Curb ADHD Over-diagnosis to Improve Children's Health

Behavioral therapy and good parenting can be more effective than medications.

Posted Dec 20, 2013

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is the most commonly diagnosed neurobehavioral disorder in children. Kids with ADHD tend to have trouble controlling their impulsive behavior and paying attention to ordinary things. Symptoms can vary with each child and range in severity, but overall they might include:

  • Daydreaming
  • A tendency to forget or misplace belongings
  • Difficulty getting organized
  • Talking too much
  • Squirming or fidgeting
  • Inability to resist temptation or take turns, which may interfere with getting along with other children

Two treatments are usually recommended: mental health examination and/or medication. The most prescribed medications for ADHD are Ritalin and Adderall. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued a recent study giving us the following information about ADHD:

  • Between 2003-4 and 2011-12 there was a 42% increase in diagnoses of ADHD
  • Between 2007-8 and 2011-12 there was a 28% increase in medications prescribed for ADHD
  • 6.4 people in the US are diagnosed with ADHD; 89% are children
  • 3.5 million children receive medication for ADHD
  • Most children are diagnosed around the age of 6; more severe cases can be diagnosed around age 4

“This finding suggests that there are a large number of young children who could benefit from the early initiation of behavioral therapy, which is recommended as the first-line treatment for preschool children with ADHD," said the CDC's Susanna Visser, who also led the study.

The American Academy of Neurology (AAN) recently published their position on ADHD and medication, strongly warning doctors and parents about overprescribing medications such as Ritalin or Adderall due to the health risks that have been reported.

"Doctors caring for children and teens have a professional obligation to always protect the best interests of the child, to protect vulnerable populations, and prevent the misuse of medication," said Dr. William Graf, professor at Yale University and member of the AA.

Although the research has given us equivocal information, it seems from the data that it is likely that ADHD is being over-diagnosed and medications overprescribed. Squirming and fidgeting or not being willing to share can be normal actions in a young child. Solid parenting and behavioral counseling should be our first go-to activities when it is suspected that a child may have ADHD. Limiting television and video game time, encouraging outdoor play, rewarding sharing, and having realistic expectationsare all options that can and should be tried before medication.