Child Psychiatry Consult

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


  • A 9-year-old boy has poor impulse control, throws things in class, and cannot sit still. Teachers ask: Is this ADHD and should we start a medication?
  • A 9-year-old girl is an inattentive daydreamer with poor class performance and trouble turning in homework. Her parents and teachers ask: Is this ADHD and should we start a medication?
  • A 17-year-old boy who is a high achiever is taking the upcoming SATs and does poorly on timed tests because of poor focus and is now wondering: Do I have ADHD and would a medication help me perform better?
  • A 17-year-old boy had poor grades for much of his early school years, but his parents always thought he was just a “lazy kid” although he insists he is trying his best. His parents now ask: Is this ADHD and has it been all along?

The above cases may sound familiar to you. They are an oversimplification of the patients who may come to you with two questions: Do I or someone I care about have ADHD and should they have medication for it? What may matter even more is how they are doing with that inattentiveness and how much it impacts their lives.

Sigmund Freud was known to think about goals for treatment as “liebe und arbeit” translated into “to love and to work.” As in, can someone live, love, and work or are their psychiatric symptoms impairing those functionalities? For a child, to live, work, and play (well with others) is most apt here. It is often more helpful to think in terms of childhood daily life when choosing to begin a medication or not. With inattention, a child can range from having a parent hoping for performance enhancement to having a severe impairment in their day-to-day functioning in a classroom. In the above case examples, each child or adolescent has varying impairments in performance – one is a high academic performer with very few issues outside of testing and another is a young child who can’t even sit still in a classroom to learn. Who should be prescribed a stimulant? Any or all of the above? It’s not as easy an answer as you may suspect, and there may not be one “right” answer either.

We know that stimulants can help a great deal of patients. They have the highest effect size for ADHD in that about 80% of children can benefit from stimulant treatment for ADHD. Specifically, “a high response rate of 70%-85% has been noted with methylphenidate and amphetamine formulations. The response rate is lower for atomoxetine [60%-65%] and guanfacine [30%-40%]” (Venkat B, Hechtman L. Considerations in selecting pharmacological treatments for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Clinical Pharmacist. 2016 Feb 11). In thinking about when to prescribe, we want to balance offering nonpharmacologic means to address symptoms of inattention (like mindfulness, exercise, and school supports such as individualized learning plans where applicable). We also do not want to withhold helpful treatments such as stimulants or other nonstimulant medications or trend toward overprescribing potentially habit-forming and imperfect medications.

It is important to make that distinction between impairment and the desire for medications to “enhance” life and optimize performance rather than treating symptoms of a disorder. Most ADHD patients struggle to organize their lives, and the inattentiveness can create conflicts and challenges that won’t be managed with medication alone. It is most helpful to gain skills to navigate those challenges simultaneously to ultimately help our patients live, learn, love, and play to the best of their abilities.


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