When my oldest son Alvaro, now 17, was just 6, he was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder Inattentive Type from a psychiatrist who spent approximately 30 minutes with me, while my son played on the floor of his office. That quick-to-assume diagnosis felt all kinds of wrong, and when the doctor offered to prescribe Ritalin, I stood up, told the doctor "no thank you," took my son, and walked out the door.
TakePart recently published an article debating the value of prescription drug-treatment for ADHD over good old-fashioned play time. After reading through the research and body of evidence against the over-diagnosing and heavy-handed prescribing of psychostimulant medications, it felt like validation after years of standing my ground against the pressure to medicate my child.
I want to make it clear that I am not against the use of medication, nor do I regularly disregard the advice of my children's doctors — I vaccinated my sons according to schedule, and have a ready supply of Nyquil and Ibuprofen in my medicine cabinet. I believe medication can be an incredible tool to manage symptoms and help people function on a day-to-day basis.
Parenting a child with ADHD, or any other type of mental-health diagnosis, can be challenging. Especially when you add in the factor that mental health issues are still somewhat taboo in Latin American cultures, and Latino youth are diagnosed with ADHD at about half the rate that white children are diagnosed, according to data from the CDC.
I know that there are plenty of well-documented cases of children flourishing on the right dose of medication to combat the hyperactivity, impulsiveness, and inattentiveness so common with those diagnosed with ADHD. I know that our results are also unique to us, and that some children with ADHD absolutely need medication to manage their symptoms. Parenting a child with ADHD, or any other type of mental-health diagnosis, can be challenging. Especially when you add in the factor that mental health issues are still somewhat taboo in Latin American cultures, and Latino youth are diagnosed with ADHD at about half the rate that white and black children are diagnosed, according to data from the CDC.
However, I did not believe that medication was the right choice for my son. Here's why.
1. I trusted my gut.
I may have been a young mother at the time, but I knew my son, and knew that someone could not have a genuine understanding of his inner-workings with a half-hour visit that involved no direct communication with him. In many ways, I'm grateful that doctor did such a poor evaluation, because it encouraged me to stand my ground and do more research. As a parent, I've learned we are the best advocate for our children; we spend our days with them, raise them, and understand things about them of which doctors may not be aware.
This bothered me. My son is not a lab rat, and I didn't feel safe giving him medication that could potentially harm his developing brain because it was clinically tested on only adults. Doctors are quick to point out that ADHD medications have been successfully prescribed since the 1950s, and while I agree they can be effective for some, I also know that there is limited data to the long-term effects of these medications over a patient's lifetime.
3. I had a strong support network.
I was lucky to have a friend pursuing a degree in child psychology during the time my son was diagnosed with ADHD. Her insight and medical knowledge led me to further research treatment options and mental health professionals that could offer help for my son without pressuring me to medicate him. My husband, extended family, friends, and even my son's teachers were all supportive of him, his needs, and the journey we were on to get him the very best help possible. Without that support, I don't know that I would have made the same decisions.
4. I wanted to utilize every possible alternative treatment first.
My family is incredibly lucky to have health insurance that covers behavioral health treatments, and I know that many do not have this option. We were able to get my son into occupational therapy, which helped him with impulse control, as well as regular sessions with a child psychologist who utilized play therapy to further develop his prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain believed to be undersized in those with ADHD. We also increased my son's physical activity. We limited video games and increased outside playtime. Finally, his school helped by encouraging movement and frequent breaks to keep him engaged and learning.
5. There were results without medication.
The proof was that my son improved. Within six months, there was progress with his behavior and attention — all achieved through steps we took that didn't involve jumping straight to medication. Over the course of two years, he completely transformed. Gone were the classroom outbursts, inattentiveness and forgetfulness, and in their place was a child who grasped ideas quickly, turned in completed homework and respected his classmates and teachers.
I know that our results are unique to us, and that some children with ADHD absolutely need medication to manage their symptoms. Parenting a child with ADHD, or any other type of mental-health diagnosis, can be challenging. I encourage families to examine all of their options and do what they believe is right for the health and wellbeing of their child.