For a long time, I’ve been an advocate for keeping more kids off psychotropic medications. Not because I doubt the existence of childhood mental disorders, but because the long-term effects are unknown and I believe that parents and professionals should proceed with caution. I am not against using medication when it is necessary and beneficial for the child. After all, my own daughter is on steroids for her asthma, and there are well-documented associated risks. But I’ve seen the downside of over-medicating young children, particularly when it comes to diagnosis and treatment of ADHD.
One of the problems with institutionalized learning (and a major reason why we began homeschooling almost four years ago) is the amount of time children have to be kept quiet and sitting at a desk. For some children, this isn’t a problem. But for others, it is absolute torture. It may not have anything to do with the ability to focus or concentrate. Some people are sensation-seekers who thrive on sensory input. Others simply learn better by doing rather than hearing or seeing (kinesthetic learners). For still others, they may exhibit traits similar to ADHD, but do not actually have that particular disorder.
I used to be a school nurse, so I was responsible for passing out Ritalin or similar medications to approximately 40 children on a daily basis. I saw both sides of the coin. Were there kids benefiting from the meds? Absolutely. There were also kids for whom nothing ever seemed to work. Some kids suffered through repeated change in dose, type, and schedule, to no avail. Other kids had behaviors so bothersome that I had teachers either red in the face with anger or near tears, begging me to talk to the family about “doing something” with the child’s medication. And one story stands out in my mind vividly.
We had one student who was put on a medication trial. For those who don’t know what that means, the physician orders two to four weeks of trial period. For half of the trial, the child receives an actual dose of medication. For the other half, a placebo. No one except the pharmacist has any idea which half is which, only that the child is taking some kind of pill. Before and during the trial, the parents and teacher are expected to keep a log of the undesirable behaviors the child has and any changes. The boy in question underwent such a trial about halfway through the year.
When the study began, his teacher approached me and said that she was already seeing a difference in his behavior and attitude. She was thrilled, and certain that the dose he was on was correct. After the first two-week phase of the trial ended, she returned to me to let me know that the boy’s behavior had gone downhill again. She hoped that he would be placed on medication for the remainder of the year.
I suspect you know what’s coming.
And you’re right–the boy had been on the placebo for the first two weeks. Needless to say, the doctor and the parents refused to have anything more to do with medicating the boy. He went on to have successful behavioral counseling.
Now that I’ve said all that, I have to make a confession. We’re now about to embark on a journey with our son. He is a wonderful kid, bright and creative to the extreme, with the soul of an artist. He almost literally dances through life, his body craving near-constant motion. On a good day I wish I had his energy. But the flip side of those good qualities is that he is extraordinarily impulsive. He reacts, rather than thinking. His high-octane personality is not suited for long periods of seat work. And it leads to a lot of negative consequences.
As much as I favor treating children naturally, without brain-altering chemicals, I know I have to keep an open mind. I hope to begin with the simple, some help learning how to control his impulses. I also know that if it comes down to it, I expect that he will be given every possible evaluation and trial before being handed a psychotropic medication. His dad and I are his best advocates. We want what is right for him, not a broken system where a teacher has to be solely responsible for the instruction, behavior, and well-being of 25 or more students. We’re prepared to make some hard choices, including returning him to homeschooling to give him a break from forced seat learning.
It’s going to be a bumpy ride, but we’ll handle it the way we’ve handled everything else with the kids. We love them, we respect the other adults, and we work toward a common goal of helping our son to grow into the person he is meant to become.