Need to know: A guide for parents looking to learn about ADHD medication.
For parents, the idea of medicating their child with ADHD can be daunting. It’s understandable that many may view medication as a last resort. While your doctor may have already explained the benefits of finding the right medication, it’s common to still have concerns that are reasonable and valid.
The most common questions from parents include:
Will my child become addicted? ADHD medications are not addictive in the way that drugs are. However, they can be habit-forming, meaning that your child may come to rely on them to manage their symptoms. That being said, if the medication is taken as prescribed and not misused, the risk of addiction is low.
Will my child become a zombie? It is a common misconception that ADHD medication will turn your child into a zombie. While some children may experience side effects, such as decreased appetite or trouble sleeping, these effects are usually temporary and can often be managed with adjustments to the dosage or timing of the medication. ADHD medication is intended to help your child focus and be more productive, not to change who they are as a person.
Will my child lose their spark? ADHD medication is not intended to change your child’s personality. However, some parents may worry that medication will alter their child’s behaviour or emotions. It is important to remember that medication is just one aspect of ADHD treatment, and it is usually prescribed alongside other therapies, such as occupational therapy and parent training. These therapies can help your child develop coping skills and strategies to manage their symptoms.
Will it affect my child’s growth? Some studies have suggested that ADHD medication may slightly slow down a child’s growth, especially during the first year of treatment. However, the long-term effects on growth are usually minimal, and most children catch up to their peers in height and weight over time. If you have concerns about your child’s growth, talk to their doctor about monitoring their height and weight regularly.
Why it’s important
The saying “knowledge is power” holds true, especially when it comes to making informed decisions about medication options. Familiarising yourself with medication options and how they work can help you ask the right questions and make informed choices. The most frequently prescribed types of ADHD medications include:
Stimulants are the most commonly prescribed medications for ADHD. They work by increasing the levels of neurotransmitters in the brain, such as dopamine and norepinephrine, which can improve attention and decrease hyperactivity and impulsivity. There are two types of stimulants:
- Methylphenidate-based stimulants: These include Ritalin, Concerta, and Focalin. They work by blocking the reuptake of dopamine and norepinephrine, which means that these neurotransmitters stay active in the brain for longer periods. This helps to improve attention and focus. These medications come in short-acting (only last a few hours) and long-acting forms (lasts most of the day) and can be taken orally or through a patch.
- Amphetamine-based stimulants: These include Adderall, Dexedrine, and Vyvanse. They work by increasing the release of dopamine and norepinephrine into the brain. This helps to improve attention, focus, and impulse control. These medications also come in short-acting and long-acting forms and can be taken orally.
Non-stimulant medications are an alternative treatment option for children who do not respond well to or have side effects from stimulants. Non-stimulants work by increasing the levels of norepinephrine in the brain, which can improve attention and reduce hyperactivity and impulsivity. There are two types of non-stimulants:
- Atomoxetine: Also known as Strattera, is a selective norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor. It works by blocking the reuptake of norepinephrine in the brain, which helps to increase its levels and improve attention and focus. This medication is taken orally and is approved for use in children and adults with ADHD.
- Guanfacine: Also known as Intuniv, is an alpha-2 agonist. It works by stimulating certain receptors in the brain that help to regulate attention and behaviour. This helps to improve attention and reduce impulsivity. This medication is taken orally and is approved for use in children and adolescents with ADHD.
Combination medications combine a stimulant and a non-stimulant medication. The stimulant component works by increasing the levels of dopamine and norepinephrine, while the non-stimulant component works by increasing the levels of norepinephrine. This can be helpful for children who do not respond well to one type of medication alone.
For example, Adderall XR is a combination medication that combines a long-acting form of amphetamine with a non-stimulant medication called dextroamphetamine. The amphetamine component increases the release of dopamine and norepinephrine, while the dextroamphetamine component blocks the reuptake of norepinephrine.
Tips and strategies
Medication can be life changing but it certainly isn’t a silver bullet. Your child will do better if you have the tools and knowledge to support them.
Identify what support you child needs – ADHD impacts everyone differently, so it’s important to understand how it affects your child. While some children may encounter difficulties with attention and concentration, others may exhibit impulsive and risky behaviour, and many may find it challenging to regulate their emotions. Knowing what gets in the way of your child the most, will help you and your doctor decide on the right medication to try.
Educate yourself: Learn as much as you can about ADHD and medication options. Consult reliable sources such as healthcare providers and trusted websites
Understand the risks and benefits: Be aware of the potential risks and benefits associated with ADHD medication. It’s important to weigh the pros and cons before making a decision.
Communicate with your child’s doctor: Talk to your child’s doctor about any concerns you have about medication. Ask questions, clarify doubts, and make sure you understand the medication and its side effects.
Join a support group: There are thousands of parents that have come before you who can share their experience. If possible, pose those questions to ADHD adults as they have a unique insight into medication. Facebook has lots of groups to choose from, here is a private group you can join ADHD/Autism + Parents Support Group – Private
Consider occupational therapy: ADHD medication is often used in conjunction with other therapies. Occupational Therapists can help your child with sensory processing and to develop coping skills and improve their overall functioning.
Identify what skills are missing: Observing your child will provide you with incredible insights to help you adjust your expectations so that they can meet them with the skills they have. Use this information to provide them with opportunities to build those skills.
Implement strategies at home: Use co-regulation when your child is emotionally dysregulated. Create structure and routines that will scaffold your child’s executive dysfunction. Prioritise sleep, nutrition and physical exercise.