I’ve covered why you should get your child evaluated for learning and behavior issues, who does the evaluations, and what the evaluation process involves in my previous posts. I’ve also covered specific diets and supplements. Today I want to talk about alternative treatments for ADHD. If parents aren’t ready to use medicines yet or if they want to supplement medications with additional treatments, there are many alternatives.
Natural treatments, psychological and occupational therapies, and complementary alternative therapy for the treatment of ADHD are available. Some of these are more effective than others.
Nutrition is very important for learning and behavior in all kids, not just those with a diagnosis of some sort. My next blog will be dedicated to more on components of nutrition and elimination diets, then the following blog will cover vitamins and supplements.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is a way to change thinking from negative to positive and focuses on finding solutions to current problems. It has been proven to be effective in the treatment of ADHD.
The first treatment for ADHD in children under 5 years should be cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) with a licensed therapist trained in this area.
CBT can help those of all ages learn techniques to control behaviors, screen thoughts before speaking, organize things, and more.
Studies show that the best benefits for ADHD are a combination of medication and CBT for those over 5 years of age.
Child or parent training
Parent skills training provides parents with tools and techniques for managing their child’s behavior. Behavior therapy rewards appropriate behavior and discourages destructive behavior.
This training has been shown to improve ADHD symptoms among children, but studies show it does not change academic performance when used alone.
social skills group
Many kids with ADHD struggle socially. They tend to lag behind peers by a few years developmentally. Their impulsivity and inattention leads to poor behavior and trouble making good friends. They may also have trouble managing their emotions.
Joining a professionally run social skills group can help kids learn and practice important skills for interacting with others. Some school counselors can do this during school hours and many therapists offer groups outside of school.
Schools have various abilities in helping kids with unique needs. They can offer special seating (or standing desks), extra time for tests, fidget items, and other accommodations. To learn more about school resources, Understood.org has much needed information about what is available and what you can do to legally get accommodations with IEPs or 504Plans.
Getting kids outside and moving has many benefits for all kids – including those with ADHD.
First, they are off all screens, which have been shown to increase aggressiveness and impulsivity.
Second, they are getting exercise. Studies show that when kids play outside their focus, attention, and behavior improve.
Exercise helps to elevate the same neurotransmitters that are increased with stimulant medications, which helps with executive functioning skills (sequencing, working memory, prioritizing, inhibiting, and sustaining attention).
Any exercise helps, but studies show the best are martial arts, ballet, ice skating, gymnastics, yoga, rock climbing, mountain biking, skateboarding, and whitewater paddling (I know not all of these are practical on a regular basis, but most are). These activities require sustaining attention, balance, timing, fine motor adjustments, sequencing, evaluating consequences, error correction, and inhibition.
Sleep problems are common in many children, especially those with ADHD. Fixing the sleep cycle can have extreme benefits in learning and behavior.
Sometimes it’s as easy as getting a routine for sleep to ensure the proper number of hours for a child, but often they suffer from insomnia, nightmares, sleep apnea, restless leg, or other medical conditions that impair sleep time and/or quality.
Symptoms of chronic sleep deprivation in kids are hyperactivity, poor focus, and irritability. There are many kids who can have all of their ADHD symptoms relieved when they simply get better sleep. I see this in many teens who suddenly “develop ADHD”- only it’s really not ADHD at all. They are running on 4-5 hours of sleep a night. If your child has sleep troubles not improved with these Sleep Tips, talk to your child’s doctor.
Occupational Therapy and Sensory Training
There are many kids with ADHD who benefit from using techniques that occupational therapists use with sensory processing disorder (SPD). In some kids, SPD might be the real diagnosis causing symptoms of ADHD, but in others they may co-exist.
Treating SPD is usually fun for the kids, and there is no harm in doing their techniques even if a child doesn’t have the disorder.
Schools have started integrating these ideas into their classrooms as needed, such as having kids sit on stability balls or using tactile objects at their desks.
Therapy for SPD involves playing in ways that use sensory input (such as with sand or play doh, rolling down a hill, manipulating tactile objects, and more).
