How to Treat ADHD in Teens

Five Parts:Recognizing ADHDTreating ADHDDeveloping Helpful Parenting SkillsProviding Effective DisciplineOvercoming Challenges in School

Raising any teenager is hard but raising a teenage with Attention Deficit/Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) has even more challenges. Teenagers with ADHD have a hard time learning and following instructions. Tasks that may be simple for their peers can be a real struggle. It is important to remember that a teenager with ADHD is not trying to make life harder. Indeed, for him or her, the substantial challenges that their peers contend with may already be much more difficult. With some compassion and knowledge, however, you can help a teen deal with the challenges of ADHD. Your efforts can help him or her overcome life's challenges and succeed in the face of adversity.

Part 1
Recognizing ADHD

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    Look for difficulty paying attention. There are two components to ADHD. For children under the age of 17, at least six of these must be present for an ADHD diagnosis. The first set of symptoms deal with an inability to pay attention or focus. A child with an attention disorder will exhibit the following symptoms:[1]
    • makes careless mistakes, is inattentive to detail
    • has trouble paying attention (tasks, playing)
    • doesn’t seem to be paying attention when someone is talking to him or her
    • doesn’t follow through (homework, chores, jobs); easily sidetracked
    • is organizationally challenged
    • avoids tasks requiring sustained focus (like schoolwork)
    • can’t keep track of or often loses keys, glasses, papers, tools, etc.
    • is easily distracted
    • is forgetful
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    Watch for hyperactivity. The other category of symptoms related to ADHD suggests hyperactivity or a lack of impulse control. People with ADHD must display six or more of the following:[2]
    • fidgety, squirmy; taps hands or feet
    • runs/climbs inappropriately or feels restless
    • struggles to play quietly/do quiet activities
    • “on the go” as if “driven by a motor”
    • excessive talking
    • blurts out answers before questions are asked
    • struggles to wait for his or her turn
    • interrupts others, inserts self into others’ discussions/games
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    Learn the causes of ADHD. The brains of persons with ADHD are slightly different than others. Specifically, two structures tend to be smaller: the basal ganglia and the prefrontal cortex.[3]
    • The basal ganglia regulates the movement of muscles. It signals which should be working and which should be at rest during given activities.[4]
    • If a child is sitting at his desk in the classroom, the basal ganglia should send a message telling the feet to rest. In the case of ADHD, the feet may not get the message. They often remain in motion when a child with ADHD is seated. A deficiency of the basal ganglia often can also cause fidgety hand movements or pencil tapping.
    • The prefrontal cortex is the brain’s hub for conducting higher-order tasks.[5] It is where memory and learning and attention regulation come together to help us function intellectually.[6][7]
    • The prefrontal cortex influences the level of the neurotransmitter dopamine.[8] Dopamine is tied to the ability to focus and tends to be at lower levels in persons with ADHD.[9][10]
    • Serotonin is another neurotransmitter found in the prefrontal cortex.[11] It impacts mood, sleep, and appetite. Eating chocolate, for instance, spikes serotonin causing a temporary feeling of well-being. When serotonin drops low, however, depression and anxiety result.[12]
    • A smaller prefrontal cortex with lower dopamine and serotonin means greater struggles to focus.[13] As a result, persons with ADHD struggle to focus on a single thing at a time, and are more easily distracted.[14]
    • The prefrontal cortex is still in development through late adolescence. This can make the perceived deficiencies for adolescents with ADHD even more severe.[15]
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    Look out for other common problems. ADHD often occurs alongside other mental-health problems.
    • Specifically, one out of every five with ADHD is diagnosed with another serious disorder, such as depression and bipolar disorder are common partners.
    • One third of children with ADHD also have a behavioral disorder, such as conduct disorder or oppositional defiance disorder.[16]
    • ADHD also tends to pair up with learning disabilities and anxiety.[17]
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    Get a diagnosis. If your teen displays many of these traits, you should see a doctor to get a professional opinion. Knowing whether ADHD might be the cause of the challenges your teen faces will make it easier to move forward.

