While medications treat symptoms of ADHD, researchers are always evaluating non-medication strategies, such as psychotherapy, and complementary health approaches like meditation. We asked the experts to weigh in on these tools and others.
Is there a downside to taking meds for ADHD?
Medication won’t cure ADHD; it treats the symptoms, says child and adult ADHD specialist Mark Stein, PhD, a research affiliate at the Center on Human Development and Disability at the University of Washington in Seattle. This is important, he says, because, “People may think that untreated ADHD is benign. But the person may do poorly in school and in their relationships, and it has an impact on their self-esteem and health and well-being.”
For kids, are there effective non-medication strategies?
“The only treatment with demonstrated efficacy is behavior management, or modification,” says Ronald Brown, PhD, dean of the School of Integrated Health Sciences at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “This means giving effective instructions and using reward systems like praise or a point system. With younger children, that’s timeouts and loss of privileges.”
Can parents practice behavior management at home?
“Parents can use behavior modification with their child but should go to a trained provider to learn how,” Brown says. “Some techniques are simple, like doing homework in a special place each day so your child associates this place with studying. If the child doesn’t follow the rules with appropriate behavior, it costs them points or an activity.”
How would a parent know if a child would respond better to medication or a behavior strategy?
“Most children are responsive to behavior management, and about 90 percent are responsive to medication,” Brown says. “But I’m reluctant to treat a child only with medication. If a parent is hesitant to use meds, I will suggest starting with behavior management. Medication can be added later.”
What alternatives are there for adults who want to avoid medication?
“It depends on what area the problems are falling into,” Brown says “If a father has ADHD and can never get organized, you may want the family to have therapy together because it’s affecting the whole family, or, for an individual who is always procrastinating, individual therapy. “
Which non-medication therapies are effective for adults?
“Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can help with inattention and impulsivity by modifying how the person thinks and reacts,” says Lenard Adler, MD, director of the Adult ADHD Program at the NYU School of Medicine in New York City. “For instance, a therapist will work on strategies to overcome procrastination. Sometimes, learning how to use a planner can help a person better manage time and complete tasks.”
“CBT teaches time management and organizational skills, as well as how to set realistic goals and task-completion strategies” Brown notes. “For instance, the person learns that if their flight is leaving at 10 am, they can’t get up at 8—unless they live next door to an airport.”
Can diet affect symptoms of adult ADHD?
“If you are drinking a lot of caffeine while you are on a stimulant, that can cause a higher heart rate, which is not advisable,” says Dr. Adler. “It’s important to eat well, stay hydrated, and make sure you eat. If you are not eating and drinking fluids, it can affect your ability to pay attention.”
Can sugar aggravate ADHD in kids or adults?
“When you have an overabundance of sugar, it can aggravate anything, but it is not the primary cause of ADHD,” Brown emphasizes. “ADHD is something you are born with and persists over the lifespan.”
Could mindfulness meditation ease symptoms of ADHD?
According to Brown, “For an adult with ADHD who has a lot going on and who needs to clear their head of stress, mindfulness can be helpful, but not for ADHD symptoms—in kids either.”
Is exercise beneficial in treating ADHD?
“Physical activity helps to combat negative habits, such as excessive screen time and inadequate sleep,” says Dr. Stein, “Staying active also helps build resilience and improves mood.”