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Ritalin and Children

Contemporary experts agree that Ritalin affects all children in the same way and is in no way specific for children diagnosed ADHD. ". . . the response to the drug cannot be used to validate the diagnosis. Normal boys as well as those with ADHD show similar changes when given a single dose of a psychostimulant". Within a hour after taking a single dose of a stimulant drug, any child tends to become more obedient, narrower in focus, more willing to concentrate on humdrum tasks and instructions. Parents in conflict with a little boy can hand him a pill, knowing he'll soon be more docile.

It is commonly held that stimulants have a paradoxical effect on children compared to adults, but these drugs probably affect children and adults in the same way. At the doses usually prescribed by physicians, children and adults alike are "spaced out," rendered less in touch with their real feelings, and hence more willing to concentrate on boring, repetitive schoolroom tasks.

At higher doses, both children and adults become more obviously stimulated into excitability or hyperactivity. There is, however, great variability among individuals and a number of children and adults will become more hyperactive and inattentive at the lower doses as well.

The British are much more cautious about using stimulants for children. Grahame-Smith and Aronson (1992), authors of the Oxford Textbook of Clinical Psychopharmacology and Drug Therapy, suggest that stimulants may work in children the same way they impact on rats, by "inducing stereotyped behavior in animals, i.e., in reducing the number of behavioural responses . . ." (p. 141). Stereotyped behavior is simple, repetitive, seemingly meaningless activity, often seen in brain damaged individuals. The textbook states somewhat suggestively, "It is beyond our scope to discuss whether or not such behavioural control is desirable" (p. 141).

  • Ritalin/amphetamines will help anyone concentrate, ADHD or not. This complicates the matter. For if everyone could have increased concentration by taking these medications, who should decide which students and athletes get prescriptions and which don't? Further, if these drugs really are so benign why wouldn't we want to make them more widely available? I believe it is because we instinctively feel that something about it is wrong.
  • Thirty years ago amphetamines were a menace. The word was, "speed kills" Many became addicted. Now we are saying that it or its cousin should be prescribed routinely for children, often to ones who are as young as kindergartners. The long term effects of this approach on such a wide scale are unknown.
  • We implore students to "Say no to drugs." At the same time we are prescribing Ritalin/amphetamines for children with ADHD so that certain social situations will be easier for them. What are we really telling them about the use of drugs? What will guide these children when they have to decide whether or not to, "Say no"? Will they have successfully learned that drugs that make social situations easier are okay?
  • Imagine being told, as many children are, "We're going to see grandma today. Take your Ritalin/amphetamines before we go. You know how upset she gets when you don't behave." How might this make children feel about themselves?
  • We are telling children from the youngest of ages that they must take medication to function normally without really examining the long term effects of this radically different approach to child psychology.