Part 2
Treating ADHD

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    Recognize the challenges of ADHD. It is important to keep in mind that ADHD is a serious condition. It is not simply a matter of your teen not trying hard enough or being "stupid." Strive to understand these challenges and react to them with compassion.[18]
    • People with ADHD face serious obstacles as they struggle to reach their life goals. They often feel misunderstood. It is common for teens with ADHD to believe that others think they are stupid.
    • Other people, including relatives may have a hard time understanding what you and your teen are going through.
    • Prepare yourself for time and expense invested in therapy, trips to medication managers, and the pharmacy. There is often also a huge amount of time spent dealing with school issues.
    • Children with impulsivity issues often rack up more trips to the emergency room or more suspensions from school.
    • Much of this occurs during weekdays. As such, the time expended may mean lost wages or the need to take a job with decreased responsibilities or shorter hours.
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    Choose a medication. For many people with ADHD, medication is an important tool for coping. There are two basic categories of ADHD medication: stimulants (such as methylphenidate and amphetamine) and non-stimulants (such as guanfacine and atomoxetine).[19]
    • It may seem odd to treat hyperactivity with stimulants. However, the brain circuitry being stimulated is responsible for controlling impulsivity and improving focus.[20] Stimulants including Ritalin, Concerta, and Adderall help regulate neurotransmitters (norepinephrine and dopamine). So do non-stimulant anti-depression medications often used to treat ADHD.[21]
    • Deciding on the right form and specific prescription of medication is tricky. Different people respond differently to different medications.[22] Further, the effectiveness of the medications changes during growth spurts, hormonal fluctuations, diet and weight changes, and as resistance builds up.
    • Medication can increase the ability to focus and decrease impulsive behavior.
    • Many medications can be taken in an extended-release format. This erases the need to deal with dosing at school.[23]
    • Over time, medication may become unnecessary. Or, it may be reserved for special occasion usage, such as when taking college entrance exams or finals.
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    Feed your teen foods that help control ADHD. A change in diet can diminish the effects of the hormonal deficiencies your teen may be experiencing. Feeding him or her the right foods can make the conditions less severe.
    • A diet high complex carbohydrates can boost serotonin for improved mood, sleep, and appetite.[24] Avoid feeding your teen simple carbs like sugars, honey, jelly, candy, soda, etc.[25] These cause a temporary serotonin spike.[26] Instead, choose complex carbohydrates such as whole grains, green vegetables, starchy vegetables, and beans, all of which act as an energy “time-release.”[27]
    • To improve focus feed your child a protein-rich diet that includes several proteins over the course of the day. This helps keep dopamine levels high.[28] Proteins include meat, fish, nuts, legumes and beans.[29]
    • Avoid feeding your teen “bad fats” such as those found in trans fats and fried foods, burgers and pizzas. Instead, choose omega-3 fats from foods like salmon, walnuts, and avocados.[30] These may help lower hyperactivity while improving organizational skills.
    • A diet rich in zinc may also help. Feed your teen seafoods, poultry, fortified cereals and other foods with a high zinc content, or give him or her zinc supplements. Zinc promotes lower levels of hyperactivity and impulsivity.[31]
    • Certain spices may also help. Saffron counters depression, while cinnamon helps with attention.[32]
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    Try to prevent your teen from eating harmful foods. Just as some foods can help with ADHD, other foods may make the effects more pronounced. For example:
    • Avoid feeding your teen food with dyes, and red dye in particular. Some studies suggest there may be link between food dyes and ADHD symptoms.[33]
    • Eliminating wheat and dairy, as well as processed foods, sugars, additives, and dyes may also have a positive impact.[34]
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    Find therapy for ADHD. A good therapist can often help you and your teen manage the challenges created by ADHD.Therapy typically begins with an analysis and restructuring of a family’s structure. The goal is to create an environment that fits the way the child’s brain functions so the child can succeed.
    • Therapy also provides a safe place for family members to vent their frustrations in a healthy way and work out issues with professional guidance.[35]
    • People with ADHD benefit greatly from learning more about their condition and knowing they are not alone in their struggle.
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    Use day-to-day strategies for managing behavior. In addition to these forms of treatment, there are also strategies you can use on a day-to-day basis to help manage the symptoms of ADHD. For example:
    • Talk to teachers about allowing your teen to sit on bungee chairs or large exercise balls. This reduces concerns about extra noise or fighting an endless battle against the student rocking back on two legs.
    • To deal with hand-fidgeting, encourage your teen to use a stress ball that he or she can squeeze quietly rather than tapping a pencil or drumming fingers. This can help a lot during exams.
    • Consider allowing your teen to play muted handheld electronic games during long waits. This can help in restaurants or at other times they must sit quietly (during a church service, in a clinic waiting room, etc.).
    • Immediately before long periods of sitting, these teens might find it helpful if they have a place to “run it out.” Encourage your teen to run some laps or to the fence and back, etc. Exercise can really help.[36]

