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Talking to Your Children About ADHD Medication

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on May 26, 2022

Your child has been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). And now, your doctor says daily medication is needed. It might be the first regular, ongoing medication your child has ever had to take. How should you talk about taking ADHD medication with your child?

Explain What ADHD Is and Why Medication Is Needed

You need to discuss ADHD medication in a way that’s appropriate for your child’s age and developmental level.

  • For a young child, choose simple language. Think about using phrases your child already uses to describe symptoms, such as being unable to sit still or stay focused (“I have the wiggles” or “I just can’t listen”). Explain that medicine can help make these symptoms better and easier for them to control.
  • Older or more science-minded kids may respond to detailed explanations of ADHD and how medication improves the brain’s responses. You could show your child a book or diagram as you explain the process. Or you might have your doctor help you with this conversation at your next appointment.

Be Honest With Your Child

Some parents may tell children (especially if they are very young) that the pill they’re taking is a vitamin or (even worse) candy. Or they don’t tell their children about their ADHD drug at all, but instead slip it in food or drinks.

It’s better to speak honestly with children about both their diagnosis and treatment. Chances are, they will find out the truth at some point. Also, if a child knows about their condition, they can learn to recognize and maybe even control their symptoms and take part in their own self-care.

Discuss How They’ll Take the Medication

Describe how, when, and where your child will take the ADHD medication, so they know what to expect.

ADHD drugs vary. Some come in pills, some are available as liquid, and others are patches. Some last longer in your child’s body than others.

Your child may need to take a dose in the morning and then another one in the afternoon. This means they might have to take it at school. If that’s the case, the school nurse would give it to them. But if a long-acting drug is used, that may not be necessary.

For an older child, you should warn them that this medication should never be shared with anybody else, even one of their friends.

Talk to Your Child About Side Effects

Tell your child that the drug may cause some unfamiliar feelings. But be brief. You don’t want to give a long and possibly scary list of potential symptoms, especially if your child is suggestible.

Instead, ask them to tell you if they notice any odd or unexpected feelings or symptoms after they start the drug.

If they do mention some changes, tell them that these should get better within a few days to a few weeks. And not, you will talk about them with your doctor to see if the medication needs to be changed or tweaked.

Help Them Overcome Their Fears

Your child may have several common fears about ADHD, which you can help calm. These include:

  • They’re sick or something’s wrong with them. After all, you’re telling them to take medicine. Before, they’ve only done that when they’ve been sick. You can help relieve this fear by comparing ADHD to another treatable condition. One example is eyes that don’t see perfectly, causing someone to wear glasses. You can point out that just as eyeglasses help Dad’s eyes focus better, ADHD meds can help their brain work better.
  • They’re “different.” Most kids don’t like feeling different, especially as they enter the tween and teen years. But 8%-12% of school-age children in the U.S. have ADHD. And most of them take medication for it. If your child needs to take ADHD meds at school or at a friend’s sleepover, they likely will not be the only one.
  • They won’t succeed in school or life. Your child also may use words like “stupid” or other negative terms to describe themselves. You should reject that right away. You can help ease any worries they may have about their future by pointing to successful people your child may be familiar with who have ADHD, such as singer Justin Bieber or gymnast Simone Biles.
  • The drug may harm or control their brains. Tell them you are there to protect them and wouldn’t put them in danger. Neither would their doctor.

Don’t Give ADHD Drugs Magical Powers

When discussing ADHD treatments, be careful not to give your child the idea that the medicine will work miracles and magically wipe away any frustrating symptoms.

Set realistic expectations. Explain that ADHD medication is a tool that can help lessen their symptoms. But your child likely will still have to learn ways to manage their behavior.

Keep Communicating

Talking about ADHD medication with your child should not be a one-and-done kind of thing. It’s part of an ongoing conversation.

Ask your child at least once a week about how the medication is working, which symptoms they may still have, and any side effects.

Depending on your child’s age, they may want to help keep track of when they had a good or bad day – through a chart, calendar, or log. They can use words or even emojis (smiling or sad faces, for instance). You can then use this information when you talk with your child to help better understand how their ADHD medication is affecting them.
Always leave the door open to questions and concerns whenever they may pop up.

Respond to Reasons for Refusal

Some children may not want to take their ADHD medication. Children of any age can be stubborn. And questioning rules is common for tweens and especially teenagers. Some children may even start “cheeking” their medication. That’s when they pretend to take it but instead hide it in their cheeks, then throw it away.

If your child starts refusing medication, try to find out what’s behind it. It could be a new or scary side effect. Maybe they are being teased. Or something else could be bothering them.

Your child might insist they don’t need medication. Talk about your child’s current symptoms. If they’re still having trouble that could be related to ADHD – such as difficulty keeping up with their schoolwork – point this out. This could help them understand that they still need medication.

You might suggest a rewards system to get your child to keep taking their medication. That could involve stickers (for younger kids) or extra tablet or TV time. You might focus on how your younger kid takes their medication (“Would you like it with juice or water this morning?”) to sidestep the issue of whether to take it. This gives kids some choice, and that can help make them more agreeable.

If your child is a teen and is determined to try life without ADHD medication, you may suggest a compromise: your child gets off medication but agrees to return to it if symptoms come back. (Check with your doctor before trying this.)

By communicating honestly and often with your child about their ADHD medications, you can help improve the chances that their experience will be a successful one – that they can get the most benefit possible from their treatment.

Show Sources

SOURCES:

Adult Attention Deficit Disorder Center of Maryland: “Famous People with ADHD.”

American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry and the American Psychiatric Association: “Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD): Parents’ Medication Guide,” “ADHD Parents Medication Guide.”

Dr. Brendan Belsham, child psychiatrist: “When your teenager refuses treatment for ADD.”

CDC: “Data and Statistics About ADHD.”

Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD): “How to Talk with Your Child About Starting ADHD Meds,” “Q&A: Medication Isn’t an Option for My Child.”

Current Psychiatry: “Strategies for improving ADHD medication adherence.”

Clinical Partners: “5 tips for helping your child take ADHD medication successfully.”

Intermountain Primary Children’s Hospital: “ADHD: Talking with your child.”

Mayo Clinic: “Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in children.”

Net Doctor: “How to get your child to take their medicine.”

Understood: “6 things your tween or teen needs to understand about ADHD medication.”

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