Just like with other prescriptions, there are pros and cons of medications for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a neurodevelopmental condition typically diagnosed during childhood. Its symptoms can include impatience, inattention, impulsivity, distraction, and fidgeting.

Although ADHD remains classified as a mental disorder under diagnostic codes, ADHD is popularly viewed as a type of neurodivergence. This means children living with ADHD don’t “have something wrong,” they just have different neurological processes and needs.

When your child isn’t in pain and might do well with innovative learning strategies, considering an ADHD medication may feel unnecessary as a parent.

ADHD medication isn’t intended as a “cure” for ADHD. It’s a way to help improve focus and quality of life.

In very young children, hyperactivity and distraction may feel like a normal part of childhood, but as children shift into adolescence, these behaviors can start to interfere with more structured learning, forming interpersonal relationships, or activities of interest.

For many adolescents, ADHD medications are an important part of symptom management.

Positives of ADHD medication

There’s a reason why medication is still considered one of the first-line approaches in ADHD treatment.

Stimulants, the most common prescription used in ADHD, help improve neural communication in the brain. They can boost attention span and focus, and they can help regulate behavior.

Changes like these can have an enormous impact on an adolescent’s quality of life.

In 2018, the Canadian Paediatric Society crafted position statements for ADHD treatment based off multiple systematic reviews. They found evidence that ADHD medication improved:

  • parent-reported quality of life
  • academic achievement
  • rates of coexisting depression and anxiety
  • decision making
  • handwriting
  • school work productivity
  • evening driving performance
  • math and reading scores
  • rates of motor vehicle injury and fatality

Regardless of symptom severity, ADHD medications appear to improve overall function for most children taking them.

In a 2017 study looking at reasons why adolescents stopped and restarted ADHD medication, researchers noted nearly all of the 372 study participants experienced impairment after stopping medication.

Negatives of ADHD medication

ADHD medications are considered well-tolerated and safe when used as directed, but no medication is without potential side effects.

The most common reactions of stimulant use include:

  • mild anxiety
  • appetite changes
  • gastrointestinal upset
  • insomnia
  • headaches
  • mood changes

Rare and potentially serious side effects include:

  • increased blood pressure
  • rapid heart rate
  • shortness of breath
  • loss of circulation in the fingers or toes
  • breakdown of muscle tissue
  • painful or prolonged erections
  • psychiatric events (mania or psychosis)
  • growth suppression
  • increased frequency of tics
  • drug dependency
  • suicide ideation
  • fatigue
  • body aches and pains

In extremely rare cases, the use of stimulants has been associated with serious adverse cardiovascular events.

But this risk may be even rarer than previously thought. A 2022 research review found — out of 19 observational studies and more than 3.9 million participants — there was no significant link between ADHD medications and severe cardiovascular complications.

Nonstimulant medications for ADHD

Other medications may be used to manage ADHD depending on symptoms. These medications, like antidepressants, come with their own sets of potential pros and cons.

Was this helpful?

Not all children need ADHD medication. Open communication with your child about ADHD and the challenges they’re experiencing can help you make this decision.

If your child feels significant distress, your child’s healthcare team can then discuss the pros and cons of specific ADHD medications with you.

Will my child become dependent on ADHD medication?

Drug dependency is the primary long-term risk associated with stimulant use — for anyone. Parents may worry that once their child begins taking ADHD medications, it will be challenging to function without them.

There’s no way to predict if your child will develop a dependency on ADHD medication.

Their healthcare team will work to prevent dependence by carefully monitoring dosing to ensure the lowest amount of medication possible is being used to achieve desired results.

Can ADHD medication make things worse?

Research from 2019 suggests that ADHD medications likely won’t worsen the severity of ADHD symptoms over time.

Will ADHD medications make my child more likely to develop a substance use disorder?

A large body of research suggests adolescents living with ADHD are more likely to engage in substance misuse compared to neurotypical peers — but ADHD medication isn’t to blame.

A 2013 analysis found that prescribed stimulant ADHD medications do not influence the likelihood of substance misuse.

Substance misuse is more likely a result of the impulsivity and low self-regulatory processes in ADHD.

Are natural treatments better for ADHD?

There is no “better” or “worse” treatment for ADHD. What works for your child will be what’s best for them.

Currently, no research suggests natural approaches are proven superior to ADHD medications.

Most treatment plans involve medication and various types of therapy. Natural options, like nutritional supplementation, massage, or metronome interactive training, are examples of supportive approaches that can supplement a well-rounded treatment plan.

The use of ADHD medication is often a topic of debate. Many people feel these conditions can be improved through innovation and behavioral approaches.

Not all children living with ADHD need medication, but ADHD medications can be helpful with managing symptoms and providing some children the relief they may need to allow other therapeutic strategies to work.

While there are many pros and cons of ADHD medication, it most likely won’t make ADHD symptoms worse or lead to substance misuse.

Overall, ADHD medication is safe when used as directed and may help improve your child’s quality of life.