Part 3
Developing Helpful Parenting Skills

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    Establish routines. The key to success lies in establishing consistent schedules and routines combined with organization and structure. This will reduce the stress on the child with ADHD. It should also decrease misbehaviors that are spurred on by that stress.
    • Children with ADHD need tasks broken into steps that are given either one at a time or in written form.[37] Parents should give positive feedback as the child completes each step.[38]
    • Establishing routines that reflect consistent instructions, given one step at a time. Ask your teen to repeat the instructions back to you..[39]
    • This works well with chores that can be broken into smaller steps or to-do lists. For example, imagine your teen is responsible for mowing the lawn. You might instruct him or her to first mow the front yard, then mow the area alongside the house, and finally to mow the backyard. At the end of each step, you might come out and compliment them on how good the area looks. If there are several chores you are asking your teen to complete in a day, you should consider providing a written list. Again, offer praise as each item is checked off the list.
    • The less stress, the more success. The more success and praise, the better the self-esteem. This sets your child up for additional success in the future.[40]
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    Reduce conflict over homework and chores. Routines are crucial for making sure homework and chores get done. Set up a regular schedule for accomplishing these tasks.
    • The homework routine should be consistent: same time, same place every day. Have plenty of supplies on hand, organized in bins if you have the space.
    • Be sure homework doesn’t start the second your child walks in the door. Let him or get rid of excess energy by doing something fun.
    • When appropriate, show how you would organize the work and recommend ways to prioritize the assignments. Chunk big projects and set deadlines for completion of the individual stages.[41]
    • It’s a good idea to coordinate with teachers whenever possible. Does the teacher provide a daily homework list or does the school promote the use of planners? If not, buy a planner that has plenty of space to write daily notes and show your child how to use it.
    • Decrease the arguments around assigning chores by setting and enforcing a consistent time they occur. Tie them to a regular reward whenever possible. For example, keep the video games controllers stored out of sight, and give them to your child only after chores are complete.
    • Post visual cues to remind your child of chores that need to be done. Calendars and written schedules or chore boards remove the “I forgot” excuse.
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    Provide additional structure during vacations. Winter, spring, and summer breaks can be nightmarish times for parents of children with ADHD. The structure and schedule of the past school year suddenly ends. Plan ahead and install structure so your family doesn’t unravel.[42]
    • You must replace the missing structure with another regular schedule. Encourage your teen to join a club, audition for a play, or volunteer with a local charity that has regular hours. This can help keep a routine in place.
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    Organize the environment. People with ADHD are constantly trying to make sense of their environment. Parents can help by organizing the home for success.
    • Establish a storage system that separates items into categories and reduces crowding.
    • Keep a box or a storage bin in a central location of the home where you can pile items your teen leaves around the house, such as clothes, books, or games. This makes cleanup easier. It also provides an obvious place for your teen to find items they have mislaid.[43]
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    Deal with sibling conflict. It’s important to think about how siblings of the child with ADHD are processing the situation. Make sure your other children understand that there is a good reason for the difference in how your teen is treated.
    • Some parents assume their other children will understand why they expend so much time on the special-needs child. In reality, those siblings may feel resentment at the amount of time dedicated to the other child, the shorter chore list that child has to accomplish, or the plethora of rewards available to the child with ADHD that may not be available to other siblings.[44]
    • Talk honestly to your children about the situation. Use language that is age-appropriate and non-judgmental.
    • Explain that that you value his or her ability to be responsible and independent during this challenging time. Make sure he or she knows that you will be there if needed, and that you love him or her just as much as the sibling with ADHD.
    • Set aside special bonding time with your other children. Having a teen with ADHD can take a lot of your time, energy and attention. So, be intentional about caring for and attending to your other children.
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    Take care of yourself. It is mentally, emotionally, and physically exhausting to be the parent of a child with ADHD. Be sure to care for yourself and your spouse, if you have one.[45]
    • Take breaks from your child, no matter how much you love him or her. You won’t be at your best for your child if you let yourself get run down without a break. Your teen will also need time to assert his or her individuality and pursue relationships outside the home.
    • You may also want to consider seeing a therapist to help you navigate the challenges of being a special-needs parent.

