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What's the Right ADHD Medication for Your Child?

By Marisa Cohen
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Smitha Bhandari, MD

When Wendy's pediatrician first suggested she have her son tested for ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), the Florida mom was skeptical. He was 7, and he didn't bounce off the walls or misbehave like other children she knew with the disorder.

But his teachers were concerned about his inability to focus in school. And he was so forgetful that if she asked him to go brush his teeth, he would often lose track of what he was supposed to do by the time he got to the bathroom.

A neuropsychologist did diagnose Wendy's son with ADHD. (It's an umbrella term that covers all cases, even those that don't include hyperactivity). But when the doctor suggested medicine, she put her foot down. "I was adamantly opposed to putting my child on medications and resisted it for months," she says. "I didn't want him to think life's problems were solved with something out of a bottle."

Doctors hear this concern every day, says Edward Hallowell, MD, co-author of Delivered From Distraction. "Most parents don't want to give their children medication at first, but the research and the facts are very reassuring." When used properly, medication is safe and effective. "It can dramatically help children 80% of the time," he says.

After her doctor explained the risks and potential rewards to her, Wendy agreed to give medications a try -- and she says it has changed her son's life for the better.

ADHD Drug Options

There's no set formula for which medication works best for which child. It's a process of trial and error.

Mark Stein, PhD, an ADHD specialist at the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development at Seattle Children's Hospital, says, "Most of these medications have been around for decades, and we know a lot about them, but one thing we don't know is why some children react better to one formulation than another."

Most often, the doctor will start your child on a low dose of a stimulant, such as methylphenidate (Concerta, Metadate, or Ritalin). These drugs lessen the can't-sit-still and on-a-whim behaviors. And they improve a child's ability to concentrate and learn. While it may sound backward to stimulate a brain that already has trouble settling down, Hallowell explains that the drugs actually turn on the brain's "brakes," pulling everything into sharper focus.

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