With school starting across the country, from the perspective of most kids, the fun is officially done. Summer by youthful definition is basically over. Meanwhile, parents nationwide are basking in this euphoric occasion. No longer will they hear every five minutes the astute yet shortsighted exclamation “I’m bored, there’s nothing to do!” Finally parents can switch their XM channel from Hits 1 back to Coffee House without being berated for being so old. But due to the popularity of the ADHD diagnosis, many parents also are debating whether to extend their child’s ADHD summer drug holiday into the school year, or once again start drugging the child-like behaviors associated with the symptoms of the controversial ADHD diagnosis.
A drug holiday, also sometimes called a structured treatment interruption, is defined as a brief period during which a patient stops taking a prescribed medication (e.g., antidepressant or ADHD drug) to recover some normal functions, reduce side effects, or maintain sensitivity to the drug. For kids, an ADHD summer drug holiday just basically means they once again can enjoy a few priceless childhood summer months to cleanse their systems, function naturally, and just think and act like a kid.
If an ADHD summer drug holiday sounds like a nice get-a-way for your children but you missed the opportunity; don’t worry. Drug holidays don’t have to be limited to summers. With help from a medical expert, you can wean your child off of the ADHD drugs at any time of the year.
Such drug-free periods allow children to partially clear their minds of the unnatural neurochemical levels induced by ADHD drugs. Drug holidays provide kids with a brief opportunity to practice thinking and acting appropriately with sobriety. You might note that the Controlled Substance Act classifies ADHD stimulant drugs as highly addictive Schedule II controlled substances similar to cocaine and morphine. Parents get to truly see how their children behave when not medicated. For some, such efforts are a rude reminder of why they agreed to drug their child in the first place. But for those brave parents willing to try again, drug holidays give them a chance to practice teaching their children how to think and behave without the assistance of drugs.
For parents questioning if ADHD drugs are the best long term or even short term answer to helping their children actually “learn” how to behave better or focus in school, drug holidays provide a second chance to revisit their decision to drug the child-like behaviors associated with ADHD, which often is haphazardly diagnosed using 18 simple descriptions of common childhood behaviors. For parents, a drug holiday might also be of interest because their conscience often challenges them to consider if putting a child on ADHD drugs was the right decision. Many parents have shared with me how they wonder if the “experts” who encouraged or wrote the prescription for the ADHD drugs had the child’s best interest in mind. These experts often profit from the work of pharmaceutical companies through direct sales of the drugs or through recruiting regular long term young patients that need to have their heart monitored due to the health risks and side effects of the drugs.
Many parents are not aware that kids develop a tolerance for ADHD drugs over time. To maintain the drugs’ sensitivity (aka potency) it is not uncommon to see prescribed dosages increase dramatically on an annual basis. Given that the longer a child stays on ADHD drugs the stronger the dosage becomes, as well as the many potential health risks and side effects of ADHD drugs that often also include children experiencing growth suppression (i.e. stunted growth and challenges to normal weight gain), ADHD drug holidays provide a great opportunity for families to reevaluate the need for drug therapy.
Many practitioners who prescribe such drugs don’t readily share with parents how decades of practice and research document that more-structured, drug-free natural child development offers the most sustainable and safest approach for kids to truly learn expected social customs and appropriate behaviors. They don’t share how the unwanted behaviors that so many adults long to see disappear will mellow with time. They don’t share how so many of these unwanted behaviors are also signs of giftedness and highly creative minds. Effective approaches to helping kids develop should never be dependent upon a drug to play the role that more structured and consistent adult supervision (aka more strategically focused teaching and parent involvement) typically can treat more effectively. What we are really drugging when it comes to children with ADHD, are simple yet slightly annoying common childhood behaviors that time, patience and hard work on the behalf of adults will heal.
In my new book, Debunking ADHD: 10 Reasons to Stop Drugging Kids for Acting like Kids, I have a chapter based on child development research I teach at the college level. This chapter shares how quite often the youngest kids in their grades are being medicated for ADHD more than others. What this research suggests is that we are often drugging kids because they do not act as mature or behave as well as others in the class.