Part 4
Providing Effective Discipline

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    Be consistent. All children need discipline and they need to learn that bad behavior comes with consequences.[46]Taking Charge of ADHD: The Complete, Authoritative Guide For Parents by Russell A. Barkley (2005).</ref> For discipline to change behavior in ADHD teens, it must be, above all, consistent.
    • Teens should know the rules and know the consequences for breaking the rules. The consequence should happens the same every time the rule is broken.[47]
    • Both parents must be on board, providing consequences in the same way.[48]
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    Make discipline immediate. Because teens with ADHD have a harder time focusing, it is important to make consequences as immediate as possible.
    • The consequence should have an immediate impact. It should not be delayed. Persons with ADHD often struggle with time concepts,[49] so postponed consequences may have no meaning.
    • If the child experiences forgotten consequences for a previous infraction, this invites conflict.
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    Make discipline powerful. Consequences for misbehavior should be substantial. If your teen can easily dismiss them, they will not be taken seriously.
    • If the consequence for speeding was paying a fine of a dollar, we’d all speed constantly. That isn’t a powerful enough consequence to change our behavior. We will monitor our speed to avoid a $200 ticket plus higher insurance premiums. The same applies to children with ADHD. The consequence needs to be powerful enough to act as a deterrent.[50]
    • Don’t backtrack on consequences.[51] If you threaten a dire consequence and you don’t follow through on the promised punishment, your teen won’t listen next time. Say what you mean and mean what you say if you want respect and obedience.
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    Stay calm. Administer discipline in a way that suggests you are rational and in control of the situation.[52]
    • Your anger or raised voice may cause anxiety or send a message that your child can control you by getting you angry. Remaining calm and loving will convey the message you want.
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    Be positive. People with ADHD tend to feel that they’re “always” messing up or in trouble. Regardless of your parenting style or personality, it’s extremely important that you stay positive. A child with ADHD needs to feel that he or she is being praised more often than criticized.[53]
    • Positive input must significantly outweigh negative input to counterbalance feelings of failure. Work overtime to “catch him or her being good” and offer praise for achievements.
    • Whenever possible, invert house rules so they read as positives.[54] For instance, instead of admonishing, “Don’t interrupt!” use “Wait your turn,” or “Allow your sister to finish what she was saying.” It might take practice to flip those negatives from “Don’t talk with your mouth full!” to “Finish what’s in your mouth before sharing,” but it can become habit with patience. Positive rules make slip-ups feel less like failures.
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    Anticipate problems. You need to learn to foresee future problems when you have a child with ADHD. Look ahead and anticipate what problems you might encounter and plan interventions to prevent them.[55]
    • Help your child develop cause-and-effect and problem-solving skills by troubleshooting possible problems together.[56] Make it a habit to think about and discuss possible pitfalls with your child before challenging situations arise.[57]
    • If your teenager feels that he or she has entered into an agreement about how to handle some situation, he or she may be more likely to follow through on appropriate behavior. If she or he does not do so, the the consequences will at least feel less arbitrary.

