Child Psychiatry Consult

ADHD medication is not working


Welcome to a new column designed to provide practical advice regarding issues related to child mental health. It will be a joint effort, featuring contributions from several child psychiatrists working at the University of Vermont and the Vermont Center for Children, Youth, and Families. While psychopharmacology will certainly be a part of many of the columns, all of us here feel strongly that medications should be only one part of a comprehensive family-oriented plan. We encourage you to submit questions that you would like us address in future issues to

Case summary

A 10-year-old boy presents for a follow-up appointment. He was diagnosed by another pediatrician in the practice 2 months ago with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and now returns to the office with continued symptoms and a complaint from the mother that medication "isn’t working." The boy was started on an extended-release preparation of methylphenidate at 18 mg to take each morning. The child is in the fifth grade and weighs 80 lb (36 kg). He lives with his mother and 8-year-old brother. The father is no longer involved in the patient’s life, which puts added stress on the mother. The diagnosis of ADHD was made by the pediatrician based upon the history, the child’s hyperactive and intrusive behavior in the office, and the results of a standardized rating scale that was completed by the mother, who now requests that the pediatrician "try something different."


Many children and adolescents respond extremely well to ADHD medications. Some, however, do not, and the parental complaint that the "medication isn’t working" is a frequent expression heard in pediatrician offices across the country. It is also one of the primary reasons a family is referred to a child psychiatrist. In the course of performing hundreds of these consultations, I have found that there are several possibilities to consider before assuming the medication simply isn’t effective.

Dr. David C. Rettew

We will start with simpler problems and work our way toward more challenging reasons.

The dose is too low. Methylphenidate often needs to be dosed over 1 mg/kg/day to be effective. If the patient reports minimal response to the medication while experiencing no side effects, an increase may certainly be reasonable.

The medication is working but wearing off. Despite the advertisements of long-acting stimulants continuing their therapeutic effect for 10-12 hours, many children seem to lose the benefit of the medication much faster. Gathering some data from the school or asking the mother about weekend mornings compared with evenings can be useful. If indeed such a wear-off is found, adding a dose of an immediate-release stimulant in the early afternoon may help.

Symptoms are being caused by something other than ADHD. Hyperactivity due to exposures such as lead may not change your management of the symptoms, but certainly could necessitate other types of intervention. Chronic sleep problems and inadequate nutrition, especially when it comes to breakfast, also should be queried and can lead to problems with concentration.

There is psychiatric comorbidity. Unlike many differentials in other specialties, psychiatric differential diagnosis is often a matter of "and" rather than "or." Anxiety disorders, for example, can frequently masquerade as ADHD or be present in addition to ADHD. Oppositional behavior is also very commonly present with ADHD and suggests additional types of treatment.

There is noncompliance. This problem can surface frequently in two ways. Older children may be responsible at home for taking their medications and forget or refuse to do so. I often ask, "Are you taking the medication every single day?" Diversion is also a potential problem from the parents or for an adolescent. Checking if the refills are occurring on time can provide a clue here, and some states have systems to check for duplicate prescriptions from multiple clinicians.

Side effects are appearing as untreated ADHD. Sometimes medications are the problem, not the solution, and a failure to recognize this phenomenon can lead to unnecessary and sometimes harmful polypharmacy. Stimulants in some children can lead to increased agitation, anger outbursts, and impulsivity. Trying a medication holiday for several days can sometimes reveal the need to back off rather than add medications.

Family is expecting improvement for non-ADHD symptoms. Asking what particular behaviors the family is hoping to improve can sometimes expose a situation in which parents expect change in non-ADHD domains. Unfortunately, there is no pill to make kids respect their parents more or want to do their homework. Being clear from the outset about what behaviors are and are not medication responsive can sometimes prevent this problem.

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