Are The Effects of ADHD Drugs Really Drug Side-Effects?
There is some confusion as to why stimulant drugs have a calming effect on children. Therefore, it was postulated that children with ADHD have some sort of deficiency that stimulants fill. This is a false notion, as the effects of ADHD drugs are the same in all people, whether they have ADHD or not. When scientists experimented on lab animals, by giving them stimulants, they observed a universal adverse response. This reaction, which we will elaborate on below, occurs in humans to the same degree.
“Animals (like children) have spontaneous tendencies… to explore, to innovate, to play, to exercise and to socialize. Dozens of studies have shown that stimulant drugs suppress all of these spontaneous tendencies, sometimes completely inhibiting them… In effect, the animals lose their “vitality” or “spirit.” They become more docile and manageable.
“When a child seems more compliant in class or seems to attend more readily to boring, rote activities, the child is experiencing an adverse drug reaction.”
(Excerpted from an article by psychiatrist, Peter R. Breggin, M.D.) (1)
Animals resist boring and meaningless activities. Children also do. Stimulants cause animals and humans to over-focus, to the point of obsessive compulsion. This comes in handy for college students, cramming for exams. However, this over-focusing is in actuality one of the side effects. Many adverse drug reactions of stimulants are mistaken as beneficial (i.e. desired) effects of the drugs.
Adverse effects of stimulants that are mistaken for therapeutic effects*
Obsessive compulsive over-focusing, inflexibility of thinking Social withdrawal and isolation, reduced talking, increased solitary play Behavioral suppression: compliant, apathetic, reduced curiosity and spontaneity, depressed or lethargic behavior, especially in structured environments
*Data from 20 Controlled Clinical Trials (1)
Let Kids be… Suppressed?
Understanding how stimulants suppress normal spontaneity, puts misbehaving children in a whole new light. When children act spontaneously, they are called “impulsive”. When they are curious, active, energetic, and seek fun and adventure, and want to escape the boring classroom setting, we are told they have a “brain disorder”.
When we see the natural survival reflexes of lab animals being suppressed with drugs, we realize that a lot of behaviors that are being labeled ADHD, are really the normal “survival reflexes” of children. Although many children on stimulants are transformed into emotionless or depressed human zombies, in a school setting, this comes in handy, since the child may now cooperate in schoolwork that they previously found boring or intolerable.
As one mother told me:
I walked into the living room one day, horrified to find my son scaling the book case. He had almost reached the ceiling when I found him. He explained (innocently) “I saw something interesting up there, and I wanted to see what it was!” Until that point, alarm bells would have rung in my head, over the impulsiveness of such behavior. Scenarios like this screamed ADHD! How would I “fix” my hyper child?
Once I understood that the purpose of stimulants is to suppress the normal desire for exploration, discovery and creativity, it changed my perspective on my own children’s shenanigans. I no longer worry when I see my kids acting like kids!
Many people see themselves in the all-encompassing ADHD symptom lists, intended to promote “awareness” about this wide-spread “condition”. When you read descriptions like: disorganized, forgetful, difficulty sitting still, fidgety, trouble concentrating, easily distractible etc, you are bound to think, “Hey! That’s me! I must have adult ADD! Now I understand why I have so much trouble keeping my life in order! I have a brain disorder!” And it’s that simple. Problem solved. Right?
Wrong! This defeatist attitude does not lead to successful problem solving and task management; it can lead to a life of drugs and excuses to fail. The broad all-encompassing descriptions of ADHD have turnedbeing human into a disorder. It’s not easy to concentrate on boring activities for long time periods, and it’s not easy to juggle a life’s many responsibilities.
I never take an ADHD diagnosis at face value. In my clinical work, I often see children with no symptoms of any abnormalities, though they have already received an ADHD diagnosis from a top neurologist or psychiatrist. I no longer wonder how these doctors can diagnose symptom-free children with mental disorders.
The arbitrary diagnostic criteria for ADHD have become so broad, that almost any adult or child could easily be given this label. Many children cannot fit into the increasingly narrow definition of normal. A lot of the children, who are brought to me for ADHD treatment, do not need any therapies at all. They just need an educational environment that accepts them the way they are.
Why stimulants work “best”
One of the reasons for the perception that stimulants “work” when alternative options sometimes don’t is because stimulants can “cure” a child of his personality! If nothing is out of balance, no amount of acupuncture, vitamin supplementation, craniosacral therapy, herbal remedies etc. will succeed in altering the child. Drugs, however, will suppress a child’s behavior, even if nothing is wrong.
On the other hand, there are children who have a genuine imbalance. Stimulants completely ignore the underlying problem and simply suppress their behavior, making drugs more effective in the short term, than solutions that require more effort, but can be holistically curative.
While the suppressive effects of stimulants may appear to be an improvement, and some parents and teachers even call drugs a “life-saver”; all that has actually happened is that the child has become easier to manage. Many parents have told me that on psychiatric drugs, the spark of life seemed to vanish from their child’s eyes. Their personalities changed so much that when they eventually took their child off the drugs, they felt like they finally had their child back.
Other side effects
Common side-effects of stimulants include addiction, depression, insomnia, suppressed appetite, growth suppression, hair loss, feminine fat distribution on boys, personality changes, bizarre behaviors, and hallucinations. It is hard to find a child who is not experiencing some of the above effects.
Additionally, despite claims that children’s self esteem improves once their behavior is controlled, surveys of children, and common sense, suggest otherwise. How would one expect a child’s self esteem to be affected by the knowledge that they are in need of psychiatric medication to achieve self control? Perhaps it is merely those who have to deal with the difficult child whose esteem for the child improves.
Many children on drugs are suffering. Some parents are not aware of the extent of the distress that stimulants induce in their children. People may argue that drugging children who misbehave will protect them from being treated with excessive anger and disciplinary measures. The question is what is worse for the child: angry adults (an external insult) or happy adults and the internal insult of drugs? Drugging children into compliance is a risky solution.
Many therapists and educators warn parents that children with ADHD who are not medicated are in danger of becoming “kids at risk” later on. Next time, we will discuss what really happens if you choose not to drug, including an interview with author and child-rearing expert, Rabbi Lawrence Kelemen.
Breggin, Peter R. M.D ., Psycho-Stimulant Effects on Children: A Primer for School Psychologists and Counselors
Yael Tusk, M.S.O.M. is a General Practitioner of Chinese Medicine in Jerusalem. She has been treating both adults and children for over a decade. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org to schedule an appointment phone consultation or to receive her free newsletter. Look out for her upcoming myth-busting book on health. Check out her website: http://yaeltusk.wix.com/naturalhealth