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

Medically reviewed by Laura Angers Maddox, NCC, LPC
Updated April 5, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

As a parent, it can seem overwhelming when your child is diagnosed with a mental disorder like attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). After you’ve had ADHD diagnosed, 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 often considered a first-line treatment for ADHD, some children can be too young for it, and others may experience adverse reactions to certain side effects. For parents who do not pursue pharmacological solutions, there can be many proven treatment options to help children manage their ADHD symptoms, work through their emotions, and live happy, healthy lives. 

Regardless of whether ADHD is treated with medication, complementary health approaches like behavior therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy, as well as dietary changes, physical activity, and spending time outside, can be helpful. As a parent of a child with ADHD, you may also benefit from the professional guidance and support provided by therapy, whether you choose to attend sessions in person or online.

This article explores symptoms that may lead a medical professional to diagnose ADHD in a child, standard treatments for children with ADHD, and healthy behaviors and approaches that may improve a child’s school performance. 

You deserve support as you parent a child with ADHD

Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) symptoms in children

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately six million people in the US aged 3-17 have been diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). 

ADHD is typically defined as a neurodevelopmental disorder that usually 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 may include the following:

  • Careless mistakes on schoolwork and other activities

  • Trouble focusing on tasks

  • Difficulty listening

  • Struggling to complete tasks

  • Trouble staying organized

  • Misplacing items or forgetting information

  • Distractibility and difficulty sustaining attention

  • Difficulty sitting still

  • Talking and interrupting excessively 

  • Struggling to wait his or her turn

  • Low self-esteem

  • Staying in constant motion (e.g., spinning, hopping, fidgeting)

The exact symptoms that a child experiences can vary based on what type of ADHD they live with. There can be three different types, including predominantly inattentive presentation (previously referred to as ADD), predominantly hyperactive-impulsive presentation, and combined presentation. 

Not all children who have trouble paying attention are experiencing ADHD. Children with ADHD tend to exhibit a range of related symptoms that allow a mental health professional to diagnose the condition. 

How ADHD is diagnosed

According to the American Psychiatric Association, “ADHD is considered a chronic and debilitating disorder and is known to impact the individual in many aspects of their life including academic and professional achievements, interpersonal relationships, and daily functioning.”

The diagnosis process often begins with a child psychologist. This professional will examine the child’s symptoms and compare them to the criteria outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder (DMS-V). The professional will also consider social and environmental factors that may be contributing to the child’s behavior. 

Some diagnoses will involve speaking with the child’s teachers about impulsive behaviors and inattentive symptoms presented in the classroom environment. They may also consider commonly-related mental health conditions like oppositional defiant disorder and related learning disabilities like autism spectrum disorder in order to rule them out and confirm the ADHD diagnosis.

Despite common misconceptions, an ADHD diagnosis is not a sign of poor parenting. It can also have real impacts on a child’s daily functioning that extend beyond attention span – for example, poor self-esteem is a common symptom that an individual diagnosed with ADHD may experience throughout their youth and into their adult life. 

Standard treatment for a child’s behavior after ADHD diagnosis

There is no way to cure ADHD. Although it can be a complex disorder, ADHD is often 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. 

Medication

While it may not be the only option, medication is often a primary form of treatment for children with ADHD. Talking with your child’s doctor or a child psychiatrist can give you a better idea of the benefits and potential side effects of medication. Your child should never start or stop any form of medication unless under the guidance of a licensed medical professional.

Behavior therapy

For young children, it is generally recommended that parents manage 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 can be a widely utilized modality to help your child learn to focus, stay organized, and adopt routines. 

Common behavior therapy methods usually include positive reinforcement for productive behavior and removal of positive reinforcement for unwanted behavior. 

The following strategies can also help a child manage 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 has to pick from

  • Staying in contact with the teacher and school administration 

Psychotherapy

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. 

Children with ADHD may face various challenges resulting from the disorder. As they age, young people with ADHD may develop comorbid mental health disorders, which can also be managed through psychotherapy. For example, they may experience symptoms of anxiety from situations in the classroom. 

At-home strategies for managing ADHD and similar mental disorders

In addition to traditional treatment for ADHD, there may be several changes you can make in everyday life that may be 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. 

Dietary changes

It is believed by some that making healthy dietary changes can help children with ADHD manage their symptoms. In some cases, the amount of sugar that a child with ADHD consumes may be associated with an increase in behavior, such as restlessness and inattention, although this may not be true for all children with ADHD.

If you believe this could be the case 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 improves with reduced sugar, then this is a diet you might 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 eating too much sugar regularly.

There is also thought to be a possible link between certain preservatives and food colorings and hyperactive behavior in some children with ADHD. Consider maintaining a diet that is rich in foods such as vegetables, fruits, nuts, and healthy fats, while avoiding or limiting processed foods and sugar.

Physical activity and organized sports

Exercising can be beneficial in children with ADHD, often helping them channel excess energy and improve 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 usually allows one-on-one interaction with a coach, which can be helpful for children who have difficulty focusing. 

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

Spending time outside

You deserve support as you parent a child with ADHD

It may be beneficial for children with ADHD to spend time outside consistently, specifically in environments that can hold their interest. There can be several common mental and physical benefits of spending time outside that may be particularly useful for children with ADHD, such as those listed below:

  • 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. In addition, therapy can be a safe space for you to navigate any mental health-related challenges you may be 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 can be 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. 

Parents may wish to learn about additional support options through sources like the National Resource Center on ADHD

Benefits of online therapy

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, which can make mental healthcare available 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 generally respond when they’re able. 

Studies show that online therapy can be a convenient 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, in general, 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 typically had a greater understanding of treatment options for ADHD and were better able to engage with the therapeutic modality used for their children. 

Takeaway

While there may be no cure for ADHD at this time, there can be many treatments and strategies to address a child’s symptoms and improve their mental health. For example, cognitive behavioral therapy, behavior therapy, spending time outdoors, getting regular physical activity, and implementing dietary changes can be helpful for many children with ADHD. If you’re unsure of what options may be best for your child, consider making an appointment with their doctor or a therapist to discuss the possibilities. 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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