Child Development

Common ADHD Medications for Kids

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Nearly 10% of children in the United States live with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder or ADHD. ADHD is a chronic condition, which means that there’s no cure for it. But that doesn’t mean that your child with ADHD can’t manage their symptoms and live a fulfilling and successful life.

Treatment for ADHD has been found to be very effective. Stimulant medication, in particular, is up to 80% successful for kids with ADHD. Just like kids with epilepsy or diabetes may need medication to manage symptoms, these ADHD medications can help kids with ADHD to be less impaired by their disorder.

In this guide, we’ll discuss the most popular ADHD medications for children, along with information about possible side effects, dosage, and effectiveness.

Most popular ADHD medications for kids

There are many different types and brands of ADHD medications for children. In general, ADHD medication can be classified into two categories:

  • Stimulant medication
  • Non-stimulant medication.

Most ADHD medications are stimulant medications. In general, stimulants have been found to be the most effective type of medication. There are two types of stimulant medications: amphetamines and methylphenidate.

In addition, ADHD medications can be immediate-release or extended-release. Immediate-release medication starts working in a very short amount of time (around 30 minutes), but the effects wear off within a few hours. Because of this, some people may take these medications more than once a day if prescribed by their physician. 

Extended-release medication, on the other hand, works in phases and continuously treats symptoms throughout the day. People usually only need to take extended-release medications once a day, usually in the morning.

Here are some of the most common types of ADHD medications for kids. For each medication, we’ll clarify:

  • Whether the medication is a stimulant or a non-stimulant
  • The exact type of medication (amphetamine, methylphenidate, or another non-stimulant drug)
  • Whether it’s extended-release or short-acting
  • Age of FDA-approval

Adderall XR

  • Stimulant
  • Amphetamine 
  • Extended-release (immediate-release available as Adderall IR)
  • FDA-approved for children aged 6 and up

Concerta

  • Stimulant
  • Methylphenidate
  • Extended-release
  • FDA-approved for children aged 6 and up

Evekeo

  • Stimulant
  • Amphetamine 
  • Immediate-release
  • FDA-approved for children aged 3 and up

Focalin XR

  • Stimulant
  • Methylphenidate
  • Extended-release
  • FDA-approved for children aged 6 and up

Quillivant XR

  • Stimulant
  • Methylphenidate
  • Extended-release
  • FDA-approved for children aged 6 and up

Ritalin

  • Stimulant
  • Methylphenidate
  • Available as immediate-release, sustained-release, or long-acting
  • FDA-approved for children aged 6 and up

Strattera

  • Non-stimulant
  • Atomoxetine hydrochloride
  • Immediate-release (but as a non-stimulant, it only needs to be taken once or twice a day)
  • FDA-approved for children aged 6 and up

Vyvanse

  • Stimulant
  • Amphetamine
  • Extended-release
  • FDA-approved for children aged 6 and up

Stimulants vs non-stimulants

Stimulant ADHD medications, like Adderall and Ritalin, have been found to be the most effective type of ADHD treatment.

At first glance, it might sound like stimulants are the last thing your child with ADHD needs — they are so stimulated already! But in fact, stimulants actually help to calm the nervous system down for kids with ADHD.

Stimulants work by increasing the levels of dopamine and norepinephrine in your child’s brain. Your child needs these chemicals to function well, but ADHD affects the levels of these chemicals that are available for use. Stimulant medications even out their levels and help decrease symptoms like hyperactivity or inattention.

Although stimulants are the first-line choice of treatment for ADHD, there are some reasons why people can’t or choose not to take them. In these scenarios, your child can try taking a non-stimulant ADHD medication.

Non-stimulant medications include Strattera (the only approved non-stimulant medication specifically formulated for ADHD), antidepressants, and some blood pressure medications like guanfacine.

Non-stimulants don’t tend to be as effective as stimulants for ADHD, but they can be a useful option for kids who can’t take stimulants for whatever reason.

Common Side effects of ADHD Medications 

Just like any other type of medication, ADHD medications do come with side effects. For the most part, side effects are mild and temporary. These medications have been found to be safe and well-tolerated by most people, even children.

