Stimulant medications are an important part of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) treatment for most affected children and teens. But studies suggest that children and teens may not take their prescribed medication anywhere from 13% to as much as 64% of the time. As teenagers develop an appropriate increased desire for autonomy, they wish to have greater participation in their medication decisions, sometimes to the dismay of their parents.
Will is an engaging young man who has been on stimulants for many years. However, he is frequently in conflict with his parents over an array of issues, including being annoyed at being reminded to take his medications. Although he is willing to take medication some of the time, he often forgets. He commonly fails to complete his homework, a further source of conflict.
Parents can get frustrated with their teens and drawn into a control struggle over medication and other issues. Teenagers want to have more control of their lives, and sometimes this takes the form of not wanting to take medication. The No. 1 goal is to help the family move away from digging themselves further into conflict, and instead to have a genuine discussion about the pros and cons of medication.
This starts with listening seriously to the teenager. It helps to reassure teens that you are not going to get mad at them for not taking medication, but that instead you really value the information about how often they are taking it and, if they are skipping some doses or not taking it at all, the reason for that.
It is crucial to find out the real reason why someone is not taking his medication. Sometimes teens are genuinely forgetting. Here it can be helpful to be sure that the medication has to be taken as few times a day as possible, and then to set some kind of alarm reminder. This is one area where the omnipresence of cell phones is very useful. Help parents and teens negotiate about whether the parent will remind the teen, as repeated reminders can be irritating. Divided pill containers help both the parent and teen know whether the medication has been taken or not. If you formulate a plan with the family, write it down so that you can ask next time how it worked out, because if you are asking someone to make a behavior change, it is important to pay attention to whether they did it or not.
Other times it is clear that the teen doesn’t want to take the medication. In this situation, it is important to get the specifics. It is key to convey that the teen’s point of view is very important.
Reasons for not wanting to take a medication include some type of side effect, embarrassment about having to take the medication in school, inconvenience, or a general feeling that the teen doesn’t want to be on medication.
A genuinely collaborative attitude is the best approach. Restate what you have heard from the teen about his or her viewpoint. Help the parents state their concerns (for instance, about school success, driving safety, or the potential for impulsive behavior) in a noncritical manner. Then outline options and discuss the possible pros and cons of the different choices, including going off the medication as one option. By considering this as an option, you will have an opportunity to discuss what the drawbacks, as well as the advantages, might be.
When it comes to ADHD, there are many choices. These can include trying a different stimulant or using a nonstimulant such as atomoxetine or an alpha-adrenergic agonist. Because these medications have very different side effect profiles, they may be more acceptable to the teenager, although they also may have different efficacy. There are also psychotherapeutic options such as organizational skills training. By discussing a variety of choices and listening to the teen’s concerns and hopes, the teenager is engaged in taking responsibility for his own choices.
Once a choice is decided upon, it is important to follow up and review how well the plan is working and revise if necessary.
When to consult
If parents and teens are unable to participate in discussion and come up with a plan, family therapy to improve communication and address parenting issues can be recommended.
Dr. Hall is assistant professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the University of Vermont, Burlington. Dr. Hall said that she had no relevant financial disclosures. To comment, e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org .