ADHD medication for kids can help reduce symptoms such as difficulty paying attention and trouble controlling impulsive behaviors. Common ADHD medications for kids include stimulants, such as amphetamine and methylphenidate, and non-stimulants, such as clonidine. These medications are often most effective as part of a comprehensive treatment plan including therapy and family support.
What Is Childhood ADHD?
Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects people of all ages, including children. This condition is usually diagnosed first in childhood and can persist into adulthood.1
However, childhood ADHD has long been known to affect children’s ability to function in their daily life. Such children usually show developmentally inappropriate impulsivity, hyperactivity, or inattentiveness patterns.
ADHD symptoms are usually diagnosed before the age of 12. Before 12, the symptoms usually emerge with children suffering from the condition often having difficulties completing complex tasks, excessive motor activity, and uncontrolled impulsive behaviors. While the prevalence of ADHD in children and adults varies depending on the diagnostic criteria used and the population studied, it’s generally accepted that childhood ADHD is more common than adult ADHD. Studies have shown that the rate of children diagnosed with the condition increased by 43% between 2003 (7.8%) and 2011 (11.%), with the prevalence of adult ADHD being 4.4%.2
How Do ADHD Medications for Children Work?
Several ADHD medications, including stimulants and non-stimulants, can be recommended to help manage the condition in children. ADHD medications can improve attention in children by reducing hyperactivity and impulsive behavior. These medications help regulate chemicals in the brain, such as dopamine and norepinephrine. These brain chemicals influence attention and concentration.
While the medications can help with the condition, children taking the drug will likely experience common side effects. Such side effects include appetite loss and sleeping problems. The medications can also cause headaches, irritability, and a fast heart rate. These side effects can be especially bothersome when first starting the drug, and they usually continue for as long as a person continues to take the medications. Even though ADHD medication can help with the condition, it’s usually used in conjunction with therapy because it can be more effective when combined than when used alone. Therapy can help people with the condition develop coping strategies and learn practical skills to manage their symptoms.
Types of ADHD Medications for Kids
There are several types of ADHD medications for children that a doctor might recommend. This usually depends on the medications’ side effects, treatment duration, and potential interactions with other drugs. Also, consideration of these factors helps improve safety and reduces the risk of adverse medication reactions. The most commonly prescribed medications include methylphenidate, clonidine, and amphetamine.
Both stimulants and non-stimulants can be used. These medications work by increasing concentration and attentiveness while reducing impulsivity. However, when considering ADHD medication for your child, working with a healthcare provider who provides the right diagnosis and develops a personalized treatment plan considers your child’s medical history and needs. When choosing stimulant or non-stimulant medications, your healthcare provider will consider the child’s age and response to previous drugs.
Stimulant ADHD Medications
These medications affect the brain’s neurotransmitter activity, leading to an increase in dopamine and norepinephrine effects. This helps with the body’s attention regulation. Stimulant ADHD medications are categorized into short-acting and long-acting. When short-acting stimulant drugs are taken, they get released into the bloodstream immediately, and their effects begin within 30 to 45 minutes after taking them.
When long-acting stimulant medications are taken, they gradually get released into the bloodstream for some time instead of all at once. These medications’ effects can last up to 12 hours and are usually taken once in the morning. While both short and long-acting stimulant medications can help with ADHD, they differ in how fast each works to take effect on the body and for how long they relieve symptoms. Stimulants are more commonly prescribed to treat ADHD in children since they are considered the first line of treatment and are mostly prescribed in about 70-80% of children with the condition.3
Commonly prescribed short-acting stimulants include:
- Ritalin (Methylphenidate)
- Adderall (Mixed Amphetamine Salts)
- Methyl (Methylphenidate)
- Focalin (Dexmethylphenidate)
Commonly prescribed intermediate or long-acting stimulants include:
- Ritalin LA (Methylphenidate)
- Ritalin SR (Methylphenidate)
- Adderall XR (Mixed Amphetamine Salts)
- Focalin XR (Dexmethylphenidate)
- Dexedrine Spansule (Dextroamphetamine)
Non-stimulant ADHD Medications
These ADHD medications are used as serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), which can help to improve symptoms. By being used as an SNRI, the medication prolongs the action of norepinephrine, increasing a child’s ability to maintain attention. Non-stimulant ADHD medications can be beneficial, especially to children who have not benefited from or for whom the side effects of stimulant medications are intolerable.
How fast or quickly non-stimulants work usually varies depending on the medication used. Clinical trials have shown that Atomoxetine, a common non-stimulant ADHD medication, may take several weeks to tale full effect when treating ADHD in children.4 Children taking these medications should expect to experience some common side effects, such as nausea and headaches. Non-stimulant ADHD medications can also cause serious side effects such as serotonin syndrome and suicidal ideation.
Commonly prescribed short-acting non-stimulants include:
- Strattera (Atomoxetine)
- Intuniv (Guanfacine)
- Kapvay (Clonidine)
Side Effects of ADHD Medications for Children
Just like any other medication, ADHD medications for children are associated with side effects that may be mild or severe depending on several factors, including drug interactions or the condition of a child. Common side effects of ADHD medication include nausea, appetite loss, and sleeping problems. Children who take meds for ADHD will continue to have side effects for as long as they take the drug. Mild symptoms do not require immediate medical care, but you should consult a doctor if they worsen or become intolerable.
