Should Your Child with ADHD Receive Behavior Therapy?

Health Writer

The main symptoms of ADHD, hyperactivity, impulsiveness and inattention, can cause problems for children in school, socially and at home. According to the  American Psychiatric Association, "Behavioral therapy and medication can improve the symptoms of ADHD. Studies have found that a combination of behavioral therapy and medication works best for most patients." In some cases, medication can be lowered when given in conjunction with behavioral therapy.

But according to a recent  study, most children with ADHD aren't receiving behavioral therapy. Researchers at  RAND, a nonprofit research organization, looked at over 300,000 medical records of children and adolescents who had been prescribed medication for ADHD. They cross referenced this to how many children receive behavioral or talk therapy in addition to ADHD medications and found that less than one-fourth received this in addition to medications.

Behavioral therapy, sometimes called psychosocial treatment, involves helping a child learn how to manage symptoms in a variety of situations. According to  Help4ADHD.org, behavioral treatments can help when a child:

  • Is having academic or behavioral problems at school
  • Finds it difficult to make friends or maintain friendships
  • Has problems getting along with parents or siblings

Behavioral therapy doesn't always address the symptoms of ADHD, but focuses on changing the behaviors that occur as a result of the symptoms, for example, not following directions might be the result of inattention. The therapist might work with your child on better ways to slow down and follow instructions. Besides working directly with your child, this type of therapy often involves teaching parents and teachers new strategies for managing problem behaviors and responding when problem behaviors surface. This can include learning to set consistent rules at home and at school, praising desired behaviors and ignoring (minor) undesired behaviors and using daily charts and point system for rewards and consequences.

The researchers found that areas with a lower number of licensed psychologists had less children receiving behavioral therapy than in areas that had more licensed psychologists. However, this wasn't always the case. When comparing areas with similar numbers of psychologists (Sacramento County in California and Miami-Dade County in Florida were very similar), they found that children in California about one-half of children with ADHD received behavioral therapy as compared to only about one-fifth of the children with ADHD in Florida received similar treatment.

When talking with parents of children with ADHD, I found a number of reasons that parents didn't seek this type of treatment. (There is nothing scientific about these results, I asked a few parents I know what would stop them from seeking behavioral therapy for their children.) Some parents were not aware that this type of treatment would be covered by insurance and assumed they would need to pay for it. Other parents didn't want to have their child labeled "mentally ill" because they were going to a therapist. Others indicated their doctor never suggested it or discussed it so they never saw it as an option. Another reason was that therapy was seen as something "really bad" children needed and they didn't feel their child met that description.

If your child has ADHD, check with your insurance company and talk to your doctor. Ask about therapists in your area that specialize in working with children and adolescents with ADHD. Talk with the therapist to find out how this type of treatment might benefit your child. Behavioral therapy can help your child learn to manage their symptoms and can teach you how to better respond when problems do arise. It can improve your relationship with your child and give your child tools to continue managing symptoms throughout their life.

For more information:

Behavior Modification

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for ADHD

What's Best for Adult ADHD: Traditional Therapy or Cognitive Behavioral Therapy