Are You Overmedicating Your Child?


A pill is easier to give than your time and attention. That’s the conundrum of many parents as they deal with unacceptable behaviors in their children.

Clinical psychoanalyst Erica Komisar writes in The Wall Street Journal that American children have a drug problem. She says the use of psychiatric drugs to treat ADHA, depression and anxiety in children and teens has been increasing and is excessive.

When children have difficulty sitting still, can’t focus on school work, or become disruptive in class, the school is often quick to label the child as having attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder and urge the parents to seek a psychiatrist for medication. But Komisar says the problem is often disruption in the home, especially when parents separate or divorce.

A study published last year in the Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology found that some 5% of American children were on stimulants like Ritalin and Adderall to treat ADHD and behavioral problems in 2016. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported a nearly 400% increase in antidepressant use in patients between 12 and 19 from 1988 to 2008, the most recent year for which data are available.

Yet many of these young people are being inaccurately diagnosed. They don’t actually have ADHD, clinical depression or anxiety. A 2000 study found that the majority of children and adolescents who were being medicated for ADHD did not fully meet the diagnostic criteria for the condition. In fact, a 2018 study in the New England Journal of Medicine showed that the younger a child is relative to his classmates, the likelier he is to be diagnosed with ADHD. That finding strongly suggests the disruptive behavior is the result of immaturity, not illness.

Pediatricians seem to understand this better than schools. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends behavioral therapy, not drugs, as the first line of treatment for mental illness in children. But a 2014 Ohio State study showed that the majority of kids aren’t being properly evaluated or being offered psychotherapy before being medicated. Again, pills are easier than behavioral therapy.

There is a place for medication of children with serious mental illness. But choosing drugs as a quick fix for emotional pain and disruptive behavior does not help children become emotionally mature or resilient to stress. It produces adults who continue to rely on drugs, alcohol, and disruptive behavior to deal with everyday life stresses.

There may also be another motivation for parents and schools seeking medication for children. Psychologist Stephen Hinshaw and economist Richard Scheffler attribute the increase in ADHD diagnoses in part due to changes in school funding to reward higher standardized tests scores. ADHD drugs are acknowledged performance enhancers.

Komisar concludes: “ It is much easier to blame our children for their behavior, or label them as organically flawed and medicate them rather than consider what we as parents and educators my be doing – or failing to do – to help them feel safe, protected and emotionally secure. We feel guilty, and rather than address our own part in the situation, we look for the quick fix of a pill.” 

What has been your experience? If you have or had a child on medication, tell me how that worked out for you and your child.

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