How Can We Counteract ADHD without Meds?

by admin on September 29, 2009

Q: Is there a way to counteract ADHD without meds? We are having some issues arise with our son that are clearly out of his control, yet not within the parameters of what we will allow.  We are against meds, so any diet changes, vitamin supplements, or behavioral suggestions you could give would be welcome!

A: If your son has ADHD, he has a neurological deficit in his ability to sustain attention to dull, tedious tasks, delay gratification, and inhibit his impulses.  He may know what the right thing to do is, but have trouble doing it consistently in the moment.  Simply put, it’s hard for his racing mind to stop and think before he acts.  So, how best to help him manage this neurological condition?  A few, brief rules of thumb to guide you on your search for solutions.

First, know that carefully controlled research studies have generally not shown any significant effects for diet changes or vitamin supplements on ADHD symptoms.  Nonetheless, individuals may have idiosyncratic responses to such changes and might benefit from them.  It’s just important to recognize that your odds are longer at finding a solution based on these areas, and your resources might be better spent elsewhere.

Of course, good sleep, nutrition, and exercise are essential ingredients for ANY child to be able to stay alert, focused, in a better mood, and better able to engage in academic or social activities.  So, paying attention to these things is certainly important to your child’s well-being, but it probably won’t “cure the ADHD.”

Second, it is important to know that relatively safe, effective medications have been developed that improve the functioning of the part of the brain that is directly responsible for sustained attention and impulse control.  Considering medications is both a medical decision and a family value decision, and I always respect a family’s personal values on this issue.  Still, I would encourage you to keep an open mind and to make a well-informed decision that fits your child’s needs best.  I’ve seen meds terribly misused in kids, and I’ve seen kids struggle terribly for a long time, only to find that the right medicine was the missing ingredient to help them do what they wanted to, but just couldn’t before.

Third, with or without meds or supplements, your child will benefit most from a carefully planned and well maintained behavior management program (such as the “Getting Your Kids to Listen” program).  The key ingredients for a child with ADHD are the same as for other children, except that you must provide feedback that is even more FREQUENT and more CONSISTENT.  High frequency, low intensity reminders and rewards are your best bet for providing the external structure that your child craves and needs, even if he doesn’t say so.  That is,

  • set clear, doable mini-goals for your child several times a day,
  • offer frequent focused encouragement about what specifically to do, and
  • provide frequent reinforcement for a job well done (or even a good attempt!).

Positive reinforcement may include praise, privileges, or prizes, depending on what works for your son and you at this point in time.  Know that you will probably have to “rotate the reward menu” on a regular basis to keep your child’s variable attention and motivation engaged.

Fourth, don’t forget to focus on your son’s strengths – for his sake and yours!  It’s no fun for anyone to keep being faced with their shortcomings everyday.  There is another way to look at it.  Kids with ADHD are often spontaneous, creative, intuitive and fun-loving.  They don’t dwell on their problems.  They’re lively, enthusiastic doers who jump right in and aren’t afraid to take risks.  Celebrate your child’s strengths and positive aspects of his personality.  Give him a chance to shine with what he’s good at, in areas that he enjoys, as much as possible.  This will give him the self-confidence and self-worth that he’ll need to overcome life’s challenges.

For more on this strengths-based approach, read Lara Honos-Webb’s “The Gift of ADHD” or Ed Hallowell’s new book, “SuperParenting for ADD”.  And check out the exciting new retreat program for teens with ADHD that I’m thrilled to be a part of, at


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