Is There a Medication that Will Improve My Child's Behavior?

Medication won't cure all behavior problems.
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Quite often, frustrated parents ask a pediatrician, “Is there a medication that will help my child’s behavior?” It’s a good question to ask because sometimes, medication can be a helpful solution. Whether a child is aggressive, non-compliant, hyperactive, or just plain “naughty,” it’s important to learn as much as you can about your options.

More than 7% of American schoolchildren take at least one medication for behavioral or emotional difficulties, according to the National Health Interview Survey.

More than half of children who used prescribed medication had a parent who reported the medication helped “a lot.”

When is Medication Appropriate

There isn’t a pill that magically makes kids follow the rules or stops them from making bad choices. But, if your child has a mental health condition, medication may reduce the symptoms and improve your child’s behavior.

Behavior problems stem from a variety of mental health issues or behavior disorders. Here are some examples of conditions that may be treated with medication:

  • Depression - A child with depression may be very irritable. Often, caregivers assume a child has a willful “attitude problem, but irritability may be a symptom of their mood disorder. Children with depression may appear lazy and non-compliant when they lack the energy to do accomplish simple tasks.
  • Anxiety - A child with an anxiety disorder may appear defiant. They may refuse to go to school or theymay protest doing anything that requires them to be away from home. They may also exhibit annoying habits, like talking incessantly or asking the same questions over and over again. /od/specialneedsstrategies/fl/How-to-Help-a-Child-with-Separation-Anxiety.htm
  • ADHD - Children with the hyperactive type of ADHD struggle to sit still. They may appear out of control much of the time and they tend to react impulsively. Children with the inattentive type may appear defiant, when really, they didn’t understand the directions.

When Medication Isn’t Appropriate

Medication shouldn’t be used to treat all children with behavior problems.

Just because a child struggles to stay on task or manage his emotions, doesn’t mean his needs medication.

A child going through a stressful time, such as a divorce, may need extra support to help him manage his feelings in socially appropriate ways. Medication isn’t likely to be helpful.

Similarly, children with a trauma history may exhibit a variety of behavior problems, such as aggressive or self-destructive behavior. But medication isn’t usually recommended. Instead, therapy is the preferred method of treatment.

Sometimes, certain children just don't respond to specific types of discipline. Increased structure or a change to discipline techniques may be what a child needs to gain better control over his behavior.

Other conditions, like oppositional defiant disorder, don’t respond to medication. While medication may be used to treat co-existing conditions like ADHD, there isn’t a pill made specifically for oppositional behavior. Instead, parent-training and therapy should be the preferred method of treatment.

Seek Professional Help

Medication, whether it’s a stimulant meant to treat ADHD or it’s an antidepressant targeting a child’s mood, should always be used with caution. There are many potential risks and side effects associated with them.

When used appropriately, medication can reduce a child’s distress. As behavior problems improve, many children experience academic gains and improved social lives. It can be life altering.

If you think your child may have an underling mental health issue or behavior disorder, talk to your pediatrician. A proper assessment and diagnosis is essential to effective treatment.

If medication isn’t appropriate, or you don’t want to use medication, there are alternative treatment strategies. Talk therapy, parent-training, social skills training, and anger management are just a few types of treatments that a child may require. Services may be provided via individual therapy, group therapy, or in-home support.

Children with more serious behavior problems may require more intensive treatment. A residential treatment center or intensive day treatment program may be necessary. Sometimes, these forms of treatment are used in conjunction with medication.

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