ADHD In Children: Why Medication Isn’t The Only Treatment Option

Updated January 25, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

As a parent, it can feel overwhelming when your child is diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Deciding on the right treatment method for your child’s ADHD symptoms may seem particularly daunting if medication is not an option. While medication is considered a first-line treatment for ADHD, some children are too young for it, and others may experience adverse reactions to certain side effects. For parents who do not pursue pharmacological solutions, there are many proven treatment options available that can help children manage their ADHD symptoms, work through their emotions, and live a happy, healthy life. Below, we’re going to discuss common treatment options that can help address ADHD symptoms in children. 

You Deserve Support As You Parent A Child With ADHD

ADHD Symptoms In Children

Approximately six million people in the US aged 3-17 have been diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder that typically arises during childhood and can lead to serious behavioral challenges. Children with ADHD often display symptoms related to impulsivity, hyperactivity, and trouble focusing, which can lead to difficulty with school, relationships, and family life. 

Some of the symptoms that a child with ADHD may experience include:

  • Making careless mistakes 

  • Trouble focusing on tasks

  • Difficulty listening

  • Struggling to complete tasks

  • Trouble staying organized

  • Misplacing items or forgetting information

  • Distractibility

  • Difficulty sitting still

  • Talking and interrupting excessively 

  • Struggling to wait their turn

The exact symptoms that a child experiences will typically vary based on what type of ADHD they live with. There are three different types, including predominantly inattentive presentation, predominantly hyperactive-impulsive presentation, and combined presentation. 

Standard Treatment For ADHD

Although it is a complex disorder, ADHD is treatable. First-line treatment for ADHD generally consists of medication and therapy, though the right treatment for your child can vary based on the symptoms they are experiencing. 


While it is not the only option, medication is often a primary form of treatment for children with ADHD. Both stimulant (e.g., amphetamine and methylphenidate) and non-stimulant (e.g., atomoxetine) medications can . These medications can help children focus, practice self-control, and manage their emotions.

As with most types of medication, there are pros and cons to using ADHD medication. If you have a child with ADHD and you’re considering obtaining a prescription, talking with your child’s doctor or psychiatrist can give you a better idea of the benefits of medication and the potential side effects. While pharmacological solutions are considered efficacious, most experts believe that medication alone is not sufficient for helping manage all of the symptoms of ADHD. 

Behavior Therapy

For young children, it is generally recommended that parents control a child’s intervention, since it is often hard for children under the age of 12 to modify behavior on their own. Considered particularly useful when medication is not part of a treatment plan, behavior therapy is a widely utilized modality that can help your child learn to focus, stay organized, and adopt routines. Common behavior therapy methods include positive reinforcement for productive behavior and removal of positive reinforcement for unwanted behavior. 

Additionally, the following strategies can help a child control their behavior:

  • Sticking to a daily schedule for things like sleep times and meals

  • Limiting distractions, such as listening to music while doing homework

  • Keeping things organized so the child isn’t as likely to lose or misplace an item

  • Establishing small, reachable goals to help the child make progress over time

  • Using charts and lists to help the child stay on track

  • Reducing the number of choices the child can do

  • Staying in contact with the teacher and school administration if necessary


You Deserve Support As You Parent A Child With ADHD

Some children, particularly adolescents, may also benefit from options like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which can help them make the connection between their thoughts and emotions. A therapist may teach the child how to challenge negative beliefs and replace distorted thought processes. Other modalities, like play therapy, can help young children learn how to recognize and control their feelings in an environment that nurtures their creativity, which can also have a positive impact on behavior. 

There are also other mental challenges that children with ADHD may face as a result of the disorder. For example, they may experience symptoms of anxiety from situations in the classroom. As they age, young people with ADHD may develop comorbid mental health disorders, which can also be managed through psychotherapy. 

At-Home Strategies For Managing ADHD

In addition to traditional treatment for ADHD, there are several changes you can make in everyday life that are proven effective in reducing symptoms. The following techniques can supplement treatments like medication and therapy or be part of an alternative plan when medication is not an option. 

Change In Diet

It is believed that making healthy changes in diet can help children with ADHD manage their symptoms. For example, there have been several studies linking the amount of sugar that a child with ADHD consumes with an increase in behavior such as restlessness and inattention.

If you believe that this could be true for your child, you can test the theory at home by reducing their sugar intake and tracking any behavioral changes you notice. If you find that their behavior is improving with reduced sugar, then this is a diet that you can consider implementing regularly. This does not mean that a child cannot have an occasional treat, but that it may be helpful for them to avoid higher levels of sugar regularly.

There is also thought to be a link between certain preservatives and food colorings and hyperactive behavior in some children with ADHD. Experts note that these additives do not cause ADHD, but that they may exacerbate the symptoms. Consider maintaining a diet that is rich in foods such as vegetables, fruits, nuts, and healthy fats, while avoiding processed foods and limiting sugar.

Physical Activity And Organized Sports

Exercising can be beneficial in children with ADHD, often helping them to channel excess energy and improving their cognitive abilities. Many experts recommend that children with ADHD participate in sports that are focused on the individual, including things like tennis, martial arts, swimming, and track or cross-country. This allows one-on-one interaction with a coach, which can be helpful for children who have difficulty focusing. 

However, there are many benefits to a team sport like basketball, hockey, or soccer as well. These sports allow players to be consistently moving, which can be helpful for a child with high energy levels. And because there is little idle time during play, it helps the child to stay focused and not be as easily distracted.

Spending Time Outside

The nonprofit organization  suggests that children with ADHD spend time outside consistently, specifically in environments that help hold their interest. There are a number of common mental and physical benefits of spending time outside that can be particularly useful for children with ADHD:

  • Memory improvement

  • Stress reduction

  • Improved immune function

  • Increase in eyesight improvement

  • Decreased risk of anxiety and depression

  • Increased intake of natural Vitamin D

Therapy For Parents

If your child has ADHD, you may find it useful to participate in therapy yourself. Therapy can provide you with useful tools and strategies for addressing your child’s symptoms. Also, therapy can be a safe space for you to navigate any mental health-related challenges you’re facing on your own.

Loving and caring for a child with ADHD may leave you with increased stress levels, which can lead to common mental health disorders like anxiety and depression. It is natural for a parent to be concerned about their child and the impact that their mental health diagnosis will have on their life. If this is the case for you, talking with a therapist can help you cope. However, many parents are too busy to take the time to drive to an appointment during the day. 

Studies show that online therapy can be an accessible and effective way for parents to help their children manage symptoms of ADHD. In a study of 47 families with children who were at risk of having ADHD, researchers found that the children’s ADHD symptoms were significantly improved after online therapy for the parents, including reduced impulsive behavior and increased self-control. The study also noted that participants had a greater understanding of treatment options for ADHD and were better able to engage with the therapeutic modality used for their children. 

If you would like support and advice as you parent a child with ADHD or address other mental health-related concerns, online therapy can help. With an online therapy platform like BetterHelp, you can participate in therapy from almost anywhere, making it accessible for busy parents. You can also contact your therapist outside of sessions; if you have a question about parenting or a specific ADHD symptom, you can message your therapist anytime, and they will respond when they’re able. 


While there is no cure at this time for ADHD, there are many treatments and strategies that can address a child’s symptoms and improve their mental health. If you’re unsure of what options are best for your child, consider making an appointment with their doctor or a therapist to discuss the possibilities. And if you’d like further support yourself, consider matching with a licensed therapist online. With the right help, you and your child can navigate the path to improved emotional well-being.

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