Family Magazine

In Defense of Ritalin

By Sherwoods
My family has a history of ADD.  Brandon's family does too, so it isn't surprising that two of our children suffer from it also.  When I was a child, ADD was a made-up diagnosis, something that was used as an excuse for children whose parents didn't teach them how to sit still and be quiet.  I didn't really believe that it was an actual mental difficulty.
Now, of course, I know differently.  Life - and especially parenthood - has a way of taking childish notions and proving them entirely wrong.  We started the older child on Ritalin while living with my parents during an OB medevac.  This child was not hyperactive at all and wasn't one one would think of the 'classic' ADD case.  My parents were a little skeptical that this child needed medication - after all they weren't disruptive and were capable of doing their school work.  But after the first day of watching this child on Ritalin, both were amazed at the difference.
Recently we started our second ADD child on Ritalin.  We waited to start the first one, a girl, until third grade.  But with this child, a boy, it became apparent that third grade was going to be waiting too long and so we started him earlier.
The day he started it was immediately apparent when the Ritalin kicked in.  Writing a sentence that took half an hour the day before took five minutes.  His balkiness when working with his sister disappeared.  Even his handwriting improved.  He usually made it through the school day with a liberal sprinkling of breaks but when I asked him if he wanted a break that day, he cheerly replied, "Nope! I just want to go ahead and get my school work done!" And he did.
These days I feel like that general approval of Ritalin was waned.  There are accusations of doctors handing it out like candy, and lots of hand-writing statistics about how many children use the medication.  Impassioned articles beg parents to decline brain-altering medications in favor of moving at a pace that the child can handle, usually with lots of breaks.
There are also lots of theories as to why the diagnoses of ADD have soared over the last few decades, from nutrition to old age to increased school demands.  I imagine that eventually that puzzle will be worked out, but the hows and whys don't really matter when you have a child that is struggling with a real problem.
And after watching my two ADD children, I know that it is a real problem.  Having seven children has allowed me to observe a lot of childhood behavior and sort out what is normal age-appropriate behavior and what is not.  After we had one ADD child, it made it even easier to spot the second one pretty young.  They weren't simply inattentive or lazy, they were different.  It wasn't just an issue of not having a desire to do their work or remembering to concentrate, it was a fundamental inability to do it when things got too hard.
And so I did the responsible thing - I got help for my children.  And help in this case was medication.  It certainly wasn't only medication, but medication was a crucial part of that help.
I imagine that if I only had one child, perhaps we could have forgone medication.  Perhaps.  My day would have been taken up by timers, reminders, and watching my child like a hawk.  And over time, they would have slowly, painfully developed that ability to manage those systems by themselves.  But it would have been a lot of work and probably been bad for our relationship.  One can only remind someone to do something nicely so many times before the gentle reminders turn into stern requests and eventually irritated demands.  Nobody likes to be bothered like that, and I know that I am driven crazy when I do the bothering.
I have a friend who was not diagnosed with ADD until adulthood.  When I mentioned that we had put one of our children on Ritalin, this friend thanked me for recognizing that this child needed help and then helping her with medication.  My friend said that they had spent most of their school years wondering why they were never able to manage things like everyone else seemed to be able to.  They felt like they must just be stupid or incompetent and went through episodes of depression because of it.  When the diagnosis - and subsequent medication - finally happened, this friend's life became functional in a way it had never been.  They were so happy to hear that our child wasn't going to have to go through the same struggles.
There are times for medication and there are times for other methods.  And often those things need to be used together - it doesn't have to be an either-or proposition.  My ADD children's days begin with medication, but it certainly doesn't mean that I get to check out and stop parenting.  Instead, it just means that I get to parent them more like my other children.  We still use timers and lists and check-ins, but they not longer are accompanied by increasing frustration and anger on both sides.  They get more autonomy and choices in how they get their work done instead of having rigid schedules to keep everything functioning properly.  There are definitely still times when both get seriously distracted, but it's not every ten minutes like in the pre-medication days.
I'm grateful for the tools that I have to help my children, and grateful that one of those tools I have is medication.  I'm glad that my ADD children don't have to try and brute-force their way through a problem that is not of their own making.  I'm happy that we can have a good relationship because we're both not driving each other crazy.  And I'm thankful for a supportive pediatrician that has helped us get our children the medication they need.
Now it's time for my public service announcement: If you or someone you love is struggling with ADD or ADHD, don't dismiss medication as a viable tool to help with that struggle.  Medication isn't the only thing that will help, but it's definitely something to consider.  We all need help, and sometimes that help comes in the form of a little white pill. 

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