ADHD: Should we medicate our children?
By: Adrian Galltier
He was the boy all the other kids thought was annoying; the boy who jumped into pools with his clothes on and impulsively lit things on fire. He was a boy with a suffering self-esteem from adults berating him on his behavior throughout the day. He was the boy who spent four years in jail because he couldn’t stop himself in time. He was the boy that took a knife to his throat at the age of twenty three because he just couldn’t live with himself anymore. What if this boy’s parents had heard differently about ADHD medications? What if they had been informed of the benefits of the drugs instead of being offered a list of warnings? What if they were to look into the future and see the trauma, anguish and horrid behavior that would be let loose onto their family? Would they have chosen treatment for their child?
If back then they chose to have their son swallow a few little pills a day, maybe this is what his life would be like: He was the boy all the other kids wanted to play with…the boy who sat for hours building with blocks and reading his favorite books. He was a boy enjoying a great self-esteem from adults congratulating him on his accomplishments throughout the day. He was the boy who spent four years at the University of Denver because he wanted to stay close to home and family. He was the boy that took a knife to his wedding cake because he just couldn’t live without her anymore. If you had a child with ADHD what life would you want him to have?
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a common childhood disorder that often persists into adulthood. There are three subtypes of ADHD. Subtype one is predominantly hyper and impulsive. To be in this subtype you must have six or more of your symptoms in the hyper and impulsive category and fewer than six in the inattention category. For example if you noticed your child jumps into pools with his clothes on but can tell you exactly what happened in the movie he just saw, he would be in this category. In subtype two people are predominantly inattentive. They exhibit fewer than six impulsive and hyper behaviors and six or more signs of inattention. If your child is spaced out all the time and seems like he gets distracted by everything, even when you’re talking close to his face, he would be in this category. Children in this subtype often don’t have as many behavior challenges as in subtype one, but they can be overlooked by teachers and parents and thought of as underperforming or unintelligent.. Subtype three is a combination of subtype one and two. Your child jumps into pools while also being clueless as to what he just watched on TV. This is the type of ADHD most children have. There is no cure for ADHD but there is treatment. Treatment can lead to productive lives in school and in the outside world (“Attention Deficit”).
Stimulants are the most common treatment for ADHD. Stimulants work to increase dopamine levels in the brain. Dopamine is a chemical that lets you feel motivation, pleasure, attention and movement. For many people with ADHD, stimulants help boost concentration and focus while reducing hyperactivity and impulsive behaviors (Robinson et al).
In a study done with pre-school aged children, doctors took children diagnosed with and without ADHD and performed MRI scans on their brains. Thirteen of the children diagnosed with ADHD had significant brain differences. They found differences in the caudate nucleus, a small structure in the subcortical region of the brain associated with cognitive and motor control (Nauert). This is further justification as to why medication is so important. Therapy can’t subdue those brain differences, but medication can.
Medications for ADHD have a long standing stigma for numerous reasons. One of the reasons is that parents are unnecessarily using medications as study tools for healthy children to give them an edge. Neurologists are trying to curb this practice by encouraging psychiatrists to limit prescriptions to patients with a clinical diagnosis. They are also urging doctors to be cautious about medication misuse occurring in high school and college black markets (Shute). A second reason parents are wary to put there child on meds is the fact that the medications don’t cure the condition; instead, they just hold back the unwanted hyper, impulsive behavior and help people with their distractibility. A third major reason parents may not want to medicate their children is due to the ill reports they have heard from other parents who have had negative experiences with medicating their own children. Many of these less than positive experiences however, are tied to the incorrect diagnosis of ADHD in children. For example, children with Bipolar Disorder are often misdiagnosed with ADHD as they share many symptoms, but a bipolar child will become manic and bounce off the walls with most ADHD medications.
A final reason for the bad reputation of medications is the side effects. The commonly prescribed stimulant drug Adderall for example, has a number of side effects, the most dangerous including: irregular heartbeat, difficulty breathing and extremely high blood pressure (“Adderall Side Effects”).Other medications cause sleeplessness, irritability, weight loss, weight gain, loss of appetite, and an adverse effect called the “rebound effect”, which occurs when a person stops a certain drug and their old symptoms come back stronger than ever (“Rebound Effect”). However, as scary as these might sound, most of these symptoms are very rare or easily managed. For example, for loss of appetite in children you can pick wisely what time you administer medication. If the meds are reducing hunger, hold off the first dose until after breakfast and give the second dose after dinner. Side effects can be tricky, but they are generally significantly more tolerable than weathering ADHD untreated.
