Unification News for December 1996
Raising ADHD Children Without Drugs
by Bob Huneycutt-Nashville, TN
At least two million American children are being given a strong stimulant drug, called Ritalin, primarily at the recommendation of child psychiatrists and school psychologists. The drug is supposed to help them perform better at school and make them more manageable at home.
Unfortunately, while some benefits of the drug have been documented in studies, there are no studies which tell us how these drugs affect a person's spirit. Since most scientists don't believe in what they can't see, we should not expect any such study in the near future.
The use of drugs to affect children's behavior is increasing at a dizzying pace. In the near future, some Blessed Couples may feel pressured to medicate their children. There are a great many experts advocating the use of drugs, but the purpose of this article is to encourage parents to look at all the options and make decisions about their children's future with prayer.
History of attention disorders
In 1980, the American Psychiatric Association decided that children who have trouble paying attention in class may have a learning disability, which they called Attention-Deficit Disorder, now more commonly known as Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, or ADHD. The three main characteristics of ADHD are inattention, impulsively and hyperactivity. Put simply, the child who has been classified as ADHD might find it hard to stay seated during class, is easily distracted and has difficulty finishing tasks. Does that seem to describe many children? In fact, a study at the McMaster University Chedoke Hospital in Ontario concluded that, under the guidelines used by child psychiatrists, fully 10% of boys ages 4-11 would be considered ADHD.
What Causes ADHD?
Scientists have not discovered a cause for ADHD. Russell Barkley, in his book Taking Charge of ADHD, explains his belief that children labeled ADHD may have underactivity in an area of the brain which inhibits behavior. This would seem to be a rather different problem from an attention disorder. In fact, he is saying that the problem is self-discipline, or self-regulation, and that the most effective treatment is medication.
That is chillingly similar to a scene from the movie A Clockwork Orange, when a violent criminal is given a pill which compels him to obey the laws. The movie goes on to pose the question "Do we desire a society without crime if it means sacrificing free will?"
Psychostimulants for Children
The most commonly-prescribed treatment for ADHD is the stimulant Ritalin, combined with a program of behavior modification. This treatment has been shown in studies and individuals cases to be effective short-term to help children perform well in class.
There may be many children for whom this treatment is necessary just to succeed in school. On the other hand, use of Ritalin has increased 500% in the last five years, and many experts agree that this drug is being over-prescribed and administered in overly-large doses. Further, the children need to be reevaluated frequently, and that is often not happening. Also, medication should never be the only treatment.
Problems with Ritalin
Some health-care professionals assume that if a child's performance improves with the use of a stimulant, such as Ritalin, the child must have ADHD. The fact is that even normal children will do better in class when they take stimulants. If there is so much benefit, why not give drugs to all children?
One reason is that Ritalin is a very powerful drug, with a large potential to be abused. It is similar to an amphetamine. The late actress Jill Ireland suggested that her son's addiction to heroin might have been related to his use of Ritalin for hyperactivity in elementary school.
There are other concerns about the use of stimulant drugs for children.
Children Dislike It
Some researchers report that many children don't like to take Ritalin. Where the drug might cause a mild euphoria in adults, it causes a sad feeling in children, known as dysphoria. Children may cry more easily.
Moreover, the children may do better in school but feel that the medication is responsible for their success. In that case, their self- esteem suffers.
Although Ritalin seems to help children focus in the classroom in the short term, studies have not shown that children learn better over a longer period of time because of medication. Diane McGuinness, a professor at the University of South Florida, says that "although stimulant medication does improve performance on repetitive and boring tasks, most research indicates that drugs will not make it possible for a child to develop or expand academic skills, especially those he or she does not already possess."
Signs of the Times
In recent years, our society has frowned upon and very nearly outlawed spanking or hitting children. In one recent case, a mother who slapped her daughter in a grocery store was arrested. One result of this new approach to discipline may be that children no longer listen to teachers and parents. They don't fear time-out. What consequences will result from this trend to induce compliance and obedience with behavior-modifying drugs? We are becoming a society which treats every problem, from depression to disorganization, with a drug.
My neighbor's son, Brian, was diagnosed with ADHD and is taking Ritalin. He is a good-natured boy who plays with my son. His mother explained that in school Brian would be looking out of the window every few minutes. With the Ritalin, his grades have improved significantly.
I used to daydream in school and I was only a "B" student. Perhaps with drugs I could have made straight "A"s.
One of the side effects of Ritalin is something called "rebound". When Ritalin wears off after about four hours, the child may become even more hyperactive and uncontrollable than usual.
One of the families in our church community has a son who was diagnosed with ADHD. Every week, Ariel was being sent to the principal's office. After much thought, his parents Ron and Connie decided to give Ritalin a try, mostly at the urging of Ariel's teachers. Ariel calmed down, but when the Ritalin wore off, the ensuing wildness alarmed Connie so much that she threw the rest of the pills in the garbage.
Often "rebound" can be controlled by changing the dosage, but clearly this is a dangerous game to play with our children's brains.
Rarely, the use of psychostimulants can lead to tics and even Tourette's syndrome, a difficult condition where the child blurts out obscenities or lies down on the classroom floor.
Ron and Connie sought out alternative treatments.
Let Children Be Children
Four months have passed since Ariel was diagnosed with ADHD. When I talked to Connie recently, I asked her if Ariel was still going to the principal's office once a week. "Not at all," Connie said; "he's doing much better now!" Connie is not sure of the exact reason for the improvement. She has reduced the amount of sugar and food colorings, especially red and yellow, in his diet. He is taking pycnogenals, a pine bark and grape seed extract which is being marketed as a non-drug treatment for ADHD. (Pycnogenals are powerful anti-oxidants which combat free radicals in the brain. Free radicals are unstable atoms which can do damage when they are overabundant.) Also, she believes he is maturing, and learning how to cooperate with his teachers.
At the same time, Connie says that Ariel can be mischievous, sometimes saying things which he knows will alarm adults, but she cannot bring herself to give him drugs for that "problem".
Connie's father had a similar disposition. "Some people are just born with a twinkle in their eye," says Connie; "my father was always at the principal's office, or in the detention hall, but he grew up to be a good man, and a successful man."
A small percentage of these children with ADHD might be unable to finish school without serious treatment, including medication, but the great majority will turn out fine, perhaps even exceptional. The problem is that they are extra work for their teachers.
When Connie suggested a special diet for Ariel, his teachers pointed out that the effectiveness of diet as a treatment was not well- documented. Four months later, however, those teachers noticed the dramatic improvement.
Ariel does spend part of his school-day in a special education class, but his reading ability is almost up to grade level and Connie hopes soon to have him in the regular class. For her and her husband, it has meant extra hard work, but they are proud of the fact that they are raising Ariel-in fact, all four of their children-in a natural, drug- free environment.
For a better understanding of ADHD, and a number of alternative treatments and suggestions to improve children's behavior, see Thomas Armstrong's excellent book The Myth of the A.D.D. Child."
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