Attention Deficity Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) has become a buzzword among parenting circles and an easy way to explain any child who is overactive and energetic, or a little bit naughty at school. But when is a child just overactive or energetic or a little bit naughty in a way that is considered “normal” according to how we measure childhood, and when could it be something more sinister?
ADHD affects 3-5 in every 100 children in Australia and is much more common in boys than girls according to The Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne. It’s not a behavioural disorder, as is commonly believed, they write, but a neurobehavioral disorder, a result of the structure and chemical processes of the brain, specifically in the frontal lobe, the part of the brain that regulates attention and behaviour.
As well as inattention and misbehaviour.
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It’s the part of a child’s brain that won’t fully develop until they’re 25 and until then it is constantly “rewiring”, says Dr. Anna Cohen, a senior clinical psychologist at Kids & Co Clinical Psychology. That’s why it’s important to diagnose childhood anomalies early.
Early intervention is key, she says.
To treat ADHD child psychologists recommend a range of treatment options involving behaviour modification techniques and sometimes, when parents and teachers and psychologists have exhausted these options, a conversation about medication comes into play.
ADHD medication has a really bad reputation, with the most common medication for the condition being Ritalin. Ritalin is a “nervous system stimulant” and parents and professions explain that in children with ADHD, it gives children the ability to “pause”, to think, to consider and to reflect, before they take the action they were going to take.
Some children respond really well to the medication, describing it as “life-changing”.
Others respond very badly to it and end up with serious side-effects such as depression and anxiety.
Parents of children with ADHD have shared their experiences with ADHD and treatment options, in the hope parents considering diagnosis or treatment will be better informed.
Here we asked mums what they really think about medication and ADHD.
My son was diagnosed with ADHD in mid to late high school and began medication but after he finished high school he stopped taking it. Around six years ago he realised he needed to go back on them. - J
The meds make a huge difference to my son, but that's because he genuinely has ADHD. - M
There is certainly a wealth of evidence that it's seriously over diagnosed, so it would be something I'd personally want a second or 3rd opinion on, before meds. But if it's genuine, the meds can be great in my experience. - B
My son with ADHD began medication and they actually gave him a super-advantage because his brain is lightening fast. The meds just him him focus. - D
I have two children who were diagnosed, one with ADHD-overactive and one with ADHD-inattentive. For the overactive child, Ritalin made him quieter but did not improve his learning. He was later diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and removed off all medication. For my daughter it did improve her learning but she suffered extreme side effects such as suicidal thoughts and depression. The specialist has also confirmed Ritalin can cause psychosis in some patients. Parents need to be informed of all the risks. - S
I know of someone who has been suggested medication. I don't think it's a bad thing at all if it improves the child's daily life/struggle whilst also seeking therapy. - D
My son started taking medication early in his diagnosis for ASD but it turned him into a monster so we had to stop. -T
Every child is different. Some need to be medicated and ignorant people along with the media have no idea how a child with ADHD copes with life. It's okay to medicate a child with diabetes or any other illness but not a child that has ADHD according to some. That's for the parents and professionals to decide. - A
Not all medications are the same. Some may not work, others will. Some need to be taken with conjunction with something else. Need a well-trained pediatric psychiatrist. - P
I have an ADHD child. I worked closely with our pediatrician to get the right dose for my son, so he could focus and wouldn't miss the basics at school. We still meet regularly with our doctor and teachers to ensure the medication is working. You need to constantly monitor and plus he doesn't have med on weekends or holidays. As a teacher I can tell you that it helps students. - C
It takes a long time to find the right balance and the right meds for the individual child. What works for one may not for another, worse still what works for six months can stop helping. But after a long process we have found what works well for our son. It was a long journey but well worth it. - B
Not only do you have to deal with people that have no idea about ADHD but others saying why are you drugging your child? Seriously, unless you live with a child that has ADHD I suggest you say nothing. - H
Dr. Anna Cohen says when ADHD is diagnosed, there's no need to rush to medication because there are so many treatment options
"We as psychologists don't medicate and we're very careful who we refer a child to," Dr Cohen says.
"What we know is that those ADHD medications, the stimulant medications, can place a child in a very vulnerable place psychologically or in terms of their mental health, if they have something else going on."
MM Confessions: The weirdest thing our kids have ever done.
So bipolar, for example, which Dr. Cohen says looks like ADHD in some children and therefore ADHD medication doesn't suit.
And Dr. Cohen says the right treatment can be life-changing for the right child who responds well to it. "I'm a big believer that if a child does require medication that's in a very considered way."
Giuliett Moran, psychologist at Empowering Parents says there are so many positive parenting strategies that can be combined with school support before medication needs to be considered.
"I guess that's an ideal, before resorting to medication," and once prescribed, it doesn't necessarily need to be taken forever, as long as other therapies have been used to reset their behaviour.
She says while there has been a lot of research into ADHD the medical community is no closer to explaining the cause. "And because it can be present at so many different points [ages] there's a lot of research about children starting school early and the impacts that has with boys because boys develop their gross motor skills first and then their fine motor skills where as girls are opposite, so when a boy starts school early and is expected to sit in a classroom environment and his gross development is still focused on a set of skills that are telling him to run and jump and climb, then obviously that can be quite difficult...but there's nothing to say that's linked to ADHD at this point."
"Most parents want what is best for their child above and beyond everything," says Dr. Anna Cohen.
That's the universal truth and it's important to remember that behind every sensational story about ADHD and medication options there is a vulnerable child who just needs help.
For information and advice on raising your child contact the Parent Line on 1800 55 1800.