Why are we so reluctant to medicate our kids’ ADHD?

Dr Helen Read 25 Oct 2021

Is it because they are worried about side effects? Is it because they want to explore other treatment options first? Or is it because they don’t understand how medication can help their kids? The answer might be different for every parent.

But, one thing is for sure – parents who don’t medicate their kids’ ADHD will not get the best outcomes. They might have to deal with more difficult behaviours and poor school performance without that extra help that medication can provide.

Let’s be clear here, it can feel like we’re swimming against the tide, particularly if our child is coping in school. Many bright kids with ADHD exhaust themselves to hide struggles with auditory processing, procrastination, zoning out involuntarily and a level of boredom which feels almost physically painful. Unfortunately almost no-one with ADHD is an auditory learner and so our kids are very disadvantaged in the education system, which is overwhelmingly delivered auditorily, in spaces such as crowded noisy classrooms, which make sustained listening and processing VERY hard with ADHD, irrespective of the child’s intelligence.

Most teachers know very little about ADHD outside the stereotype of the naughty boy smashing up the classroom. Most kids with ADHD I know are quiet and dreamy in class, and look as if they are listening when they are completely zoned out, others are easily distracted chatterboxes. Teachers are often unaware that this can also be ADHD and often attribute it to bad behaviour or poor parenting. Parents trying to raise this risk being accused of being pushy parents, causing the problems themselves, or being unwilling to accept that their child is low ability.

And society!!! When did it become acceptable to trumpet ignorance as if it were informed opinion? Ah yes, Trump, indeed. Even before that, as parents, my experience is that we will be overwhelmed by messages that medication is harmful and wrong. These messages are COMPLETELY WRONG. Let me say it again COMPLETELY WRONG.

The right ADHD medication transforms our kids’ experience of education and enables them to enjoy school and achieve their potential. Without medication, it is a rare child who is able to achieve anything like their potential, particularly post GCSE, when executive functions are required, often for the first time for bright kids. Those who are able to drive themselves hard enough to achieve, are usually exhausted, overwhelmed and in the worst state to give their all at University.

And my three children (all beautiful ADHD-ers)? My eldest two sons were medicated from secondary school level. My eldest got a 2’1 in Law from a good UK university; my second is in the final year of his Physics degree, hoping to become a teacher. My 10-year-old benefited from his brothers’ experience and has been on treatment very successfully since age 8. Given the known neuroplasticity of kids’ brains, my experience is that the longer they are medicated, the more their underlying language and attentional capacities improve, so the aim should be to start medication as early as possible..

My suggestions? Additude magazine is a fantastic free source of sensible information written by people who have actually been in the situation. Read up about childrens’ symptoms and treatments. In terms of diagnosis, unfortunately in UK childrens’ mental health services are overwhelmed and also largely unaware of the needs of high functioning neurodiverse children, so most end up having to go privately, which is expensive.

I strongly suggest that if you do have to do this, you book a diagnostic assessment with a clinic that can prescribe ADHD medication, as many private childrens’ services are run by non – prescribers, meaning you will pay a lot for the assessment, and then pay all over again for the treatment your child needs to benefit from the diagnosis.

It’s controversial, but that’s what I’m here for. In my experience, there is very little point in having any kind of coaching or talking therapy without medication which kickstarts the process of learning to live in a world that has not been built with our needs in mind. And if your kids don’t want to lie on the couch and talk about horrible past things which have happened to them? Pat them on the back as this treatment is much recommended, in my experience it generally makes neurodiverse kids (and adults) worse.

The reluctance to medicate ADHD is not new. But with the increased awareness of fake news and “expert” advice that is anything but, the debate seems ever more polarised and uninformed….

Of course, there will always be pros and cons, and it is an individual decision for each and every child, but it’s important for parents who are on the fence about medicating ADHD children to be aware that some of the most vocal opponents do not actually have a child with ADHD in the education system; my suspicion is that some have never met one. Follow your instincts and ask yourself why it was important for them to go online to spread this message. Good luck. Do drop me a line if this raises stuff for you, there’s a hell of a lot of upstream swimming on this journey!!