There are a range of treatment options for ADHD that can help your child or teen manage their symptoms.
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) has a wide range of symptoms, from trouble focusing and being easily distracted to having trouble sitting still.
These behaviors can cause problems at school, work, and with friends.
But there’s good news: ADHD can be treated. Treatment ranges from therapy to medication, or a combination of both.
And treatment doesn’t have to stop there. There are also lifestyle or self-care changes that may help improve symptoms.
Remember that no two people with ADHD are alike, so treatment for your child or teen will depend on their personal needs and goals.
Let’s take a look at the treatment options for ADHD for your child or teen.
There are two main types of medications for ADHD: stimulants and nonstimulants. These medications work by altering the levels of two brain chemicals, dopamine and norepinephrine.
It’s believed that stimulants help to both suppress and control impulsive behavior.
Common stimulant medications include:
- dextroamphetamine/amphetamine (Adderall, Dextrostat, Dexedrine)
- methylphenidate (Ritalin, Concerta, Daytrana, Metadate)
- dexmethylphenidate (Focalin)
- lisdexamfetamine dimesylate (Vyvanse)
Many stimulant medications have both short- and long-acting formulas. Short-acting formulas are released into the bloodstream immediately and generally last about 4 to 6 hours. Long-acting formulas release the medication gradually and last up to 14 hours.
Your child’s doctor will likely monitor your child’s progress on the medication weekly in the beginning, adjusting the dose each week until they find the right one that fits your child’s needs.
When stimulants haven’t worked for your child’s ADHD, their doctor may consider a nonstimulant medication. Nonstimulants are also an option when stimulants have caused side effects that are difficult for your child to handle.
Some nonstimulants work by increasing levels of norepinephrine, which is believed to help with memory and attention. These nonstimulant medications include:
- atomoxetine (Strattera)
- antidepressants like imipramine (Tofranil) or nortriptyline (Pamelor)
Other nonstimulant medications that may be used to treat ADHD include:
- clonidine (Kapvay)
- guanfacine (Intuniv)
While there’s not much known about these nonstimulants and how they work, doctors believe they increase chemicals in the brain responsible for attention and memory.
Side effects of stimulants and nonstimulants
The side effects for stimulant and nonstimulant medications are similar, though some side effects may be stronger for stimulants.
Common side effects include:
- upset stomach
- reduced appetite
- dry mouth
- trouble sleeping
Some stimulants have been linked to slowing down height and weight growth in children. Because of this, height and weight are closely monitored in children taking these medications.
Some serious side effects are possible, but they’re rare. These include:
- increased blood pressure and heart rate
- allergic reaction (itching, rash)
- suicidal thoughts or actions
- hallucinations or hearing voices
Every person responds differently to medications or even to different release formulas of the same medication. Your child’s doctor will work closely with you and your child or teen to monitor them for side effects.
Many parents have concerns about adding medication to their child’s treatment plan, and some may even be hesitant to take this step. Parents may fear the medication may change their child’s behavior, or fear it may turn them into a “zombie.”
If you have concerns about medication for your child or teen, discuss this with your child’s doctor. They will be able to answer any questions you may have and help you navigate this decision.
Because children change as they grow — and their environments and the challenges they face evolve as well — it’s important for you and your child’s doctor to maintain an open line of communication.
Discontinuing a medication because of side effects or other reasons without first discussing this with the doctor may cause serious issues, such as withdrawal symptoms or worsening ADHD symptoms.
You can help your child’s doctor by monitoring your child’s progress while they’re taking a medication. Watch for side effects and behavior changes. If anything concerns you, reach out to your child’s doctor.
The risks and benefits of medications can change over time, so your child’s doctor will regularly reevaluate medication use.
In fact, a child’s situation may improve to where other interventions and accommodations kick in, and they can function pretty well without medication.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends a combination of therapy and medication for school-aged children with ADHD.
Research has shown that a combination of therapy and medication seems to improve symptoms of ADHD and may even lower the amount of medication needed.
For more than 2 decades, therapeutic interventions, like parent training and behavioral modifications, have been used for children with ADHD. A key goal with therapy is to teach children, parents, and educators methods that will help them better handle problems if they arise.
A good treatment plan involves close monitoring of whether the therapy or medication helps the child or teen’s behavior and making any necessary changes along the way.
