You’re pulling your hair out. You’ve been struggling with your child’s behaviors for years and don’t know where to go from here. I meet with parents everyday in my counseling office that have “had enough” of their child’s inattention, hyperactivity, aggressive hitting, kicking, and tantrums. They want answers to why their kid acts like he does. They want to know what to do to change it.
Sometimes the answer is that there behavior is part of normal development and the ordinary learning process. Kids test limits. They struggle to pay attention. They sometimes act out in aggressive and disrespectful ways. They go through stages where they tantrum. They say no. These behaviors happen to everyone and there is no clear outline of what is “normal” behavior and what is excessive. What is an acceptable level of “testing” to one parent and child, may be really pushing it for another.
When children’s behaviors become so unmanageable or unsafe that parents become afraid for their own, their child’s or others’ safety or well being, they often start to wonder if there is something “wrong.” Parents wonder about mental or behavioral health issues, developmental problems or other medical reasons for the resistance to positive change.
Parents at this level are usually looking for something — anything — that will take the edge off, and just help make things a little more manageable.
As a counselor, parents often ask if I recommend medication for their child.
Is medication right for my child?
Medication can be a viable option for treating severe childhood mental health problems, but it is not a singular solution and is not a decision to be taken lightly. While medication can help to manage some biological factors in people, they do not teach virtues, values or positive social skills and expression, or build relationships.
I let parents know that counselors are not qualified to recommend or prescribe medication, but I try to help them learn to ask the right questions to allow them to make an informed decision.
When considering medication treatment for behavioral troubles, I often suggest parents remember that there are many moving parts of what causes or contributes to kids’ moods, thoughts and behaviors. I ask parents to consider the mind-body aspect; to recognize that most children with legitimate mental health disorders have brain chemical components to what they feel, think, and do. The amazing thing is that what happens inside and outside the body, or what we put in our bodies, all affect how these biological events happen.
What’s the big deal?
Medication is so readily available now through family physicians that parents often don’t question the consequences or tradeoffs associated with giving children psychotropic medication. I have witnessed a child that was energetic and interested in life turn to a zombie. I’ve seen a social child become withdrawn as a byproduct of teasing because of tics caused by the medication he was taking. I’ve watched healthy, active kids gain weight and become lethargic.
On the other hand, I have witnessed kids that were failing every class at school improve their grade with the best of their class. I’ve seen parents and kids mend relationships that they felt were otherwise not repairable because of the severity of irrational aggression and defiance shown before medication was applied.
My objective in this article is not to persuade you that medication is good or bad or that you should or should not utilize psychotropic medication with your children. The point is that it is a serious decision that can alter brain chemistry and have far reaching effects for your child, your family and you. I want to arm you with some questions that can help you make the best decision possible.
Medication can serve a very important purpose in addressing some of the biological issues associated with mental health, but can come with many unwanted side effects. The job of any parent asking about medication is to do enough research and weigh the costs and benefits to make the best decision for your child and family. The following questions may help you in making that decision.
Before Seeking Medication Intervention:
- How severe are the behaviors or symptoms?
- Am I managing his symptoms or behavior?
- What supports and resources do I have that could help me manage his behavior?
- What have I tried already? What seems to be effective and what doesn’t?
- Are there other methods I could try? (Read books, parent coach, counselor, etc.)
- Teach: Have I proactively taught appropriate ways of expressing or acting in a positive environment?
- Relationship: Have I been empathetic and really connected with my child daily?
- Upgrade yourself: Do I exhibit any of the behaviors that I wish he would change and could we work on changing these things together?
Deciding Yes or No On Medication: Things to Ask Your Doctor or Psychiatrist:
- What are the benefits of the medication?
- What are the side effects (physical, emotional and mental side effects) of the medication?
- How much does it cost?
- What are the alternatives? (Natural remedies, other therapies, nutrition, exercises, counseling, classes, etc. etc. etc.)
- Would the Dr. put his child on this medication?
After you’ve gathered the information, ask yourself…
- What’s the trade off?
- Do the benefits outweigh the negative side effects?
Any intervention you make — whether medication, counseling, or parenting classes — has benefits and costs. Every decision in life carries with it an element of risk. When making these decisions, we have to ask ourselves if it’s worth the trade-off, and make the choice accordingly.
After Deciding to Try Medication:
- Why this specific medication for this specific problem?
- What signs or symptoms should I watch for to determine if it’s working?
- What side effect warning signs should I watch for?
- How should it be taken?
If you choose to medicate your child and see detrimental side effects, don’t be afraid to consult your doctor right away. Don’t let problems persist without talking to your doctor about the side effects you see.
Medication is a viable option for treating childhood mental health problems, but it is not a singular solution. It is a serious decision. It may be the right thing for your family, or it may not be, but these questions will help you make that choice with greater confidence.
Question: I know this can be a controversial subject with some people. What do you think?
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