The idea of medicating children to treat brain disorders has been argued about for longer than most of us realize. Even before medication was an option, the idea of hospitalization was discussed… along with lobotomies, exorcisms, and bloodletting. For as long as humanity has struggled against mental illness, society has tried to find ways to either eradicate it or treat it.
Fortunately, we live in the days of less harmful treatment options. Unfortunately, however, we live in the era of being over-medicated and under-evaluated. Most parents take this into consideration when deciding whether or not to medicate their child, but it only seems to make the choice that much more complicated. The pros and cons list associated with it grows every day, which forces parents to sort through information that is often over their heads or out of their reach.
Parents have to ask themselves questions like…
1) Will the side effects of this medication be worse for my child than the actual disorder is?
2) Is the diagnosis my child received even accurate?
3) Will starting medication in childhood doom my kid to a lifelong battle against pill-popping, medication dependency?
4) Is my child going to hate me for this some day?
5) Am I giving in to the idea that drugs can fix all of our problems without actually trying other options?
6) What if I’m not trying hard enough to love my child just the way they are?
The pressure to answer these questions while considering the long-term implications of either utilizing or avoiding medication feels overwhelming and basically… terrifying.
Over the past five years, I’ve been a part of the decision-making process for about twenty different kids regarding whether or not they should be prescribed medication. I was the house parent of a group home for behavioral teens, then I worked as the behavior specialist at an elementary school, and now I’m a foster parent. Medication has been a nearly constant conversation in my life for quite a while now.
I saw a few of my “kids” get put on medication too soon, and I saw others never receive medication they desperately needed because their parents were opposed to it entirely. Both ends of the pendulum prevented the child from being able to function in appropriate, healthy ways. I wish the families in those situations would’ve had a better guide to walk them through the decision in an unbiased way.
What I’ve learned to be the truest test of whether or not a child should be medicated is this…
Ask yourself (or your team of people): Have we tried every other option available to us to help this child before turning to medication? And if we wait longer to medicate this child, while trying the other options available to us, will the child harm themselves or others?
In other words… do you have time to hold off on medicating the child? Is waiting a safe option? (This doesn’t mean assuming the child will be unsafe. This means asking whether or not there’s a history of self harm in that child’s life or harm to others.) And if you do wait longer to medicate, are there are supports you can put in place during that time to see if more positive progress can be made? Have you already exhausted all of your resources?
Most of the time, people have NOT exhausted all of their options before turning to medication. There are school evaluations that can be done, school counselors to visit, trauma therapists, rehabilitation programs, changes of environment, education supports, community supports, mentors, individual counseling, family counseling, frequent breaks, etc. The list goes on and on and on. If we have the time to spare, we truly must try everything we can because we never know what the breakthrough service will be for each child.
It’s important to acknowledge, however, that sometimes it doesn’t matter how many options you try. Some kids just need medication to stabilize the chemical imbalances in their brains. And some kids COULD benefit from alternative services (other than meds), but they simply don’t have the capacity to wait any longer. Those kids might need medication right out of the gate because they’re already hurting themselves or others, and they need something to help them stabilize before they can try the other resources. Some kids need medicated for a short while, while others need it long term. Some try every medication the doctors can think of, but none of them seem to help.
It really is a guessing game, but if we do our best to follow this basic guideline, we can minimize damage done to kids and maximize their success. Not just the kind of success that helps them assimilate to a culture they didn’t choose, but success that allows them to feel more in control of their own lives.