Psychotherapy, or talk therapy, can help children open up and talk about their feelings about living with ADHD.
ADHD can cause problems at school, home, and with friends. Psychotherapy can help explore these issues and provide tools that can be used to better handle social situations and relationships.
An increase in stress often makes ADHD symptoms worse. Social situations can be stressful for children or teens with ADHD.
Psychotherapy can help relieve stress, thereby decreasing symptoms. It also helps children with ADHD learn to manage their emotions in social situations and build social skills to help reduce those feelings of stress during social situations when they arise.
Adding family therapy as a part of psychotherapy is a great way to help parents learn how to better handle any problem behaviors at home.
Behavior therapy is the most commonly used form of therapy for children and teens with ADHD.
The goal of this approach is to strengthen positive behaviors while reducing negative behaviors. This therapy teaches a child techniques they can use to monitor their own behavior and change it accordingly.
In this therapy, you’ll learn strategies to help encourage positive behaviors at home and in the classroom through a reward system or daily report card. You’ll work closely with your child’s teachers and school to make sure these tactics are used properly, and to monitor your child’s progress.
Social skills training
Social skills training teaches children with ADHD the behaviors needed to develop and maintain good social relationships, such as:
- waiting for a turn
- sharing toys
- asking for help
- appropriately dealing with any teasing
Social skills training is done in a therapy office, or parents can learn these skills and teach them at home.
Behavioral parent training
Behavioral parent training, or simply called parent training, teaches parents the skills and strategies needed to reinforce positive behaviors in their child. It can reduce negative behaviors and strengthen the parent-child relationship.
Parents learn a variety of techniques, such as how to use immediate rewards like verbal praise or tokens, when their child completes a task or good behavior, and how to use timeouts to reduce negative behaviors.
Other strategies parents may learn include:
- stress management
- building a schedule
- effective communication
Organizational skills training
Organizational skills training teaches children how to get organized. It relies heavily on the skills learned in behavior training and parent training.
The goal of this training is to develop concrete skills to help children with ADHD organize their books and backpacks, use checklists and a planner, and manage their homework and their time.
Procrastinating and not being able to plan, prioritize, and organize tasks can follow kids into adolescence and then into adulthood.
Learning these skills early can set up your child or teen for success as they move from elementary school into high school and beyond.
Parenting a child with ADHD can be overwhelming and lonely at times. Meeting and talking with other parents or adults who are experiencing the same feelings can give you hope.
Consider reaching out to a support group that addresses your family’s specific needs.
The following ADHD organizations may be great places to find support and connect with other parents or adults who care for children and teens with ADHD:
School services and accommodations
Students with ADHD may qualify for certain services and accommodations in school. You can call or visit schools in your area to find out about the type of programs or services they offer.
If you want to know if your child or teen is eligible for these services, consider talking with their doctor about getting an evaluation. This evaluation will help determine whether they meet the requirements for supportive services at school.
Some school accommodations for students with ADHD include:
- extra time on tests
- using technology to help with tasks
- giving them breaks or extra time to move around
- extra help staying organized
- positive reinforcement and feedback
- environment changes to limit distractions
- instructions and assignments tailored specifically to the child
If you need help advocating for your child or teen’s needs in school, the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund can help.
Raising a child with ADHD can present some challenges. You’re learning new techniques to help manage your child or teen’s behaviors while also developing new routines and schedules.
And as your child or teen grows and develops, their behaviors also evolve, so you’ll need to adopt different approaches along the way.
You may feel overwhelmed and become frustrated when things are not improving as fast as you’d like. You’re not alone. Many parents feel this way.
There are some things you can do to help support your child as well as foster stronger family relationships.
Become an expert in ADHD
Learn everything you can about ADHD in children and teens. Gather as much information about the various treatment options available. Learn about any special programs or services in your area.
Become a keen observer of your child, taking note of any specific symptoms and strengths. Write down any observations, and take them to your child or teen’s next doctor’s visit.
Also, research your child or teen’s educational rights. Look for ways you can help with homework and organization.
Some ADHD organizations, like CHADD, offer courses for parents in different formats, online or in person, that may be helpful.