Part 5
Overcoming Challenges in School

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    Communicate with teachers. Teens with ADHD often struggle in school. Parents often complain that schools and teachers fail to treat children with ADHD as children with disabilities. Teachers may view them as willful, disobedient, and not trying hard enough. Thus, it is important to communicate with your teen's teachers to make sure they understand the true nature of the problem.
    • Hopefully, meeting with a child’s teachers will lead to a collaborative effort. Teachers can incorporate their professional experience with the parents’ knowledge of what works with their child. In doing so, you can produce a plan together by which the child can succeed, academically and behaviorally.[58]
    • Parents should discuss a variety of topics with teachers. This includes effective rewards and consequences, how to establish effective homework routines, how teachers will communicate on a regular basis about problems and successes, how parents can mirror what teachers are doing in the classroom for greater consistency, etc.
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    Help develop a routine. As with chores and homework, school success for a student with ADHD will be more likely if there is a consistent routine. Do everything you can to help your teen establish a productive routine.[59]
    • For some students, success will come relatively easily with consistent schedules, routines, and homework communication.
    • Effective organizational tools such as planners, color-coded binders, and checklists can also help.
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    Get special services. Even with a consistent routine and helpful teachers, some students will need extra help.A variety of services re available to the students of parents who know how to get them. These range from extra time to take tests to self-contained classrooms with teachers and aides who are specially trained.[60]
    • Children qualify for free special education services based on one of two basic reasons. They must have a qualifying disability or have fallen far behind their peers academically.
    • If you feel that feel your teen needs more help, request a special education evaluation. You should make this request in writing.[61]
    • Beware the school that tells you ADHD is not a qualifying disability. Someone may tell you that ADHD is not listed in categories in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Category nine, however, is “other health impairment.” This is later defined as “… chronic or acute health problems such as asthma, attention deficit disorder or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder… which adversely affect a child’s educational performance.”[62]
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    Create an Individual Education Plan. An Individual Education Plan (IEP) is a document created by school staff and parents. It spells out the academic, behavioral, and social goals of special-ed students. It specifies how results will be measured, specific interventions to achieve the goals, and so on.[63]
    • After providing documentation of your child’s ADHD diagnosis and a special education evaluation, you will take part in an IEP conference.
    • An IEP lists decisions about self-contained classrooms, percentage of time in mainstream classrooms, accommodations, discipline, testing, and more.
    • The school is legally bound to follow the guidelines laid down in the IEP. Teachers failing to follow the IEP open themselves and the school up to lawsuits.
    • The school also must invite parents to regular IEP conferences to evaluate the progress of the child and the effectiveness of the plan. Adjust the plan as needed.
    • An initial IEP makes it easier to establish special education services when changing schools.
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    Get transitional assistance. When any child turns 16, it’s time to look at what needs are looming as he or she moves beyond the secondary school setting. When children on IEPs reach age 16, the focus of the paperwork changes toward transition services.[64] You can help facilitate this process.
    • Many teens with ADHD need special college preparation guidance. This includes searching for the right institution that will support specific needs. It also covers obtaining accommodations for testing, and deciding how to address special needs during the application process.
    • High school students with ADHD may be behind their peers in life skills areas.[65] They may not know how to open a checking account, arrange for car insurance, negotiate a sales price, read a cell phone contract, or establish a monthly budget, for example. These are concerns for all teenagers to master. For those ADHD, schools may be able to provide extra guidance.
    • Those with ADHD also need to be able to monitor their mental health needs. Can they schedule appointments as needed with primary care physicians, therapists, and medication managers? Do they know what medications they take, when and how to take them, and when and how to refill them? These and other questions are important to address, in conjunction with the school's IEP based services.
    • Sexual development is also often a concern. Struggles with cause-and-effect thinking combine with impulsivity to create a “perfect storm” situation. Some schools have programs to introduce students to the responsibilities of parenthood. They may also provide contraceptive and/or abstinence information. Teens with ADHD need strong guidance to help navigate these rough waters.
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    Help your teen consider college. After high school ends, your teenager will need to either continue his or her education, or enter the career world. You can provide guidance that makes these decisions easier. Here are some insights that may help you.
    • College is not for everyone. Some students with ADHD will be happier avoiding college and seeking a trade school or other career path. Having ADHD, however does not mean college is out of the question.
    • All colleges have student support services, but it is up to students to initiate those services. Colleges might not ask applicants if they require or desire accommodations or other supports. It is important for the student with ADHD learn what help is available and get the ball rolling before classes begin.[66]
    • Several colleges have strong structures to guide students with ADHD. They help with achieving academic success and in learning more about succeeding in their chosen career fields.[67]
    • Most students with ADHD may find attending college less stressful and more successful if they do not have to move too far from home.[68] Having a strong, supportive structure at their college also helps them compensate. Selecting a smaller college where your teen will not feel overwhelmed may also help.
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    Explore the option of vocational training. Vocational training may be the answer for some students with ADHD. It is a great option for those who do better at learning hands-on than from traditional academic teaching.[69]
    • Vocational schools (also known as trade schools or career colleges) provide hands-on, technical training and certification in a variety of fields. Many community colleges offer vocational training in short certification or longer two-year associate-degree programs.
    • These options may give students the qualifications they need to work as electricians, plumbers, mechanics, veterinary technicians, graphic designers, secretaries, and in in many other fields.
    • Some of these programs, once completed, may be credited by some universities toward a four-year degree.
    • Work with high school and/or college guidance counselors when choosing vocational programs.
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    Consider the military. Entering the military may be a viable option for some teens with ADHD. It is often a good fit for those who thrive under tight structure and would benefit from vocational training.
    • In the past, ADHD was an automatic disqualifier for U.S. military service. Today, new guidelines allow adults with ADHD who have not taken medication in a year or more and who do not “demonstrate significant impulsivity or inattention” to enlist in the U.S. military.[70]


