Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is often a very challenging condition for parents to manage, both because of the “gleeful mayhem” children with ADHD manifest and because of the nature of effective treatments. Multiple randomized controlled studies and meta-analyses have demonstrated that stimulant medication with behavioral interventions is the optimal first-line treatment for children with both subtypes of ADHD, and that medications alone are superior to behavioral interventions alone. By improving attention and impulse control, the medications effectively decrease the many negative interactions with teachers, peers, and parents, aiding development and healthy self-esteem.
But many parents feel anxious about treating their young children with stimulants. Importantly, how children with ADHD will fare as adults is not predicted by their symptom level, but instead by the quality of their relationships with their parents, their ability to perform at school, and their social skills. Bring this framework to parents as you listen to their questions and help them decide on the best approach for their family. To assist you in these conversations, we will review the evidence for (or against) several of the most common alternatives to medication that parents are likely to ask about.
Diets and supplements
Dietary modifications are among the most popular “natural” approaches to managing ADHD in children. Diets that eliminate processed sugars or food additives (particularly artificial food coloring) are among the most common approaches discussed in the lay press. These diets are usually very time-consuming and disruptive for families to follow, and there is no evidence to support their general use in ADHD management. Those studies that rigorously examined them suggest that, for children with severe impairment who have failed to respond to medications for ADHD, a workup for food intolerance or nutritional deficits may reveal a different problem underlying their behavioral difficulties.1
Similarly, supplementation with high-dose omega-3 fatty acids is modestly helpful only in a subset of children with ADHD symptoms, and not nearly as effective as medications or behavioral interventions. Spending time on an exacting diet or buying expensive supplements is very unlikely to relieve the children’s symptoms and may only add to their stress at home. The “sugar high” parents note may be the rare joy of eating a candy bar and not sugar causing ADHD. Offer parents the guidance to focus on a healthy diet, high in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and healthy protein, and on meals that emphasize family time instead of struggles around food.
Neurofeedback is an approach that grew out of the observation that many adults with ADHD had resting patterns of brain wave activity different from those of neurotypical adults. In neurofeedback, patients learn strategies that amplify the brain waves associated with focused mental activity, rather than listless or hyperactive states. Businesses market this service for all sorts of illnesses and challenges, ADHD chief among them. Despite the marketing, there are very few randomized controlled studies of this intervention for ADHD in youth, and those have shown only the possibility of a benefit.
While there is no evidence of serious side effects, these treatments are time-consuming and expensive and unlikely to be covered by any insurance. You might suggest to parents that they could achieve some of the same theoretical benefits by looking for hobbies that invite sustained focus in their children. That is, they should think about activities that interest the children, such as music lessons or karate, that they could practice in classes and at home. If the children find these activities even somewhat interesting (or just enjoy the reward of their parents’ or teachers’ attention), regular practice will be supporting their developing attention while building social skills and authentic self-confidence, rather than the activities feeling like a treatment for an illness or condition.