For a great list of ideas visit Sensory Integration Activities, but working with an occupational therapist is recommended.
Biofeedback and Neurofeedback
Biofeedback and neurofeedback are often not covered by insurance due to inconclusive evidence that they work. Children and adults with ADHD often have abnormal patterns of brain electrical activity on electroencephalographic (EEG) testing. EEG biofeedback is aimed at normalizing EEG activity by correcting the brain’s state of relative under-arousal and optimizing cognitive and behavioral functioning.
Neurofeedback trains kids to become more aware of their physiological responses and improve their executive functioning. Each neurofeedback session lasts 30-60 min and children usually need 10-20 sessions. Patients wear a cap that measures their brain activities, and it helps them train their brain to maintain focus during video games specific to this purpose.
The significance of most findings on neurofeedback and EEG biofeedback is limited by study design flaws that include small study sizes, heterogeneous populations, absence of a control group, inconsistent outcome measures, self-selection bias, and limited or no long-term follow-up. While this doesn’t mean they don’t work, I would like to see more studies showing their benefit. You might invest a lot of time and money only to find out it doesn’t work.
Working memory training
Working memory training has been shown in studies to help with symptoms of ADHD, though there are some conflicting studies out there.
Cogmed is the company that has studies showing benefit. It’s a computer program that kids play like a video game, but it reportedly trains their brain to remember things. Cogmed is intensive: 1 hour a day, 5 days a week for 5 weeks, but can be done at home. It can be expensive and is often not covered by insurance. About 70-80% of children show improvement immediately after the training, and of those who improved, 80% maintained the benefit over a 6 – 12 month window. Cogmed is designed to be used with medication, such as stimulants.
Herbs and other supplements
There are some studies supporting nutritional supplements or herbal medicines for ADHD, but many reported treatments have not been found effective. I will cover these in a separate blog.
Just like anyone who needs help improving a skill, working with a coach with experience helping others in that area can be a big help.
Working with an ADHD coach can help many with certain aspects of their life. ADHD coaches can help with organization, motivate a person with ADHD to finish tasks, or help them learn techniques that makes them more effective at life skills.
Coaches do not do psychotherapy or counseling. This can be beneficial for people who are against therapy but need help to improve their skills.
It does not work if the parent makes the child go. The child must be motivated to make changes in his or her life and be willing to work on things, then coaching can be great.
Tips on finding an ADHD coach can be found on PsychCentral.
I recommend mindfulness for many issues, especially anxiety (which often co-exists with ADHD). Mindfulness is thought to help with ADHD as well. It is a process of being focused on the present moment and is more fully explained on Understood.org’s Mindfulness page.
There are many free apps that can help kids (and adults) learn mindfulness.
No evidence exists for these treatments
There are many alternative treatments out there that do not have scientific proof that they help. Many parents try these treatment programs in hope that their child’s symptoms will go away.
In general, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
Don’t be fooled into thinking “alternative” or “natural” treatments are without risk. There are always risks, including the lost time not being on a proven therapy, leading to a child falling further behind academically and suffering emotionally from symptoms related to ADHD.
“Train the brain” games
There are claims that games designed to train the brain can improve memory, attention and other skills, but there is no research that supports this claim. Kids may get good at playing the game and seem to learn, but studies have found no improvements that generalize to their daily life or learning. For more, see what experts say about “train the brain games” for kids with ADHD.
Brain Balance has a center in our city, and I’ve seen more than a few parents who waste time and money on their program. I don’t know of any that noted significant and continued benefit. Although their website might look like there’s impressive evidence to use it, there really isn’t. Please see Science Based Medicine: Brain Balance for more information.
Caffeine is a stimulant but since it is available from grocery stores instead of pharmacies some parents feel more comfortable using it instead of a medication.
If you’re using it as a drug, it is a drug.
Whether it comes in a beverage or a pill, it is a chemical with properties that act like other drugs in our bodies.
Unfortunately studies don’t really support its use. It’s difficult to dose since it comes in so many forms, and most people develop a tolerance for it, requiring more and more, which can increase side effects.