Other resources include:
- American Psychiatric Association
- Attention Deficit Disorder Association
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
- National Alliance on Mental Illness
- National Institute of Mental Health
Become an effective case manager and team captain
Keeping all your child or teen’s records — including copies of report cards, teacher notes, disciplinary reports, and evaluations — can help you stay on top of their progress.
Think of yourself as a team captain in charge of a team that fully understands and appreciates your child or teen’s ADHD.
When you have a scheduled school meeting about your child or teen, gather all the notes from visits with their doctors, counselors, or therapists. Take this information with you to the meeting and be ready to contribute.
Knowing and having all the information about your child’s strengths and challenges can help you and everyone involved in your child’s care develop a program that works for their specific needs and goals.
Talk with your child about their ADHD
Let your child know that they have ADHD. Keeping the diagnosis a secret from them implies that there’s something to be ashamed or embarrassed about. Start the conversation in a positive way, emphasizing that your child’s brain works differently.
Make sure they know that they’re not alone — many kids and adults have ADHD. With treatment, they can learn to manage their behavior and capitalize on their boundless energy and new ideas in cool ways.
While being open and supportive with your child or teen, try to avoid extensively checking in with them or “nagging” them about their own progress. This may increase their stress or make them more anxious.
Create new routines
The routines you develop will vary depending on your child’s age.
When your kid is younger, a daily routine for the mornings may include washing their face, brushing their teeth, getting dressed, and eating breakfast. The afternoon schedule may include things like playing outside, eating a snack, and taking a nap.
But for school-aged children, the routine may change in the mornings to include getting ready for school, and in the afternoons, a scheduled time for homework and after-school activities may be added.
Having a schedule visible to your child or teen and the family will help everyone stay on task.
Teaching your child or teen to put items in their proper place will help them stay organized. Consider creating a designated space for backpacks, shoes, and toys to reinforce organizational skills.
Observe your child to see how they work best
Your child may focus better on a task when they’re listening to music or white noise, or when they’re moving around. Or, they may focus best after playing outside for 30 minutes.
Consider watching your child when they’re doing a task and see what works for them. Then, based on your observations, think about creating a routine that works best for helping them stay focused.
Children or teens with ADHD often have difficulty following instructions that have several steps. It’s also hard when there are a lot of distractions, whether that comes from the TV, the water running, or simply from thoughts swirling inside their brains.
So, if you notice that your child or teen gets easily distracted when you’re talking with them, try turning off all technology, getting closer, making eye contact, and giving them simple, clear directions.
With so much information out there about ADHD, it’s possible for parents to become overwhelmed and stressed. They may even engage in extreme organizational behaviors, doing everything they can to follow a strict routine with their child or teen.
These parents may tend to check in more often or be more critical about their child’s past behaviors, questioning their commitment to the new routines they’ve developed.
These types of behaviors may add stress on the child, which in turn can make their symptoms worse.
While it’s important to be open and communicative about your child’s challenges, try to avoid behaviors that may be stressful and worsen their symptoms.
Also try to avoid statements such as:
- “If you’d just try harder, you’d do better.”
- “You’re just lazy.”
- “If you can focus on fun things, then you can focus on your homework.”
- “Why can’t you be like other kids?”
- “Clearly, you did not take your meds today.”
Instead, offer encouragement and praise to your child or teen. Acknowledge their strengths and passions, and when they explore things they’re interested in and enjoy doing. Praise good behavior. Be willing to make compromises and have flexibility.
There are many other ways to support and encourage your child or teen with ADHD. You can find more information about how to do that here.
In addition to traditional treatments like medication and therapy, adopting a healthier lifestyle may help improve your child or teen’s ADHD symptoms.
- Eat a balanced diet.
- Get at least 60 minutes or more of physical activity each day.
- Limit daily screen time when possible.
- Get plenty of sleep each night.
Research has shown that other alternative approaches may help improve symptoms too. These include:
If you’re interested in trying some of these alternative approaches, work closely with your child or teen’s doctor to discuss options.
Remember, every child or teen with ADHD has their own set of challenges and strengths. No two children with ADHD are alike, so no two treatment plans for ADHD will look alike either.
As your child or teen grows, their symptoms will evolve. This means that their treatment plan will likely change over time, too.
But if you work together with your child or teen’s doctors, teachers, and any other professional involved in their care, you’ll find a plan that helps your child or teen reach their goals while fitting your and your family’s needs.