Child Psychiatry Consult

ADHD: When and how do we choose to start medications?


Where to begin

When I was in training, I had difficulty teasing out the various ADHD stimulant formations. There were and are so many Ritalin preparations! Mostly there is a variation in shorter-acting to longer-acting effects. If the diagnosis is highly suspected and uncomplicated ADHD, I usually choose to start with Concerta 18 mg daily (a long-acting methylphenidate) for children aged over 6 years. Many times I don’t see the need to titrate that upwards much further toward the maximum clinically used dose of 54 mg daily (despite guidelines saying otherwise up to 72 mg daily, which I have found unnecessary usually and poorly tolerated). Concerta has an immediate effect (20%) and then slowly peaks until 12 p.m. (80%) and then is out of system by about 3 p.m. (for a total of 7 hours duration of action). There also are shorter-acting preparations (Ritalin, Methylin) which are “on/off” in 4 hours and use of these is more consistent with an antiquated way of prescribing, often up to twice daily and three times daily dosing schedules with the risk of the harder to tolerate “drop-off” effects with stimulants. And, if there is not an effect, I often reconsider the diagnosis and any co-occurring anxiety disorder, stressful life events, or depression or other illness with the knowledge that these medications so often are effective.

Anxiety + ADHD

If there is prominent anxiety, anxiety disorder, or tics, I often consider Strattera 10-20 mg daily up to around 40 mg. I tend to dose this lower than as written for tolerability and in a “dose low and go slow” approach with kids, which often results in better experiences with the medication. This medication also is recommended to be dosed by weight; this should be taken into account as well. Atomoxetine is a selective serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor which is likely similar to Cymbalta (duloxetine). It may have a lower effect size of around less than 60% but this also is around the reported effect sizes for selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) for depression. If a patient has both ADHD and an anxiety disorder, I often consider an SSRI alternatively first to manage attention issues associated with anxiety and then would add on a stimulant if attention issues persist once anxiety is better treated.

Second/third line ADHD treatments

As a second-line approach to long-acting Ritalin and if there is not a response to it, I would consider extended-release Adderall preparations such as Vyvanse, which is an amphetamine preparation supposedly less abusable than Adderall (one can’t snort it), but I also caution that it releases dopamine, peaks faster, and does not reduce to zero stimulant in 24 hours because of a variable half-life.

Dr. Sara Pawlowski, an adult, adolescent, and child psychiatrist at the University of Vermont Medical Center and assistant professor of psychiatry at the Larner College of Medicine at UVM in Burlington.

Dr. Sara Pawlowski

In this way, I always have imagined that these amphetamines may be more theoretically concerning than Ritalin/methylphenidate because they increase dopamine dumping into the synapse (which is a different and extra mechanism than just reuptake). For a third line, I may consider guanfacine depending on weight daily, which is an Food and Drug Administration–approved, nonstimulant alpha-2 agonist, which also acts longer than clonidine and may be better for hyperactivity symptoms. I may begin with doses as low as 0.25-0.5 mg in the evening for concerns with sedation or groggy aftereffects in the morning.

Throughout all treatment with medication, I emphasize the importance of assertively managing ADHD symptoms which may be in the form of “behavioral treatment,” like cognitive behavioral therapy, organizational coaching available at some educational centers, or even finding ways to train one’s focus with athletics or practices such as yoga and mindfulness. In addition to this combined approach to treatment, stimulants are not perfect medications. All stimulants have a “drop-off effect” and were made to work during a school day lasting from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Some patients and families complain about the drop-off effect and may want to “dose” around a medication more frequently, in the late afternoon and in the evening, which can lead to poor appetite at dinner and insomnia.

My answers to the cases above would be that all the patients could have ADHD, but they also may have anxiety or stress-related disorders, depression, worries about performance, or poor skills to manage inattention. They may not yet have received school supports, coaching, or found ways to manage these symptoms either. Because stimulants can improve and enhance performance but also have their own drawbacks and risks not covered here, it’s important to consider each case as a whole with thoughtfulness about a child’s unique ability to “live and work” in this world.

Dr. Pawlowski is an adult, adolescent, and child psychiatrist at the University of Vermont Medical Center and an assistant professor of psychiatry at UVM, both in Burlington. She reported no relevant financial disclosures. Email her at

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