Child development research shows us how all children go through the same stages of development, we call this stage theory. But the research also shows how very few hit these stages on the same timeline. Some children develop appropriate behaviors more quickly while others take considerably more time to learn the unwritten laws of behaving like a young adult. Stage theory shows us that while kids are developing we will see a wide spectrum of behaviors in classrooms and homes ranging from wonderful to more than slightly frustrating.
Stage theory also shows us, however, that children learn how to behave appropriately if given the time and support needed to develop naturally. I believe stage theory explains why millions of kids are being diagnosed ADHD. When you use stage theory to examine the behaviors used to diagnose kids ADHD, what you find is that many kids are just one stage away from behaving like other supposedly normal kids in the class; behaving the way teachers and parents want them to. This is often referred to as being temporarily developmentally delayed. By the way, being developmentally delayed is a common occurrence and should not be viewed as a permanent learning disability. Many of our best thinkers were developmentally delayed in their younger years (e.g., Albert Einstein). In time those unique supposedly abnormal behaviors were modified and even defined their greatness.
Drug holidays provide an opportunity to see if these children being medicating for ADHD have caught up developmentally with their peers. The chance exists that even with being on ADHD drugs that force a child to limit their social interaction and imagination (i.e. two essential pieces of the puzzle to enhancing brain development) the child has progressed to a level more similar to their peers. Regardless if such developmental progress has occurred or not, drug holidays provide parents with another chance to increase their patience and perseverance, and double down on the mission to raise and nurture their children. Drug holidays are not only a good idea for children, but parents as well.
In the 1970’s and 1980’s when medicating kids for attention disorders gained momentum, pharmaceutical companies actually recommended summer drug holidays until concerned parents and caring practitioners started to question whether it was an attention problem connected to a real mental disorder, or just an interest problem that millions of kids have when it comes to sitting seven hours at a school desk being taught things they unfortunately often do not find interesting. This created a real conundrum. How could children supposedly have a “real mental disorder” requiring medication, but miraculously the disorder is capable of taking a three month hiatus away from drugs when school lets out? Such a conundrum left many wondering if the diagnosis was real and if drugs were really needed. And though you will rarely find drug companies making such recommendations in this day and age, you will run across a handful of doctors that do. They do this because they are actually concerned about the long term use of ADHD drugs as well as the over diagnosis and misdiagnoses of ADHD taking place today.
One would think, with nothing good ever really resulting from taking a medication indefinitely (besides maybe something like insulin), that taking a drug holiday might be recommended as a regular precautionary measure to see if kids have made developmental progress with behavior and focusing in schools. One would think there would be ample research on how such practices can be used to monitor the severity of ADHD symptoms. But serendipitously for those tied to the pharmaceutical industry and others writing prescriptions that further support the blossoming billion dollar wing selling “Study Drugs” for kids, little research exists on drug holidays to provide adults with a clear answer. Just like the shortage of research definitively documenting what the drugs actually do to a child’s brain or nervous system good or bad, however (which has been the case for the past 60 years ADHD stimulant drugs have been sold), there is scant research on the effectiveness of drug holidays related to monitoring the ADHD diagnosis.
But fear not. Most of the answers pertaining to the promise of ADHD drug holidays (or to the whole ADHD drug debate for that matter) do not necessarily require sound scientific research to make a sound decision. Why? First, those pushing ADHD as a valid diagnosis of children lack scientific evidence to justify ADHD even exists. The pro-ADHD movement cannot come to an agreement on (nor do they have definitive evidence of) ADHD’s causes or origins. The little research they have for the varying and multiple competing unsupported theories cannot stand up to rigorous research expectations.