  • The medication issue is a very individualized decision that may need to be adjusted or radically changed over time.
  • Discuss any major dietary changes with the doctor who oversees ADHD medications. Make sure there are no conflicts which could have a negative impact or alter the efficacy of the prescription medications. Doctors also will be able to suggest recommended dosages of various supplements and warn of possible side effects.[71] For instance, melatonin may improve sleep in persons with ADHD but could also induce vivid dreaming which may be unpleasant.
  • Sometimes parents show up to an initial IEP conference and are handed a completed IEP. It is read or explained to them and they are asked to sign it. Don’t do it![72] Be sure that your input is incorporated into the plan, and that it accurately reflects your child and his or her unique needs.
  • ADDitude Magazine is a free online resource that provides information, strategies, and support for adults with ADHD, children with ADHD, and parents of persons with ADHD.[73]


  • Stimulants have side effects such as decreased appetite and trouble sleeping. The latter often can be resolved by lowering the dosage or adding a prescription to improve sleeping such as clonidine or melatonin.[74]
  • Non-stimulant medications may work better for some persons with ADHD but some of the side effects may be more worrisome. For instance, youth taking atomoxetine must be monitored closely for potential increased suicidal thoughts.[75]

Sources and Citations

  1. Attention-Deficit / Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD): Symptoms and Diagnosis found at
  2. Attention-Deficit / Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD): Symptoms and Diagnosis found at
  3. Why Is My Child’s ADHD Not Better Yet? Recognizing The Undiagnosed Secondary Conditions That May Be Affecting Your Child’s Treatment by David Gottlieb, Thomas Shoaf, and Risa Graff (2006).
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Categories: Attention and Developmental Disorders