADHD adolescents who were not taking medications.

The stimulant drugs come in long- and short-term forms. The newer sustained-release stimulants can be taken before school and are long-lasting so that the child does not need to go to the school nurse every day for a pill. The doctor can discuss with the parents the child's needs and decide which preparation to use and whether the child needs to take the medicine during school hours only or in the evening and on weekends too.

If the child does not show symptom improvement after taking a medication for a week, the doctor may try adjusting the dosage. If there is still no improvement, the child may be switched to another medication. About one out of ten children is not helped by a stimulant medication. Other types of medication may be used if stimulants don't work or if the ADHD occurs with another disorder. Antidepressants and other medications can help control accompanying depression or anxiety.

Sometimes the doctor may prescribe for a young child a medication that has been approved by the FDA for use in adults or older children. This use of the medication is called "off label." Many of the newer medications that are proving helpful for child mental disorders are prescribed off label because only a few of them have been systematically studied for safety and efficacy in children. Medications that have not undergone such testing are dispensed with the statement that "safety and efficacy have not been established in pediatric patients."

Facts to Remember About Medication for ADHD

  • Medications for ADHD help many children focus and be more successful at school, home, and play. Avoiding negative experiences now may actually help prevent addictions and other emotional problems later.
  • About 80 percent of children who need medication for ADHD still need it as teenagers. Over 50 percent need medication as adults.

Some Simple Behavioral Interventions

Children with ADHD may need help in organizing. Therefore:

  • Schedule. Have the same routine every day, from wake-up time to bedtime. The schedule should include homework time and playtime (including outdoor recreation and indoor activities such as computer games). Have the schedule on the refrigerator or a bulletin board in the kitchen. If a schedule change must be made, make it as far in advance as possible.
  • Organize needed everyday items. Have a place for everything and keep everything in its place. This includes clothing, backpacks, and school supplies.
  • Use homework and notebook organizers. Stress the importance of writing down assignments and bringing home needed books.

Children with ADHD need consistent rules that they can understand and follow. If rules are followed, give small rewards. Children with ADHD often receive, and expect, criticism. Look for good behavior and praise it.

This is an edited version of the revised Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, a National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) brochure first printed in 1994 and reprinted in 1996. The revision is by Margaret Strock, staff member in the Office of Communications, NIMH. All material in this document is in the public domain and may be reproduced or copied without permission from the NIMH.

For more information or to discuss mental health concerns please contact Partners Employee Assistance Program at 1-866-724-4EAP.

In case of emergency, please call 911 or your local hospital emergency service.


This content was last modified on: 11/14/2013

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