There are also a lot of myths surrounding ADHD which further cloud the issue. To clarify, ADHD is not caused by bad parenting like many believe. Symptoms can become stronger if the child has unhelpful parents, but ADHD is ultimately genetic. Stimulant medication does not cause drug use in teenagers. In fact, the opposite is true. An untreated teen is far more likely to do drugs then a medicated one. Most children do not outgrow ADHD. To the contrary, 70% of ADHD afflicted children still have it as adults. Furthermore, 8-10% of the adult population has ADHD and only a sad one in four adults seek treatment. Boys are not the only ones to get ADHD. ADHD may look different in girls but they still get it. There are definitely affective treatments. This contradicts the voice of the many people who believe there is no viable treatment. The treatments, while not a cure, are instrumental in helping people with the disorder live healthy regular lives free from struggle. Lastly ADHD is not caused by eating too much sugar. ADHD is a neurological condition (“ADHD Aware”).
In the biggest long term study of ADHD children conducted in the late 1990’s doctors looked at six hundred children for fourteen months and compared three different protocols. The first cohort of children was prescribed ADHD medications alone. The second group of children was administered behavioral therapy, and the third group of children utilized both treatments. The study clearly showed that medication reduced unwanted behavior far more effectively than behavior therapy, and when therapy was added to the treatment of a child already using meds it didn’t improve the results significantly (“Advice & Support”).
Untreated ADHD can have serious implications. These implications fall into four categories. Category one is the adult problems that can be stem from un-medicated childhood ADHD. People with untreated ADHD are 78% more likely to be addicted to Tabaco and 60% more likely to be addicted to illegal drugs. 79% of ADHD adults who were not treated with medication as children experience severe symptoms of depression and anxiety, compared to the 20% of healthy adults who experience these problems (“Smart Kids”).
Category two is the educational implications. Undertreated or non-treated ADHD can greatly interfere with children reaching their life goals. Up to 58% of untreated ADHD children fail in grade school and up to 46% of untreated children are suspended. Furthermore, as many as 35% of untreated adolescents drop out of high school, which is significantly higher than the 10% drop out rate of healthy teens (“Smart Kids”).
Category three is impulsivity. Untreated ADHD can cause rash and impulsive behavior in people, which causes them to do things the average person wouldn’t do. For example, 40% of untreated young adults have become pregnant, or caused someone to become pregnant, compared to the 4% of healthy sexually active teenagers. Also, 20% of teens with untreated ADHD have gotten STD’s compared to the 4% without (“Smart Kids”).
Category four is safety to the child and those in contact with him or her. The epidemic of traffic fatalities has been strongly linked with ADHD. Driving safely requires that the driver has the ability to pay attention to road signs, other cars, pedestrians, and so much more. If you have untreated ADHD your ability to pay attention is significantly impaired. Teens with untreated ADHD are involved in 2-4 times as many car crashes as other kids in their age category. Equally concerning, a teenager with ADHD has more chance of totaling there car than an adult who is legally drunk (“Smart Kids”).
The three major symptoms of ADHD also interfere with personal life relationships, negatively affect family structures, reduce the chances of personal success and happiness, and put good marriages at risk. Statistically speaking, those with untreated ADHD are twice as likely to get a divorce as their treated or typical peers (“Smart Kids”).
Over 5.2 million children aged 3-17 have been diagnosed with ADHD throughout the years (FastStats). The lucky ones, those that have been granted proper diagnosis and treatment, have been able to embrace their lives to the fullest. They were able to pay attention in class, went to college, and enjoyed marriage success rates similar to their uninflected counterparts. They said no to street drugs because their medicine helped them to put brakes on their impulsive behavior. They were able to navigate their days without suffering from a low self-esteem and without the stigma of being the “hyper annoying kid”? Withholding valuable and effective medication treatments from a child suffering from ADHD can be compared to withholding treatment for other serious yet treatable conditions. Would you not give a diabetic insulin or an epileptic Tegretol if doing so would greatly improve their quality of life? In short, medication saves lives. Like an inhaler is to an asthmatic child, proper ADHD medications give children the opportunity to live their lives in a pattern of success, and to be the children that rise to the top rather than the children that fall into the devastating statistics that described the untreated.
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