By Hansa Bhargava
WebMD Medical Editor
Many young children aged 2 to 5 are being diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and its prevalence has risen by 40% in the last decade. This week another concerning fact was brought to light by the CDC: 75% of these young kids are on drugs to treat their ADHD.
As a pediatrician, I find this alarming. Should ADHD, a mostly behavioral disorder, be treated by a drug first? What about behavioral intervention, or using parenting techniques?
Medications may seems like a magic bullet, and these drugs can help kids focus. But many of them are strong and have significant side effects, such as heart palpitations, nervousness, sweating and raised blood pressure. I’ve seen kids on these medications who also lose their appetite and then have difficulty gaining the weight they need. Imagine a 3-year-old who is having a hard time gaining weight to grow. Additionally, ADHD drugs can affect sleep, and some have been linked to suicidal thoughts and drug dependence.
There’s another side of medications that families may not know about — how one drug doesn’t fit everyone. For many families, it is a journey to find the right medication. Most of the time there is no clear way of knowing which medication will work for your child; it is often simple trial and error that can take time – and struggle — to figure out. This generally means many visits to the doctor and teachers, along with check-ins between visits. It’s not an easy road.
Behavioral therapy doesn’t have side effects and is proven to work. The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests this as the first treatment to try for children ages 2 to 5. A psychologist or behavioral therapist can guide you on simple ways to help your child, using techniques such as positive reinforcement and positive talk. For example, a sticker chart can teach your child good behavior and focus. Good discipline and structure are helpful too, such as following mealtime routines and enforcing consistent rules around bad behavior.
Here are some other ways you can help through parenting:
- Make sure your child drinks plenty of water.
- Outside play time can encourage movement, which improves focus and engagement.
- Getting enough sleep is essential for focus and mood. It may help your child engage and learn better through a long day at school.
As a parent, I understand that even simple things such as drinking water, exercise and sleep can seem difficult to attain on a busy day. But it can go a long way in helping your child. If your child still needs help after trying therapy and attentive parenting, medication may be the answer. But if you are able, give these methods a try first. You may be surprised at the difference they can make in your child’s life.