Want to cause a ruckus? Criticize attention-deficit meds.
Over three million U.S. kids take these drugs. Parents may not be thrilled to dose their children but they are following expert advice. They typically see results. And they don’t need to be judged.
But it helps to pay attention to what works for parents who don’t put or keep their kids on meds. My son was diagnosed with ADD when he was in first grade. There was a great deal of pressure from his teacher to put him on medication. As many parents do, I struggled to find ways to alleviate the problem without drugs. We found significant improvement when we changed his diet but that wasn’t enough to make the school setting truly work for him. The way he learned best and the way he flourished simply didn’t fit in the strictures of the school environment. He wasn’t wired to sit still and pay attention for hours. Once we began homeschooling we discovered that without classroom and homework pressure, what appeared to be ADD symptoms largely disappeared.
The newest studies of attention-deficit disorder medications now indicate that the calming effect of these drugs don’t necessarily indicate that those who take them have any sort of “brain deficit.” As L. Alan Sroufe, professor emeritus of psychology at the Universityof Minnesota’s Instituteof Child Development explains, such medications have a similar effect on all children as well as adults. “They enhance the ability to concentrate, especially on tasks that are not inherently interesting or when one is fatigued or bored, but they don’t improve broader learning abilities.”
Research shows the effect wanes in a few years without conferring any lasting benefit. Dr. Sroufe writes,
To date, no study has found any long-term benefit of attention-deficit medication on academic performance, peer relationships or behavior problems, the very things we would most want to improve.
While Dr. Sroute looks for a mental health answer, psychologist Bruce Levine looks to society. In a recent article he notes that rational responses to larger social conditions (depression due to economic crisis, for example) are being suppressed by medication rather than addressing underlying circumstances. In particular, he asserts that non-compliance with authority is labeled a mental health problem rather than a useful response. He writes,
Do we really want to diagnose and medicate everyone with “deficits in rule-governed behavior”?
Albert Einstein, as a youth, would have likely received an ADHD diagnosis, and maybe an ODD one as well. Albert didn’t pay attention to his teachers, failed his college entrance examinations twice, and had difficulty holding jobs. However Einstein biographer Ronald Clark (Einstein: The Life and Times) asserts that Albert’s problems did not stem from attention deficits but rather from his hatred of authoritarian, Prussian discipline in his schools. Einstein said, “The teachers in the elementary school appeared to me like sergeants and in the Gymnasium the teachers were like lieutenants.” At age 13, Einstein read Kant’s difficult Critique of Pure Reason— because he was interested in it . Clark also tells us Einstein refused to prepare himself for his college admissions as a rebellion against his father’s “unbearable” path of a “practical profession.” After he did enter college, one professor told Einstein, “You have one fault; one can’t tell you anything.” The very characteristics of Einstein that upset authorities so much were exactly the ones that allowed him to excel.
This is a big issue. I am lucky I eluded being put on meds to treat the problems I had as a child. I wouldn’t give up those years of painful churning for anything. That’s exactly what formed me into a person with my particularly intense focus and purpose.
I think we need to widen our focus. The issue asks us to look at how today’s children are restricted in movement, have less time for free play, and are exposed to unnecessarily early academics. It asks us to look at the quality of the air, water, food, and products in the lives of today’s children. It asks us to support all families as they are, recognizing that one-size-fits-all guidelines don’t embrace diverse ways of being. To me, particular hope lies in research showing that free time spent playing in natural settings significantly improved the behavior and focus of ADHD children. The more natural and wilderness-like the area, the greater the improvement.
Our wonderfully distractible, messy, impulsive children may be trying to tell us something.
For more answers beyond the prescription bottle, check out: