Help for ADHD

When I was in my twenties, I taught at a special education school and one of my young students was on Ritalin. As her teacher, I was responsible for reminding her to take the drug during the day. It bothered me to give her the drug as I am a supporter of the natural way and I presumed, in my youthful arrogance, that she didn’t really need the Ritalin, that I knew better than my student’s parents what was best for her.

Today we are still debating the ethics of prescribing drugs like Ritalin to children. On Sunday, October 16th, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued new guidelines on Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) lowering the minimum age of the diagnosis from six to four years of age.

I realize since I have been a parent that things are not so black and white as I believed them to be as a young teacher. When I listen to recordings of my four children playing together when they were all ten years of age or younger, I am shocked by the speed of my one son’s speech. It makes me nervous just listening to him. Yet at the time I was accustomed to his behavior and made every effort not to label him, not to say he was hyperactive, not to make him a problem.

Maybe I went too far in trying to protect him, but I saw that we were starting to scapegoat him as a family and while I knew that his behavior could be stimulating I also believed he would grow out of it; he did. The very physicality that drove his intense behavior as a child matured into the talents that he now uses to make a living as an adult.

The AAP itself says that it’s difficult to diagnosis ADHD in children younger than six. According to “ADHD and Your School-Aged Child” symptoms of ADHD include behavior

that makes it difficult for the child to function at school, home and social settings on an ongoing basis,

more severe than other children’s of the same age

that is long-term and ongoing.

Officially lowering the age of the diagnosis allows for medication to be prescribed for children as young as four.

Some suggest that parents drug their children because their behavior is inconvenient to them; I’m not so sure. Most parents try everything before they resort to drugs, but often they don’t know what else to do or are being pressured by family members or professionals. Here are some of the things I did try or would have tried with my son if I knew then what I know now.


A child with an active mind and body needs a calming environment with plenty of time and space to run off steam, to explore and to wear himself or herself out. I once asked a friend whose son had just been diagnosed with ADHD if he would be a problem if he lived on a farm. She said, “No.”

Kim John Payne, educator and consultant, suggests that parents look at eliminating or mediating the many over-stimulating influences in a child’s life. A movie, for example, is something we think of as relaxing when, in fact, it is stimulating. Think about limiting or eliminating television.

Look for ways to create a calm, ordered environment for active children. Have meals and bedtimes at the same times every day. Create routines to help children focus on regular tasks.


Start with food. Many children have food sensitivities or allergies. Watch out especially for food dyes, additives and sweeteners. Keep food simple.


Integrative therapies like herbal medicine, homeopathy, and acupuncture can be explored before drugs are considered or can be used as complements to drug therapy. How does one know where to start amidst all the choices?

I like to start with biochemistry. There are affordable blood tests that can give us a unique look at our child’s biochemistry so that we can approach integrative therapies with specific knowledge of the needs of our particular child. The Pfeiffer Medical Center, a nonprofit medical research and treatment facility specializing in research and treatment of biochemical imbalance, is one place that helps with these kinds of tests.


In the eighties when ADHD first began to be mentioned to any degree, we published the groundbreaking work of Thomas Armstrong in Mothering magazine. Armstrong has long been a vocal critic of the medical diagnosis of ADHD and proposes fifty non-drug strategies to improve behavior and attention span.

I know that children all learn differently, what Howard Gardner calls Multiple Intelligences, or what Donna Markova calls Patterns of Natural Intelligence. I also know that parents make the best choices we can with the information we have. I have compassion for parents who struggle with a diagnosis of ADHD or any other “diagnosis” and hope some of these resources help.


Peggy O’Mara  (101 Posts)

Peggy O’Mara founded in 1995 and is currently its editor-in chief. She was the editor and publisher of Mothering Magazine from 1980 to 2011. The author of Having a Baby Naturally; Natural Family Living; The Way Back Home; and A Quiet Place, Peggy has lectured and conducted workshops at Omega Institute, Esalen, La Leche League International, and Bioneers. She is the mother of four.

