“Your child has ADHD.”
But many parents worry about side effects and want to exhaust every other option before they put their child on medicine.
No matter what your decision is, you can help your child live a calmer, more successful life.
To Medicate, or Not to Medicate?
For some, like Sonia, it was a matter of age. “My son was just 5 years old when he was diagnosed with ADHD, and I thought that was too young for medication,” she says.
In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics agrees. They almost always recommend that, before age 6, you start with behavior therapy.
“Parents often ask if they can try other treatments first before they turn to medication, and there are several methods that are effective,” says Richard Gallagher, PhD, of the Institute for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity and Behavior Disorders at the NYU Child Study Center. He encourages parents to try other things while they look into the risks and benefits of medications.
Gallagher says that behavior changes alone are most effective with kids who are only inattentive and unfocused, rather than those who are also impulsive and hyperactive. The most successful treatment for ADHD combines both meds and behavior management.
Parent and Teacher Help
Parents and classroom teachers play a starring role in helping a child learn to recognize and adjust their behavior, Gallagher says.
For parents, this means creating small, manageable goals for their child, such as sitting for 10 minutes at the dinner table, and then giving rewards for achieving them. It’s also helpful for the teacher to send home a daily “report card,” letting the parents know whether the child met their behavior goals at school that day.
From a young age, Sonia’s son was graded in school every 20 minutes on three goals: staying seated, staying on task, and being respectful of others. His reward for meeting the goals were more time shooting hoops later in the day – a more effective strategy than punishing him for misbehaving, his mom says.
A coach or tutor can work with older children to come up with a system for keeping track of their books, papers, and assignments, says Edward Hallowell, MD, the author of Delivered from Distraction. “This is more helpful than Mom or Dad trying to help organize, because with a parent, it can come across as nagging,” he says.
“A lot of kids with ADHD also have sleep disorders, and each condition makes the other one worse,” says Mark Stein, PhD, an ADHD specialist at the Seattle Children’s Hospital.
One of the most common sleep issues for kids with ADHD is that they can’t settle down and fall asleep; then their exhaustion the next day makes their symptoms worse. While some doctors recommend sleep aids such as melatonin, you should start by practicing good sleep habits:
- Have a consistent bedtime, even on the weekend.
- Keep the bedroom cool and dark.
- Create a soothing winding-down ritual.
“We have bedtime broken down into 10 specific tasks, like taking a bath, putting on pajamas, reading for a half-hour,” Sonia says. “He had trouble falling asleep before, but the routine really helps him settle down.”
That also means no screens of any kind before bedtime. Take computers, TVs, phones, and video games out of the bedroom so your child isn’t distracted or tempted.
Make sure your child has plenty of opportunities to run and play (at appropriate times). Some recent studies found that after about 30 minutes of exercise, kids with ADHD can focus and organize their thoughts better.
Elise can confirm these results. “Like a lot of kids with ADHD, my son doesn’t have very good coordination, but he’s fallen in love with swimming,” she says. “He enjoys the feel of the water and always feels calmer when he gets out of the pool.”
If your child wants to play organized sports that require focus and concentration, like baseball or tennis, there’s more to the equation. “Before they started medication, many of my patients were stuck playing the outfield, where they would just wander around chasing daisies,” Stein says. “But the medication helped them play better and be part of the team.”
Meditation and Mindfulness
A new line of research is exploring how mindfulness — learning how to sharpen focus, raise awareness, and practice self-control through breathing and meditation — may help manage the symptoms of ADHD.
One small study found that when both children and their parents completed an 8-week mindfulness-training program, the kids had fewer symptoms. And their parents felt less of the stress that typically comes with their role.
This is promising news, but Gallagher points out there isn’t yet enough solid evidence to fully recommend the strategy.
Elise’s son has tried a few different meditation techniques over the years to control his anxiety and impulsivity. While they were helpful at the moment, she says he hasn’t been able to stick with them.
It can hone attention and strengthen social skills. It’s rhythmic and structured. And playing music requires different parts of your brain to work together, as well as learning how to be a part of a group.
There’s very little hard research specifically connecting music with ADHD symptoms, but scientists do know that when children play an instrument — taking piano lessons at home, say, or playing cello with a school orchestra — they do much better on tests of executive function than children who don’t study music. That’s the ability of the brain to organize and easily switch between tasks.
If your child would rather kick a soccer ball than pick up a flute, or can’t sit still for lessons or practice, simply listening to their favorite playlist may calm them down long enough to finish their homework. When you listen to music you like, your brain releases dopamine, a chemical that also helps with focus.
More work needs to be done to connect ADHD to music, but it’s certainly an area worth exploring, especially for music-loving families.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Over the years, several “ADHD diets” have been proposed and then dismissed by science.
A study found that kids with ADHD have lower levels of omega-3s in their blood, which suggests bumping up the amount in their diet might reduce ADHD symptoms. But research on this topic is limited, and whether omega-3 supplements might help is not clear.
Although omega-3 supplements aren’t widely recommended as a treatment, Hallowell points out that eating a balanced diet — including fish, whole grains, and plenty of fruits and vegetables — and cutting down on sugar and processed foods can certainly help your child live a healthier life.