For details, see Science Based Medicine: Caffeine for ADHD.
chiropractic medicine, Vision therapy, and Applied kinesiology
I have not been able to find any valid scientific studies for chiropractic medicine, vision training, and applied kinesiology for the treatment of ADHD.
Insurance usually does not cover these and they can be quite expensive. I do not recommend them.
Essential oils and aromatherapy
Essential oils are all the rage now. It seems they can cure everything if you do a quick online search. The problem is that research hasn’t shown that to be true. Dr. Chad Hayes does a good job of discussing what they are and why they aren’t recommended.
There is no alternative medicine. There is only medicine that works and medicine that doesn’t work. ~ Richard Dawkins
If it stays alternative, that must say something. Once an alternative treatment is shown to work, it becomes a preferred treatment, no longer an alternative…
Things to consider when choosing treatment plans:
- First, be sure your child is properly assessed to make the best diagnosis on which to base the treatment plan.
- Natural isn’t necessarily safe. Evaluate all the risks and benefits known before making a decision. Even exercise (which is always recommended) comes with risks, such as injury and at times sleep problems due to scheduled activity times.
- Talk with your doctor about any treatments you are doing with your child. Don’t forget to mention vitamins, supplements, herbs, brain training, therapies, etc.
- Choosing one treatment doesn’t mean you are married to it. If response doesn’t prove to be beneficial, re-think your approach.
- There is no cure for ADHD known at this time. If someone claims that they can cure your child, don’t buy into it.
- Learn your costs. Does insurance cover it? Insurance companies often prefer certain treatments due to their cost and other factors. They also do not cover many treatments. Sometimes this is again due to cost, but other times it is because there is no evidence to show the treatment is effective. (Hint: This is a good clue to look at other treatments!)
- Is the treatment something your child can do and is your family willing to put in the time? CBT is proven to help, but it doesn’t work if the child and parents don’t work on the techniques at home. Neurofeedback and Cogmed take many hours of treatment over weeks of time and are not guaranteed to work in all children. Medications must be titrated to find the most effective dose that limits side effects. This requires frequent follow up with your doctor until the best dose is found.
American Psychological Association: Easing ADHD Without Meds
Psych Central: Neurofeedback Therapy an Effective, Non-Drug Treatment for ADHD
Psychiatric Times: Integrative Management of ADHD: What the Evidence Suggests
Looking for more?
Many parents benefit from support groups to learn from others who have gone through or are currently going through similar situations, fears, failures, and successes. Find one in your area that might help you go through the process with others who share your concerns. If you know of a support group that deserves mention, please share!
CHADD is the nationwide support group that offers a lot online and has many local chapters, such as ADHDKC. I am a volunteer board member of ADHDKC and have been impressed with the impact they have made in our community in the short time they have existed (established in 2012). I encourage parents to attend their free informational meetings. The speakers have all been fantastic and there are many more great topics coming up!
Many parents are surprised to learn how much anxiety can affect behavior and learning. To look for local support groups, check out the tool on Psychology Today.
The Autism Society has an extensive list of resources.
Dyslexia Help is designed to help dyslexics, parents, and professionals find the resources they need, from scholarly articles and reviewed books to online forums and support groups.
Learning Disabilities Association of America offers support groups as well as information to help understand learning disabilities, negotiating the special education process, and helping your child and yourself.
Tourette’s Syndrome and Tic Disorders
Tourette’s Syndrome Association is a great resource for people with tic disorders.
General Support Group List
For a list of many support groups in Kansas: Support Groups in Kansas .
Choosing schools for kids with ADHD and learning differences isn’t always possible, but look to the linked articles on ways to decide what might work best for your child. When choosing colleges, look specifically for programs they offer for students who learn differently and plan ahead to get your teen ready for this challenge.
Midwest ADHD Conference – April 2018
Check out the Midwest ADHD Conference coming to the KC area in April, 2018. I’m involved in the planning stages and it will be a FANTASTIC conference for parents, adults with ADHD, and educators/teachers.