Is Ritalin the solution?

Millions of parents have had the experience of their child’s teacher saying that he ‘has ADHD’ and the pediatrician should prescribe a stimulant like Ritalin or Adderall to address the problem. Sometimes parents feel they are seen as falling down on the job if they don’t do this right away.

It’s very hard to have someone describe your child negatively, and even worse to worry whether your child’s struggles are your fault. Over the past 30 years ADHD seems to have become an epidemic in our society, with 1 in 10 of all ten-year-old boys being medicated for these symptoms. Teachers are often at the forefront of dealing with classroom difficulties, so it’s not surprising that they sometimes turn with relief to the idea that a pill can change a child’s school behavior.

The complication is that medications like Ritalin, Adderall and other stimulants can change everyone’s behavior. They increase concentration and ability to focus for anyone who takes them, at any age, whether they show ‘ADHD symptoms’ or not.

So it’s a big challenge to assess what’s right for your child, when you know he is a whole complex person, with all sorts of strengths, as well as the vulnerable areas he is still grappling with. Any child is a work in progress and we don’t expect their behavior always to proceed smoothly. But it’s unlikely that one solution can fix multiple issues or be the best for every child.

In addition, sophisticated research is increasingly showing that these drugs may not do all that parents and teachers hope they will, and there are serious potential long-term disadvantages. Last week an eminent developmental researcher, L. Alan Sroufe, wrote in the NY Times about his growing doubts about the impact and usefulness of drugs to address these problems. You can read his article at

Unfortunately he didn’t go on to address the important next step. If your child is struggling, you want to do everything you can to help him. If the drugs don’t really work over time or are bad for children long-term, what can a parent do? This is the sentiment expressed on many parenting sites since Dr. Sroufe’s article. You can see one example at

Most of us make parenting decisions based on what we think is the top priority. Sometimes that’s an immediate crisis, in which case we reach for a short-term solution. You know then that you will have to deal both with the current fallout and eventually find longer-term answers. Since medication does have an effect right away, it might tide you and your child over the current upset and concern, with the idea that it’s temporary.

In the meantime you would work with his teacher, the school psychologist, and maybe other professionals to create a team to support lasting growth in his capacity for self-control, concentration, persistence and managing his feelings – some of the emotional muscles parents and children work on together throughout development.

One problem with the short-term medication idea is the impact it can have on your child’s self-image. Many doctors, with good intentions, explain to children that their brain chemistry isn’t working right and the pills will correct it. First, that isn’t true – there is no research evidence to support that idea. Second, children are sensitive to the idea that there is something wrong with them; their self-image and self-esteem start to include the idea of being defective in some mysterious way. Thirdly, kids then feel discouraged from taking responsibility – why try to change if it’s hopeless?

But it isn’t hopeless. With effort, love and goodwill, parents can be strong enough to make the demand that their child learn to regulate himself better. Together you can devise coping mechanisms that spring from his own personality and makeup. Building on his strengths not only equips him with the emotional muscles he needs for life: it gives him a powerful message of your love and respect.

This entry was posted in children's needs, chronic conditions, emotional muscle, mastery, mental health, parenthood, physical health, school issues, society/culture, work with schools and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply