Medication for Behavioral Problems in Children

Many children and teens with behavioral problems have other mental health problems, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), in which a child is unable to focus or concentrate appropriately. Medication prescribed to treat the symptoms of ADHD can also sometimes offer relief for disruptive behavior conditions, such as oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) and conduct disorder (CD). However, medication alone is not a treatment for these conditions.

Developmental–behavioral experts and child and adolescent psychiatrists at the Child Study Center, part of Hassenfeld Children’s Hospital at NYU Langone, can determine whether medication may benefit a child or teen with CD or ODD in conjunction with some type of behavioral therapy.

The most commonly prescribed medications for ADHD are stimulants. These drugs actually have a calming effect on people with the condition. ADHD medications reduce a child’s hyperactivity and impulsivity and improve attention span, as well as the ability to focus, work, and learn. Well-known stimulants include a combination of amphetamine and dextroamphetamine, known as Adderall®, and methylphenidate, known as Concerta® or Ritalin®.

Stimulant medications now come in short-acting, long-acting, or extended release varieties. Many parents find that long-acting or extended release medications allow the child to take the medication once a day before school, eliminating the need to visit the school nurse for another dose. Side effects may include insomnia, appetite loss, and quickened heartbeat.

An alternative to stimulant medications is a class of medications called alpha-2 agonists. They work by quieting nerve signals in the brain that cause hyperactivity and have a calming effect on some children with ADHD. Extremely hyperactive or aggressive children may benefit from this class of medication, as well as children who do not respond to or who cannot take stimulants. Side effects may include tiredness, dizziness, and nausea.

Many different forms of stimulant and nonstimulant medications are available, and our child and adolescent psychiatrists and developmental–behavioral pediatricians are experts in matching the right medication to each child.

Our experts understand that parents may hesitate to give their child medication. Keep in mind, medication can be a short-term or long-term treatment option, depending on your child’s symptoms and how he or she responds to treatment. In many cases, medication is used in conjunction with behavioral therapy.

A medication consultation with one of our child and adolescent psychiatrists or developmental–behavioral pediatricians enables you to discuss any concerns you may have.

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