ADHD Drugs: How to Handle Side Effects in Kids

Medically Reviewed by Smitha Bhandari, MD on July 17, 2023
3 min read

The right medicine can help kids with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) focus so they can finish homework and other tasks. It also can help them fidget less and have better social skills.

But ADHD drugs also have side effects that can be hard on kids -- and their parents.

It can take some trial and error to find the right drug and the right dose for your child. And even when you find the right combination, there may still be some side effects.

Keep track of how the medication affects your child so you can tell the doctor. If they’re causing serious problems, a new medication or different dose may be tried.

These tips can help you both deal with some of the most common side effects.

Children need a healthy, balanced diet to grow and develop the way they should. When ADHD drugs make them less hungry, they may not get enough calories, vitamins, and other nutrients. Some things you can try:

  • Give them a healthy breakfast and dinner. When children aren’t hungry at lunch, they may skip it, or they may try a light snack (crackers, cheese stick, fruit).That makes morning and evening meals extra important.
  • Try a shorter-acting drug. Long-acting drugs, sometimes called extended release, can last all day. Shorter-acting drugs can wear off in 3 to 4 hours -- just in time for meals.
  • Take a mini-break from medication. Ask your doctor if your child can skip medication for short periods of time, like on weekends, school holidays and breaks or before special-occasion meals.
  • If possible, give medication with breakfast, not before.
  • Allow a bedtime snack that makes up for the skipped lunch or after school snack.

ADHD drugs can keep kids up at night. That can happen if they took the last dose of the day too close to bedtime. Or it could be that a long-acting drug hasn’t worn off by bedtime. But you might wait a few weeks before asking your child’s doctor if you should make any changes to the medication. In the interim, make sure that your child isn't taking the afternoon dose too close to bedtime, and make sure your child has some activity after school to get rid of all the wiggles and energy.  Sleep problems caused by ADHD medicine tend to get better with time.

And keep in mind that overstimulation -- not medicine -- may be behind your child’s sleep problems. It can help to keep them off video games and their phone or computer before bedtime. You might try these other tips, too:

  • Make the room sleep-friendly. Light tells your body it’s time to be up, so a dark room is important. Turn on a fan if it’s warm, or grab an extra blanket if it’s cold.
  • Commit to a relaxing bedtime routine. A nightly bath, 20 minutes of reading, or writing in a journal can help kids unwind and fall asleep.
  • No animals on the bed. Pets who sleep on the bed may stretch, change positions, or move around and wake your child up.
  • Countdown to sleep. Tell your child to try this mind-calming exercise: Start at 100 and count back to 1.

Some other possible effects include:

Nausea and headaches: ADHD drugs can make your child feel like they need to throw up. This side effect usually goes away after a few weeks. In the meantime, your child might feel better if they take their medicine with food.

Delayed growth: Some research shows that some children may grow more slowly than they should during their first year on ADHD medicine. But they seem to catch up during years 2 and 3. Kids who take breaks from ADHD drugs, like on weekends and during summer vacation, may not have this issue.

Sudden mood changes: Some children with ADHD get cranky when their drugs wear off. This is sometimes known as the rebound effect. It may mean the dose is too high or the medicine isn’t right for your child. This may also be related to not having a way to expend their energy. Exercise will help with mood regulation.