There’s a lot to consider when treating ADHD, including which different ADHD meds are commonly prescribed to kids — and why.

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is one of the most common childhood neurodevelopmental disorders. It involves challenges related to inattention, impulsivity, and hyperactivity.

Behavioral therapies and other psychological approaches can help manage symptoms by creating new habits and coping skills. For many children, however, symptoms of inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity can be overwhelming.

ADHD medications for kids can help keep symptoms from becoming impairing, allowing your child to focus on other aspects of everyday life.

Medications used for ADHD in children are divided into two categories:

  • stimulants
  • non-stimulants

Of these, stimulants are considered the first-line treatment approach.

It may seem counterintuitive to use stimulants to manage hyperactive, inattentive behavior. However, these medications work by increasing certain brain chemicals linked to concentration and thinking.

Due to their ability to be misused, doctors always prescribe stimulants with caution. Long-acting formulations can lower the risk of misuse.

Non-stimulants may take longer than stimulants to work. They’re prescribed if there are concerns about misuse, if your child has a sensitivity to stimulants, or when a stimulant isn’t effective or effective enough.

Stimulant ADHD meds for kids include:

  • amphetamine (Evekeo, Evekeo ODT, Dyanavel XR, Adzenys XR-ODT, Adzenys ER)
  • dextroamphetamine (Adderall, XR, Mydayis)
  • dexmethylphenidate (Focalin, Focalin XR)
  • methamphetamine (Desoxyn)
  • methylphenidate (Ritalin, Ritalin SR, Ritalin LA, Methylin, Adhansia XR, Aptensio XR, Daytrana, Jornay PM, QuilliChew ER, Quillivant XR, Concerta, Cotempla XR-ODT, Relexxi)
  • lisdexamfetamine (Vyvanse)

Non-stimulant ADHD meds for kids include:

According to the 2017 ADDitude Treatment Survey, Concerta (methylphenidate) was the most commonly prescribed ADHD medication for kids at the time of the survey.

In order of most used to least used, Concerta was followed by:

According to Dr. Dara Abraham, a psychiatrist specializing in ADHD from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, methylphenidate is still the most popular ADHD medication used for children.

“Methylphenidate is the medication most commonly prescribed for children with ADHD as it has a faster, gentler action than amphetamine,” she explains. “It works by preventing dopamine reuptake rather than just adding more to the system, providing an effective boost without overstimulation.”

How ADHD affects your child is unique. Even though an ADHD diagnosis means specific clinical symptoms are present, how those symptoms show up in everyday life can vary significantly.

Because of this, each child can be different when it comes to what works “best” for them.

In general, Dr. Amy Rollo, a psychotherapist specializing in neurodiversity from Houston, Texas, says that medication combined with psychotherapy is considered the most effective treatment approach.

“This does not mean that medication is necessary,” she states, “but research shows that the most helpful approach is medication combined with psychotherapy. Treatment can also include exercise, mindfulness-based practices such as yoga and meditation, parent coaching, and accommodations in the school setting.”

Almost all medications come with potential side effects, and stimulants are no exception.

While each medication may have its own list of adverse reactions, common stimulant side effects include:

  • loss of appetite
  • upset stomach
  • anxiety
  • insomnia
  • headache
  • irritability
  • dysphoria (a state of unhappiness or dissatisfaction with life)

Other rare, but potentially serious side effects include:

  • increased blood pressure or heart rate
  • shortness of breath
  • loss of circulation in the fingers or toes
  • unusually frequent, prolonged, or painful erections
  • muscle tissue breakdown
  • psychiatric events such as mania or psychosis
  • growth suppression
  • increased frequency of tics
  • drug dependency
  • suicide ideation

It’s natural to wonder whether ADHD medications are safe after viewing the list of potential side effects.

ADHD medications have been prescribed and studied for decades,” says Rollo. “As always, your medical provider is the best person to discuss safety, but rest assured this treatment approach has been studied for many decades.”

In a 2018 systematic review, researchers found that most ADHD meds for kids were well tolerated — just as well as a placebo — with only amphetamines and guanfacine cited as less well-tolerated compared with a placebo.

Research is ongoing, and researchers continue to monitor the safety of ADHD medication usage.

Additionally, a 2022 systematic review found no statistically significant association between ADHD medications and cardiovascular disease. This analysis included 19 observational studies with more than 3.9 million participants.

Abrahams adds, “It is essential to note that because each individual responds differently to drugs — and each case of ADHD involves different levels of severity — it is vital that a doctor evaluates each patient before prescribing any medication to determine which one will work best for them.”

Stimulants are the most commonly used ADHD meds for kids. Of these, Concerta and Adderall are two frequently prescribed types.

ADHD medications are considered safe when used correctly. Stimulants that cause undesirable side effects or don’t seem to be effective can be swapped out for non-stimulant options.

Your child might not need ADHD medications, but a multimodal approach of psychotherapy and medication use is considered the most effective treatment strategy for ADHD.