When a child is diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), parents are faced with the decision of whether to treat the disorder with medication. Parents often worry that medication will change their child’s personality or become habit-forming, or they might feel overwhelmed by the number of different medications on the market.

Medication cannot cure ADHD, but it can improve overall functioning at home and school. Researchers have found that stimulant medication is typically the most effective way to treat ADHD, both alone and in combination with therapy. Stimulants help increase levels of neurochemicals in the part of the brain which controls attention, focus, planning, and organization. When monitored and administered correctly by a doctor, stimulants can effectively reduce symptoms of hyperactivity and inattention in children and teens with ADHD.

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What’s the difference between stimulants used to treat ADHD?

There are two major classes of stimulants: amphetamines and methylphenidate, both of which have been in use for decades. Amphetamines include medications such as Adderall, Dexedrine, and Vyvanse. Methylphenidate medications include Ritalin, Concerta, Daytrana, Focalin, Metadate, and Methylin, among others.2

ADHD medications like Ritalin were originally designed to only last a few hours. Now some stimulants like Concerta come in an ascending dose, with compartments within the medication that release at different times after swallowing. These extended release versions can last for up to 12 hours. Sometimes capsules may be hard for young children to swallow, so other brands offer the medication in bead form. Parents can open the capsule and sprinkle it into food for the child to easily ingest. Daytrana is the only ADHD medication that comes in a transdermal patch, which can be stuck to the hip for quick absorption.3

How likely is it that my child will respond to stimulant medication?

There’s an 80% chance that your child will respond to stimulant therapy. If they do, there’s a 50% chance that both methylphenidates and amphetamines will work, and a 25% chance that they’ll respond to only methylphenidates or amphetamines.4 If a medication doesn’t prove effective, talk to your doctor about adjusting the dosage or trying a different class of stimulant. They may also recommend behavior therapy in conjunction with medication or taking a non-stimulant medication.

Which non-stimulant medications have been approved to treat ADHD in children?

Strattera (atomoxetine), Intuniv (guanfacine), and Kapvay (clonidine) are the three non-stimulant medications approved to treat children with ADHD.5 These medications are typically prescribed after stimulant medications fail to effectively treat symptoms, and sometimes they are prescribed conjointly with stimulants to treat symptoms. Though they have not been approved by the FDA to treat ADHD, sometimes antidepressants are prescribed “off-label” by doctors to treat ADHD symptoms. However, the effectiveness of these medications in treating the disorder among children or adults has not yet been established, and children and teens are at increased risk for suicidal thoughts when taking antidepressants.6

How old does my child have to be to receive ADHD medications?

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends trying behavior treatment for preschool and kindergarten-aged children first and then medication only as needed.  Most medications have only been FDA-approved from children ages 6 and older, but sometimes physicians will prescribe a very low dose of a methylphenidate medication for children younger than 6.7

How long does it take for ADHD medication to start working?

Stimulants are designed to begin working immediately, often within half an hour. Non-stimulants, however, can take several weeks before the drug will reach its full effect. It’s important to talk to your child’s doctor before you discontinue use, as your child can experience withdrawal symptoms.

Will taking medication alter my child’s personality?

If you notice a shift in your child’s personality, then it’s possible that they are on too high of a dose. When prescribed and administered properly, ADHD medication should help your child concentrate and be less hyperactive, but it will not change their personality. Young children may not notice anything different in their behavior, but teens may comment that people view them as less energetic or animated.8

Can my child become addicted to a stimulant?

Though stimulants are classified as habit-forming drugs, some research suggests that taking a stimulant to treat ADHD can actually reduce the risk of substance abuse in adolescence rather than increase it.9 However, children and teens are still at risk for abusing or selling their medication.10 Children and teens who do abuse the drug typically take it in higher doses or snort or inject the drug to achieve a quick and powerful high. To avoid these risks, keep the medication in a safe place, monitor the administration of the medication, and advise school personnel do the same.

What are common side effects of ADHD medications?

There are several common side effects of stimulant medications, which can include decreased appetite, weight loss, headaches, trouble sleeping, and stomachache. Height is not typically affected by stimulants, but the medication can slow or delay growth for the first two years of treatment.11 If your child is taking an antidepressant to treat symptoms, it’s important to monitor your child or teen for suicidal thoughts, a potential side effect of the medication.

Can a child still take ADHD medication if they have another medical or mental health issues?

It’s imperative that you talk to your child’s doctor about coexisting conditions and other medications they take. Children with Tourette’s syndrome may benefit from non-stimulant medication.12 Because stimulants can sometimes increase anxiety or agitation, it’s important to talk to your doctor about whether stimulants are the right starting point or not for a child with preexisting anxiety problems. Because stimulants are habit-forming, it’s also important to tell your doctor about any substance use problems with your child or teen.

Children with ADHD are also at higher risk for developing depression, so it’s important to talk to your child about their mood and mental health.13 Developing healthy coping habits at school and home can help reduce the risk now and in the future for additional mental health challenges.

Will my child always have to take medication for their ADHD?

Research has shown that with behavior therapy, some kids can work their way up to lesser doses of the medication.14 The necessity for treatment and the type of interventions may change as your child grows and changes. Some children may successfully discontinue medication therapy in their teens or adult years, whereas others may benefit from continued medical treatment.

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Last Updated: Feb 13, 2018