If your child has been diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), you may be asked to consider using medication as part of his treatment plan. Stimulant medications have been shown to provide a proven safe and effective way to manage the core symptoms of ADHD (hyperactivity, inattention, and impulsivity). Thus they are a first-line treatment recommendation for most children who have this condition—often in combination with behavior therapy and other forms of treatment.
The use of stimulants has been compared to wearing glasses for a person with poor vision, because stimulants help “put things into focus” for a child when they are active in his system. As soon as the effects of the dose of stimulant wear off—or the glasses are taken off—things go just as out of focus again. Stimulants help children improve their functioning in measurable ways—just as glasses enable the child with poor vision to learn to read. But keep in mind that just as glasses can help focus but do not make a child a reader, so stimulants do not “make” a child perform better—he has to do that work himself.
It is one thing to understand how stimulants might help a child, but quite another to consider using this medication with your own child. You have probably heard of medications like Ritalin and Adderall, commonly known brand names for methylphenidate and amphetamine, respectively—just 2 members of the class of medications known as stimulants. The increase in the prescribing and use of stimulants over the last couple of decades has led to concerns in the media and among parents about whether stimulants are being overprescribed for children with ADHD. Yet even with that, the amount of medication presently taken by children does not seem to exceed the amount needed to treat carefully diagnosed cases of ADHD in the United States.
Most of this increase in stimulant medication use likely stems from better recognition and diagnosis of ADHD (including a greater awareness of ADHD in girls) and from the trend for children to be treated for longer periods, sometimes through adulthood. Nevertheless, some pediatricians still debate whether ADHD is overdiagnosed or underdiagnosed, and that is why you need to be careful about having an accurate diagnosis for your child before you even think about embarking on a course of medication management.
Stimulants are presently considered effective and safe medications, and there are few situations in which they are medically inadvisable. However, they are not for everyone. A small number of children and their families will find that the side effects are too intrusive at the doses that are most effective for that individual child. Some parents may find that their own negative feelings about the medication, or some other issue within the family, prevent them from properly implementing this part of the treatment plan considering stimulant medication use. Non-stimulant medications are also available for the treatment of ADHD.
Ultimately, you and your family must weigh the pros and cons of choosing medication as part of the treatment plan for ADHD. The more educated you are about the medication process, the better prepared you will be to make this decision.