3 Signs It’s Time for Your Child to Take ADHD Medication

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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Many children with ADHD take medication to help them stay focused and function well at school or at home. If your child struggles with attention and impulsivity – and these challenges are affecting their lives, it may be time  to get them started on the right treatment.

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According to the National Survey of Children’s Health, it’s estimated that nearly 10% of children in the United States have received a diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). ADHD can impact your child’s performance in school, their relationships with their peers, and their behavior at home, but treatments are available to help manage ADHD symptoms.

For younger children, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends behavior therapy as the first line of treatment for ADHD. However, for children ages six and up, a combination of both behavior therapy and medication are suggested. If your child has received an ADHD diagnosis but is not yet taking medication, the following issues might be a sign that it can be a beneficial next step.

1. Your child has difficulty with attention and focus despite behavioral interventions.

Persistent problems with attention are frequently seen in children with ADHD. This can manifest itself in several ways, including:

  • Difficulty following instructions
  • Trouble staying organized
  • Getting sidetracked or losing focus on tasks or activities
  • Losing or forgetting items needed for school or at home
  • Not listening well
  • Making careless mistakes or not paying attention to details

Children with ADHD who struggle with attention tend to demonstrate several of these symptoms over a period of 6 months or longer. Behavior therapy can help you and your child establish routines and habits that can lessen these challenges; for example, your therapist might recommend backpack checks each morning to make sure your child brings their homework to school, or you might try breaking down large tasks into smaller, more doable chunks. However, at some point, medication might be needed if these strategies aren’t enough.

2. Your child seems to be more active or impulsive than typical for their age.

Hyperactivity and impulsivity can also be symptoms of ADHD in children. You may notice your child doing things, such as:

  • Fidgeting
  • Not staying seated when supposed to
  • Talking out of turn or interrupting others
  • Not waiting for his or her turn
  • Blurting out answers
  • Running or climbing inappropriately
  • Seeming to be always “on the go”

Behavior therapy can help with these symptoms as well, but by definition, impulsivity and hyperactivity can be hard to control. When partnered with behavioral interventions and mindfulness techniques, medication can improve these symptoms significantly.

3. Your child’s inattention or hyperactivity-impulsivity is affecting their daily life.

By their very nature, most kids are active. Sometimes it can be hard to distinguish ADHD from typical childhood behavior. So, for children to be given a diagnosis of ADHD, they also need to demonstrate that these symptoms are interfering with their ability to function at school, at home, at extracurricular activities, or in social situations. Their symptoms may be at a level that’s disruptive or inappropriate for a child of that age. These issues can hold your child back from academic, social, and emotional growth. While behavioral interventions are crucial, medication is often an essential tool to help your child overcome ADHD’s obstacles.

Understanding what ADHD medication can do for children

Several medications are available to help children treat their ADHD symptoms and manage the behaviors causing problems. They work by targeting chemicals in the brain that affect attention and concentration.

Stimulant medications, such as methylphenidate (Ritalin) and amphetamine/dextroamphetamine (Adderall), are the most common. Approximately 70 to 80% of children who take stimulants for ADHD experience a reduction in their symptoms. These medications work quickly, often within an hour, and depending on the formulation, will last from 3 to 12 hours. Side effects such as decreased appetite, headaches, and trouble sleeping can occur, but they tend to improve with time.

Nonstimulant medications, such as clonidine (Kapvay), atomoxetine (Strattera), and viloxazine (Qelbree) may also be prescribed. These ADHD treatments take several days to a few weeks to achieve full effect, and they don’t wear off as quickly.

There’s no way of predicting which ADHD medication will work best for your child, so it can take some fine tuning in the beginning. Let your doctor know how your child is responding to medication, or if they are experiencing unpleasant side effects. Your doctor may need to adjust the dosage or type of medication your child is taking to find the right balance.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2022 Apr 13
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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  3. Treatment of ADHD. (2021). https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/adhd/treatment.html
  4. Wolraich, M. L., et al. (2019). Clinical practice guideline for the diagnosis, evaluation, and treatment of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder in children and adolescents. https://publications.aap.org/pediatrics/article/144/4/e20192528/81590/Clinical-Practice-Guideline-for-the-Diagnosis