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Fear of ADHD Medication
Q: My seven-year-old takes Adderall for ADHD. He also has severe anxiety. The process of taking this pill is a nightmare and scares him. How do I explain ADHD to him in terms that will not scare him and make him think that he is "sick" but that he needs to take his medication?
A: It is very important for all children with ADHD to have a good understanding about their medication. I know that many parents share your concern, so your question is one that will help others who are looking for an answer.
The more your son understands his condition and the medication, the more he can work with the medication to help it help him. Little kids can often relate to ADHD in terms of "putting on the brakes." Here's a way to make that concept very real to your son. Take him to a paved playground or a safe parking lot and have him ride his bike, rollerblade, or run very fast toward a chalk line you have drawn on the pavement. Tell him to "hit the brakes" when he hits the line and see how much farther he goes after that. Then make a second chalk line where he stops. Since he's now experiencing what you're talking about, it makes it much easier for him to understand the words you use. You can tell your child: "When kids have ADHD, they sometimes have trouble putting on the brakes in their head. Then sometimes, they can't stop what they're doing. Sometimes it's even hard for them to stop thinking about something, so they keep on thinking about it over and over and over."
Then you can do a little thing with the chalk lines, showing him the "before medication" and "after medication" behavior and then have him act it out (putting on the brakes and stopping sooner, walking a straight vs. crooked line, etc.). After he does this well, you can ask him "Who was in charge of how you just did that?" Get him to say that HE was, since it's very important for kids to understand that the medication does not control them, and that they are not out of control when they don't take it. He needs to hear you say: "The medication helps you have more control of yourself. It gives your brain energy to help it put on the brakes better." If you can let the medication help you, then you can do a much better job in school. You can use your brain to think better, stop and start faster, and be more organized (or stay off the zig-zaggy road)."
Here's another tip: At seven, your son should know what add (+) means. Write down the name of his medication (Adderall) and make the ADD in one color and the ALL in another color. Then tell him he can remember that he takes it to ADD to his brainpower, to help him get ALL his work done on time. This little mnemonic device will not only help him remember the name, but also make a positive association with the medication.
You mention that your child is very anxious. Make sure that your doctor knows this, and make sure that he or she, or a psychiatrist rules out what's called a generalized anxiety disorder. This is one of the most under diagnosed conditions in children. Not only is it more common than we once thought, it has a devastating effect on young lives, and most importantly, it can be treated. Besides medications and therapy for this condition, you should consider yoga for children, biofeedback, and regular vigorous exercise.
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Jerome (Jerry) Schultz is the founding clinical director of the Learning Lab @ Lesley University, a program that provides assessment, tutoring, and case management services for children with learning challenges. Schultz holds a Ph.D. from Boston College, and has completed postdoctoral fellowships in both clinical psychology and pediatric neuropsychology.