In my last post, I outlined the typical timeline for diagnosing ADHD in young children.  For many children and their parents, receiving a diagnosis of ADHD can be life-changing, as many parents feel a sense of relief at finally understating the source of their child’s difficulties.  But receiving a diagnosis is only the first step.

The next logical question is:  How do I treat my child’s ADHD?

Before I discuss treatment options for ADHD, it is important to note that I am not a prescribing physician.  This information is purely for informational purposes.  When considering treatment for ADHD, parents should always consult a qualified medical professional.  Typically, parents will discuss their child’s situation with either a:

Pediatrician:  pediatricians are highly trained in medication management.  Also, since your child’s pediatrician likely has extensive history with your child, the pediatrician can assess the whole picture when considering treatment options.

Child Psychiatrist:  because a child psychiatrist specializes in mental health, he or she may have more in-depth knowledge of the various treatments for ADHD, including medication.  Additionally, a child psychiatrist is trained in behavior management techniques, such as counseling and therapy, that may be beneficial for certain children.

Upon consultation with either a pediatrician or child psychiatrist, you may be presented with a variety of treatment options.  Typically you will work closely with your medical professional to develop a treatment plan for your child that may include one of or a combination of the following:

Stimulant Medication

When many of us think of treatment for ADHD, we automatically assume “medication.”  For the majority of children on medication, they take some form of stimulant.  Stimulants work by increasing certain levels of brain chemicals that are necessary for optimal functioning.  The common types are:

  • Adderall
  • Ritalin
  • Vyvanse
  • Concerta
  • Focalin

These stimulants can be highly effective at managing inattention and impulsivity.  However, many children experience negative side effects, including loss of appetite, difficulty sleeping, and “not feeling like myself.”  Because of these side effects, many children only take them on school days and during the school year.  Also, for a certain percentage of children, stimulant medication simply has no effect.

Non-Stimulant Medication

Because many parents are concerned with the idea of “stimulants,” some physicians will consider the use of non-stimulant medication to treat ADHD.  There are many types of non-stimulant medication, but they mostly function the same way as stimulant medication by increasing certain brain chemicals and targeting specific areas of the brain.  However, non-stimulants tend not to cause the feelings of agitation experienced by stimulant medication.

The most common non-stimulant medications are Strattera and Intuniv, which have been shown effective at reducing inattention and impulsivity for many children.

The downside to non-stimulant medication is that it presents the opportunity for more frequent and severe side effects than stimulant medication.  The most commonly reported side effect that concerns parents is an increase chance of depression and suicidal ideation.  Other side effects may include upset stomach, fatigue and mood swings.

Dietary Supplements

It seems there are millions of dietary supplements claiming to improve just about every condition known to man.  The same can be said for ADHD treatment.  I’ve seen some pretty outrageous claims when it comes to ADHD and dietary supplements.  When considering any dietary supplement, it is important to do your research and talk to your child’s physician.  While many supplements are harmless, some may actually cause severe negative side effects.

The only dietary supplements I want to discuss are the ones that are backed by scientific evidence.  These supplements have shown effective at managing ADHD symptoms.  Additionally, they have proven to have minimal, if any, negative side effects.

  • Fish Oil  – omega 3 fatty acid has shown beneficial for the brain functioning of children, particularly those with ADHD.  A fish oil supplement is easy for children to take, as it comes in liquid form and can be added to juice.
  • Zinc  – there is evidence that children with ADHD have lower levels of Zinc in their bodies compared to children who do not experience ADHD.  A zinc supplement may help balance this deficiency.
  • Magnesium  – similar to Zinc, children with ADHD may have lower levels of magnesium.
  • Multivitamin – other evidence exists to suggest children with ADHD may experience a deficiency in many important vitamins.   Consequently, a targeted multivitamin may offer the best “bang for your buck.”  Truehope’s Empower Plus has dozens of peer-reviewed studies backing its effectiveness.

Behavior Modification

When I assign a diagnosis of ADHD to a child, my first recommendation is almost always for behavior modification rather than medication.  In many instances, behavior modification on its own can be effective at managing ADHD symptoms and allowing a child to function sufficiently at home and at school.  This is particularly true for children who experience mild to moderate symptoms.

Behavior modification can come in many different forms.  The three main forms I recommend for children are:

  • Therapy – most effective for moderate to severe ADHD.  Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) and Parent-Child Interactive Therapy (PCIT) can teach children and parents how to manage their behavior through self-regulation skill building.  Additionally, PCIT trains parents how best to interact with their child to enhance his or her overall functioning.  Therapy can also lessen the feelings of anxiety that often accompany ADHD.
  • Academic Mentoring – children diagnosed with ADHD often struggle at school, mainly due to difficulties with their executive function skills, such as time management and organization.  Academic mentors can help students keep track of their school work and develop effective executive function skills.
  • Extracurricular Involvement – numerous studies exist that demonstrate the benefits of regular exercise and outdoor time for children with ADHD.  Children who are involved in active extracurricular activities such as athletics have a natural outlet for their ADHD symptoms.  Furthermore, more time spent outdoors or engaging in physical activity means less time in front of screens, which are highly detrimental for children with ADHD.

When considering any of these treatment options, you should consult your child’s physician.  It is likely your child will benefit from at least one of, and possibly a combination of, these recommended treatment options. Establishing the correct treatment plan for your child can be life changing for him or her.