Side effects of stimulant medication

Common side effects of stimulant ADHD medications include:

  • Nausea and stomachaches
  • Suppressed appetite
  • Problems sleeping
  • Delayed growth
  • Headaches
  • “Rebound” effect; moodiness and irritability as the effects of the medication wear off
  • Mood changes
  • Increased blood pressure or heart rate

It’s worth noting that although some children experience delayed growth for the initial period in which they’re taking stimulant medication, research has found that this effect isn’t long-term or permanent. In other words, they should resume growing at a normal rate after this initial period.

Some parents worry about the risk of abuse and addiction to stimulant medications. Stimulants, including prescribed ones, are considered a Schedule I Substance by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).

But when someone diagnosed with ADHD takes stimulant medication as prescribed, there is no increased risk for addiction. In fact, some studies have found that people with ADHD who use stimulants to treat their symptoms have a lower risk of developing substance use disorder than people with untreated ADHD.

Parents also often have concerns about the “zombie effect,” or that stimulant medication will change their child’s personality. Although some children do experience mood changes with stimulants, this is usually a sign that their dosage is too high. If the effect doesn’t wear off with the correct dosage, then a non-stimulant medication can be tried.

Side effects of non-stimulant medication (Strattera)

Sometimes, if the side effects of stimulants are intolerable, kids may be prescribed with Strattera, a non-stimulant medication for ADHD. But Strattera comes with its own list of potential side effects which are important to be aware of.

Some common side effects of Strattera for kids include:

  • Nausea
  • Constipation
  • Dry mouth
  • Decreased appetite
  • Sluggishness or drowsiness

The FDA also includes a black box warning for Strattera that this medication could increase suicidal thoughts in children and adolescents. However, the risk is very low: less than 1%.

Understanding Dosage

Often, the effectiveness and tolerability of ADHD medication have a lot to do with the prescribed dosage. If they’re on too low of a dose, they may not see any benefits. If their dosage is too high, then they may have unpleasant side effects.

Psychiatrists will usually start children at a low dose of medication and increase it as necessary. Your child’s dosage doesn’t have to do with their height or weight, but rather with how quickly their body is able to metabolize the medication.

The FDA recommends dosage ranges for different age groups, but working closely with your prescriber is the best way to achieve the right dosage for your child.

Some signs that your child is on too high of a dose of stimulant medication are being irritable or “spacey.” If you notice these or any other, adverse effects in your child, let your prescribing doctor know so they can make adjustments.

Do ADHD medications work?

ADHD medications, especially stimulants, are very effective for treating ADHD. In general, between 70 and 80% of kids see improvement in their symptoms when they take stimulant medication. Strattera is not as effective as stimulant medications, but the FDA concluded that research supports its effectiveness enough to approve it for ADHD.

To put these numbers into perspective, only around 20% of people with depression see more improvement with antidepressant medication than without it. ADHD medications can be even more effective when they’re combined with a second, non-drug treatment option like parent management training.

This means that your child has a very good chance of leading a successful and fulfilling life with the support of ADHD medication and other treatment methods.

Determining the best ADHD medication for your child

The only way to determine which ADHD medication choice might be the best for your child is to try different medications. Work with your child’s pediatrician or psychiatrist, and be honest with them about your concerns. Together, you can make the choice that’s best for your child.

You should also make sure to listen to your child. For example, if they tell you about a side effect that’s very uncomfortable for them, take them seriously. Tell their prescribing doctor about it so they can take this information into account when making decisions.

Takeaway

The important thing to remember is that there are so many options for ADHD medications that have been proven to be safe and effective for children. These medications are prescribed because they work and can help your child be less disrupted by their ADHD symptoms.

The decision about whether or not to start your child on ADHD medication, and which medication to go with, is ultimately up to you, your child, and your prescribing physician. Talk to your child’s doctor about your concerns and observations; they will be able to make a decision that’s in the best interest of your child.

This article is for informational purposes and is not a substitute for individual medical or mental health advice. Please consult with your or your child's prescribing doctor before changing, starting, or stopping a medication routine.