Severe side effects such as serotonin syndrome and suicidal ideation are uncommon but can be potentially life-threatening. These side effects require immediate medical treatment, an inpatient stay, and a change in medication.
Common side effects of the stimulant medication include:
- Decreased appetite
- Stomach upset
- Sleeping problems
- Suicidal ideation (rare)
- Dry mouth
- Weight loss
- Potential abuse
Common side effects for non-stimulant medication include:
- Dry mouth
- Low energy
- Abdominal pain
- Nausea or vomiting
It’s important to note that severe side effects of ADHD medications can cause possible organ failure and sudden death. For this reason, if you are experiencing severe side effects of the medications, such as fainting, call the 911 emergency number for immediate medical assistance.
Potential Risks of ADHD Medications for Children
ADHD medications can be effective in managing ADHD symptoms in children, but like any other medication, they have potential risks that can be dangerous if not addressed on time. Some of the potential risks posed by the drugs include cardiovascular risks (risk of increased heart rate and blood pressure), psychiatric risks (increased risk of suicidal thoughts and behaviors), and behavioral and psychological effects (such as mood changes and sleep problems). Your doctor can evaluate the safety concerns with medications and consider an appropriate treatment.
Children With Pre-Existing Health Conditions
Before a child starts ADHD medication, it is first important for a prescribing doctor to understand the child’s medical history. Children with other health conditions could be at risk for cardiac problems and high blood pressure if the medication is taken without following proper guidelines. Also, the medications can increase their conditions’ side effects, making it hard to manage the symptoms.
Children Taken Certain Medications
Like other medications, ADHD medications for kids can negatively interact with other drugs. ADHD medications are contraindicated when taking certain drugs, such as fluoxetine (Prozac) or paroxetine (Paxil), as they can negatively interact with each other triggering individual side effects. Also, the interaction can lead to possible overdose and increase serotonin syndrome risk.
Alternative ADHD Treatment for Kids
Apart from ADHD medications for kids, there are effective treatment alternatives, such as therapy, that can be helpful when treating ADHD symptoms in children. Therapy treatment addresses ADHD symptoms such as hyperactivity, lack of attention, and impulsivity. A licensed therapist can be crucial in helping children with ADHD learn strategies to manage their symptoms and improve their day-to-day functioning.
Therapy sessions are generally tailored to meet the needs of a child with the condition. However, since ADHD is a very complex psychiatric disorder among children, skill training sessions can help children with the condition. Such training includes social skills training and cognitive behavioral therapy to enhance the children’s impulse control and problem-solving abilities. These skills can also positively affect a child’s academic performance and overall quality of life.
Therapy options for ADHD symptoms in children include:
- Behavioral therapy: Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) for ADHD can help children manage their symptoms by changing lifestyle patterns such as thinking and behaving.
- Parenting coaching: Parenting coaching is tailored to help parents of children with ADHD learn how to talk to their children and work with them to enhance their behavior and attention.
- Psychoeducation: This therapy option is aimed at helping a child with ADHD discuss the condition and its effects on their life. Also, psychoeducation can help children cope and live with the condition.
- Social skills training: This therapy option aims to help children with ADHD learn how to behave in social situations by understanding how their behavior affects them.
Tips for Parents of Children With ADHD
Parents can play an imperative role in helping their children with ADHD by providing a supportive environment that is healthy for dealing with ADHD symptoms. This can be achieved by creating a conducive study area and setting clear expectations. Parents can also offer positive reinforcement to their children for good behavior and emotional support to make them feel loved and not isolated by being cared for regardless of their conditions.
You can support a child with ADHD by:
- Setting clear boundaries: By setting clear boundaries, parents can help reduce confusion and anxiety among their children. This can also help children with the condition learn how to manage their symptoms and improve their life.
- Maintaining routines: Routines can help children with ADHD where they have designated times for meals or bedtime.
- Create a conducive study area: A quiet and friendly study area can help children with ADHD focus on their studies and develop positive study habits.
- Encourage physical activity: Parents can help their children engage in regular physical activity to help manage their symptoms and improve their general well-being and health.5
- Provide a healthy diet: A healthy diet can play an important role in children with ADHD by helping to regulate mood, behavior, and cognitive function. Also, it can help improve sleep quality which is crucial for ADHD children with sleep difficulties.
Questions to Ask Your Health Team
Before considering ADHD medication for your child, it’s important to talk to your doctor first. Your doctor will make you understand the benefits and risks of the medication. This way, your doctor will help address safety concerns for the medications. You can ask your prescriber about the ADHD medications suitable for your child’s symptoms or what you should do if you want your child to stop taking the medication.
Before your child begins taking ADHD medication, consider asking your doctor/psychiatrist the following questions:
- Which ADHD medications are suitable for my child’s symptoms?
- How much and how often should my child take these medications?
- What kind of side effects are common with this medication?
- What should I do if my child experiences side effects?
- Are there other medications or substances my child should avoid while taking them?
- What should I do if I want my child to stop taking the medication?
- Are there alternative medications we can consider?
- What should I do if the medications do not work for my child?
ADHD is a common psychiatric disorder that is mainly diagnosed in childhood but can persist into adulthood. If your child is diagnosed with ADHD, discuss their treatment plan with a doctor to see if medication, alongside therapy and lifestyle or behavioral changes, can help. Your doctor will recommend safe treatments for your child to help reduce symptoms.