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7 thoughts on “Help for ADHD”

  1. Thank you for this! I especially like the information baout diet and biochemistry.

    Have you also looked at or read any of Peter Levine’s books? Trauma Through the Eyes of a Child is one.In my reading of it I have wondered if many of the diagnoses of ADD/ADHD are, in fact, misdiagnosed PTSD! I have found this book remarkably help to me and my children.

  2. With the wisdom of hindsight, I can say that it was pretty clear that my son was ADHD as early as age 4. However, I would not have wanted a diagnosis that young, nor would I start him on medication that young. There are simply too many variables.

    I believe now that some kids do legitimately need ADHD meds. Like my son. We “tried everything” — short of moving to a farm — and his behavior problems were still there. It was not so much that he was always ‘moving too fast’ or ‘couldn’t pay attention’. I sometimes describe it as though he wasn’t even ‘there’. He was so unfocused that he could barely even function. He was *vibrating*, not just fidgeting.

    In fact we waited until he was 12 before we started medicating, as a final last resort. And he ‘woke up’. It hasn’t all been wine and roses in the 1.5 years since then… we struggle with side effects and trying different meds and different doses. But he finally has a life. Latent musical talents have blossomed — exploded, really — that previously he could not even begin to develop. He is able to have a conversation. He still ‘vibrates’, he is no zombie, no medicated puppet, but now he has a little bit of self-control that he can begin to manage his life, in small steps.

    All that being said, there are many, many kids who do respond to simple changes in environment, diet, lifestyle, etc. And that should always be explored first, before medicating. And as is demonstrated in this article, some hyper 4-year-olds simply ‘grow out’ of it.

    ADHD medications are incredible and valuable tools to those who legitimately need them. But they can have serious side effects. For instance, many kids lose their appetites and hunger cues and weight loss can be a problem. Apparently, many kids follow a regimen where they take their meds during the school week but not on weekends, so that they actually eat enough. We’ve found that my son needs his meds every day (and we homeschool so the ‘school week’ is mostly irrelevant anyway). He has not gained a pound since starting the medication. He has not actually lost weight and is still within the healthy range for his height so his dr is not concerned for now… But for a growing 4-year-old, not getting enough calories and nutrients is a potential for disaster. It is incredibly irresponsible to toss around the idea of giving these potentially dangerous meds to 4yo’s when it is still too difficult to truly determine whether or not they actually need them.

  3. “it was pretty clear that my son was ADHD as early as age 4.” — I actually meant to say that it was clear even younger than that, but only in hindsight. At the time, his odd behaviors could be chalked up to any number of factors. Only when he was older was it possibly to put the pieces together and see the patterns.

  4. My seven year old son was diagnosed with ADHD in the spring. We have been seeing some positive results with LENS Neurofeedback and amino acid therapy. While he is still not where the school would like him to be, we see big differences in terms of his maturity, social skills, and insight since last school year. Organization and impulse control are not always “there,” and he still has a very hard time listening and sitting still. I definitely think the alternative therapies are worth a try though.

    I worry about scapegoating. I have noticed that since the school found out he was diagnosed w/ADHD, his teacher is ready to jump all over him for something another student would be able to “get away with.”

  5. Read “Scattered” by Gabor Mate for the most empathetic, smart analysis of ADHD. He talks about the behaviors and experience as it relates to Attachment issues, very very useful for AP parents and others.

  6. As a therapist who works in the schools, I see kids who benefit from ADHD medication everyday. As a mom, I see my 3.5 year old who is overly active and has difficulty focusing on anything resembling academic work. In my opinion, his inattentiveness and impulsivity are often related to some anxiety. We have just begun chiropractic treatment after I read a study in which kids diagnosed with ADHD benefitted from the treatment. I am doing this in hopes of preventing or delaying the use of medication in my child. So far I am reserved but hopeful and have seen some undeniable change. If you are struggling with the idea that your child might need medication, chiropractic care might be something to try first

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