Furthermore, the ADHD drug companies and the American Psychiatric Association readily admit no tests exist that are capable of statistically or scientifically determining who has or does not have ADHD. The questionable 18 symptoms and criteria for diagnosing ADHD were created by “experts” who are or were paid by the pharmaceutical industry, and dissenting input from psychologists and mental health practitioners who do not prescribe drugs has been ignored for decades. So when it comes to the science behind the pro-ADHD case, the pseudo-science they have leaves us with more questions than it does answers. Now there is an abundance of sound scientific research on lab animals that documents detrimental effects of ADHD drugs to the central nervous system. But if they don’t use definitive or sound science to support the case for ADHD, why should we use science to dismiss the use of ADHD drugs?
For most parents I have worked with, just saying no to ADHD drugs really came down to a personal decision. The decision came down to common sense in a world where common sense is not that common anymore, and the realization that the child needed something completely different than drugs. Most kids just need more understanding, support and guidance from the adults in their world. They just need more time.
Drugging kids should be our last resort. But when drugging kids has become such common practice for apparently any misbehaviors or academic focus issues that create distractions in the classroom, shouldn’t we first rethink how we are educating our children? Instead, the first place kids are often sent is to an expert to be diagnosed ADHD and drugged. We must question if labeling and drugging kids is truly being approached as the last resort. How many of the millions of parents, educators and practitioners of such children exhausted every resource or effort needed to help a child grow through this stage of life (development) before accepting a mental disorder label and drugs? How many took a year to adopt a new approach to instruction or child rearing (aka parent involvement) at home, before saying yes to drugs? If 4.5 million plus parents are reaching this last resort before truly exhausting all other alternatives, we obviously need to build more establishments to support them when it comes to education and community support. Because for most parents, this is not the pleasure cruise they signed up for.
But there are numerous other reasons to not drug children for ADHD. For instance, if we were to diagnose all of the kids in the USA today, using the current DSM diagnostic criteria for ADHD that considers 18 simple descriptions of normal childhood behavior to be symptoms of a mental disorder, then nearly every child would be labeled ADHD. We might as well call it a Diagnosis of Normal or the All Do Have Disorder. Also, there is no valid or definitive evidence supporting these drugs actually help children academically. In fact, evidence shows the drugs are harmful to a child’s physical, neurological and psychological development.
According to the CDC, the USA has experienced a 41% increase in ADHD cases during the last decade, while the rest of the world has experienced little to no change. Close to two-thirds of the 6.4 million kids diagnosed ADHD in the USA are being drugged daily with ADHD stimulants. Headlines scribed by a few brave journalists continue to question not if this movement has grown out of control but just how far out of control. The possibility exists that far too many millions of kids have been misdiagnosed or wrongly diagnosed. I’m tired of watching millions of rambunctious kids, kids acting like kids, being labeled ADHD and force-fed dangerous drugs. To think as a child I complained about Flintstone’s Chewables.
For parents who have taken their kids on a summer drug holiday this year, kudos to you. And for those contemplating a permanent vacation away from ADHD drugs, let me be the first to say that I am very proud of you and support your decision wholeheartedly!
Now if you were hoping this article might help you feel better about drugging your children rather than buckling down and facing the facts that parenthood and raising children is no walk in the park, I know if you made it this far you are probably feeling a little anxiety and possibly anger. I am sorry, and hope some of what I have shared has helped you to reevaluate ADHD drugs. After watching this trend grow out control, I have just reached a breaking point. I just believe that with more than 6.4 million kids diagnosed ADHD in the USA, and millions more to be added on this school year, more of us need to start being direct and honest when it comes to drugging kids for ADHD. What seems to be missing from the internet, and readily available from the selection of pharmaceutical marketing brochures in the kiosk at your family doctor’s and mental health practitioner’s offices, is the truth about ADHD symptoms and the absurdity of ADHD drugs.
If you have been drugging your child for an extended amount of time and are wondering if the time is right to stop such practices, consult your doctor and ask they help you wean the child off of the drugs to revaluate such practices. Explain to your school that you will be taking a new approach to your child’s “ADHD” issues. And ask them to support you in your efforts to help your child truly live a drug free life like the DARE posters in schools proclaim. Our kids deserve nothing less.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.