Dear Dr. Vail,
I have been told my child should be evaluated for Attention Deficit Disorder or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and then put on medication. I do not believe there is anything really wrong with my child and I am worried that if I do not give my child the recommended medication she will have a harder time in school and in life. What should I do?
Dear Concerned Parent,
First let me say that you are not alone. I am asked this question regularly from parents who are told by teachers, doctors, coaches and extended family members their children need help in the form of a prescription pill. Unfortunately, many children today are misdiagnosed as having ADD or ADHD and then medicated.
There are many theories on the causes of ADD and ADHD, I will address three of these, sleep deprivation, diet and the wrong learning environment for the child. There are several different routes that I encourage parents to take first before they resort to prescription medication to alleviate ADD and ADHD symptoms in their children.
Get a good night's sleep
First, take a good look at your child's sleep schedule. Many children (and adults) who look as if they have ADD or ADHD are actually sleep deprived. In fact, the symptoms of ADD and ADHD look almost identical to those of chronic sleep deprivation.
I have found most parents are unaware of how much sleep their children truly need to function at their optimum levels, and then are shocked when they realize how little sleep their children are getting compared to how much they truly need.
Most adults have had the experience of being so tired that they cannot shut down and fall asleep. Children have the same experience.
However, many children (and many adults) have not learned how to self soothe in order to fall asleep when they are tired. I am consistently amazed by how many children have late bed times, get less than eight hours of sleeps a night, who fall asleep to the TV every night or who play video games until the wee hours of the morning (even on school nights).
It is our job as parents and caretakers to help the children in our care learn how to fall asleep and stay asleep. I recommend children not have TVs in their rooms and screen time be greatly decreased and not happen at night. The light from the monitors often increases brain wave activity and can make it harder for people to fall asleep and stay asleep.
To determine how much sleep your child should be getting for their age, and some suggestions for how to teach your children to sleep, I highly recommend the book "Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child" by Marc Weissbluth.
You are what you eat
Second, carefully evaluate your child's diet. Most people know that a well balanced diet is important for a healthy body. However, many people still do not consume enough fruit, vegetables, or protein.
Instead their diets are made up mostly of carbohydrates. Unfortunately, many children are heading to school in the mornings without having eaten anything for breakfast, or worse, they start their day having eaten sugary cereal and drinking an artificially colored and sweetened drink.
There are studies that show ADD and ADHD symptoms often decrease when the amount of protein that people eat increases. There is some controversy surrounding the effects of sugar, artificial colorings and pesticides in conventionally grown foods.
However, many people believe when they eliminate artificial colorings and additives and decrease the amount of sugar their children consume their children's behavior radically changes for the better.
A change of learning environment
Third, evaluate your child's learning style. Today's classroom sizes are enormous and teachers are pressured to teach to the tests the government requires. As a result, many children are bored and are not fitting into the dominant education system.
As a result, these children act out then get diagnosed with learning disorders or ADD/ADHD, and then they get medicated. The teachers are not to blame, the current system is failing and students are often are taking the weight of the collapsing system.
We label them, then we medicate them and the big drug companies win. In fact they are banking on your child being prescribed their medication. For some children, I recommend looking at ADHD as Attention Directed at a Higher Dimension and evaluate whether the system is failing your child or if a different learning environment would better serve your child.
If so, consider an alternative school, a charter school or a home schooling environment. Many children previously thought to suffer from ADD/ADHD thrive with out medication when their academic environment changed.
So before you resort to prescription medications in an attempt to help your child, try evaluating his or her sleep schedule, their diet and their learning environment and where possible make some of these changes first. Hopefully, you will be amazed at the results and your children will have healthier and happier lives with out the need for prescription medication.
- Amy Vail, M.A.,Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist with a private practice Squaw Valley, and a bilingual psychologist at the Tahoe Forest Hospital's Gene Upshaw Memorial Cancer Center. She works to help people find healthier and more satisfying ways to live their lives. To submit a question for Dr. Vail, please fax it to 530-583-1742 or email Drvail@exwire.com.