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How To Explain ADHD Medication To A Child: Tips And Strategies For Parents

June 9, 2023
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    While it's not always the case, most kids have a hard time getting used to the idea of taking medication. Common challenges include but aren't limited to fear, refusal to swallow medications, and attempts to hide pills so they don’t have to take them. Parents frequently have concerns about their children starting medication, too. The potential for stigma and negative side effects tend to be two of the top concerns for caregivers.

    However, there's extensive research on ADHD medication, and it's nothing to be afraid of. Quite the opposite, in fact: Studies show that young people with ADHD who take medication for the condition are more likely to succeed in school and less likely to experience substance use disorders than those with unmedicated ADHD are, alongside an array of other benefits.

    First, this article will cover what parents should know about medication used to treat children with ADHD so that you'll feel confident helping your child through the process. Then, we'll discuss strategies you can use to help your child feel comfortable taking medication and how to address concerns that might arise along the way, such as stigma from others.

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    Understanding ADHD Medication

    It's essential that parents understand ADHD medications so that they can effectively explain them to their kids. You should have all of the information, such as how your child's medication works, types of medication used to treat ADHD, and possible side effects, so you can identify and troubleshoot them if they arise.

    Stimulant medication is the most common type of ADHD medication and is considered the first line of treatment for the disorder. Most often, your child's doctor or prescriber will try ADHD stimulants first. However, different medications can be used to treat ADHD symptoms, and the "best" medication for one person might not be the right fit for another, so it can take trial and error.

    Stimulant medications usually start to work within a half hour to an hour, so the effects will be nearly immediate. On the other hand, nonstimulant medications like Strattera can take 4-8 weeks to work once the therapeutic dose is reached. Make sure that you ask your child's doctor what to expect with their specific prescription. 

    Types of medications used to treat ADHD

    Although stimulants are the most common ADHD medications, they aren't the only ones. The three most common types of ADHD medication you'll come across include the following:

    • Central nervous system stimulants, such as Adderall and Ritalin.
    • Alpha antagonists, such as Guanfacine and Clonidine.
    • Antidepressants, including selective norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) like Strattera and dopamine and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (DNRIs) like Wellbutrin 

    How ADHD medications work

    All ADHD medications work differently, with many of these distinctions depending on drug class. In simple terms, here's how each type of ADHD medication works in the brain:

    • Stimulant medications like Adderall increase neurotransmitters in the brain (specifically, serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine). By targeting these chemicals, people with ADHD who take stimulant medication find that they feel more calm, less impulsive, and are able to concentrate better. They level out stimulation levels and bring people with ADHD to a greater state of balance.
    • Alpha antagonists work by addressing the receptors on nerves that use adrenaline, decreasing hyperactivity, impulsivity, and extreme emotional responses.
    • Antidepressants work by increasing norepinephrine levels in the brain, which increases awareness, focus, learning, memory, and motivation.

    Possible side effects

    Every medication has distinct side effects, so learning about your child's specific prescription and paying attention to any effects that occur is critical. Some of the most common side effects of medication used for ADHD include:

    • Loss of appetite.
    • Trouble sleeping.
    • Upset stomach.
    • Increased heart rate.
    • Changes in blood pressure. 
    • Headaches.
    • Nervousness.

    Some kids might experience rebound symptoms or a “crash” when the medication wears off. If this is the case, consult with your child's prescriber. They might be able to make adjustments that help.

    Tips And Strategies for Explaining Medication To Your Child

    Children are capable of understanding their disorder and how ADHD medication works. In time, most children learn how to take it with less resistance, though for some kids, it will ebb and flow, and pushback could increase temporarily for a period of time as they age. The most vital thing to do when you explain medication to a child is to take an honest, positive, calm, and respectful approach. Use these tips and strategies to explain ADHD medication to your child confidently and in a way that fits them best. 

    Start the conversation early

    Many parents feel tempted to call ADHD medication by a different name. For example, some might want to call ADHD a "vitamin" vs. medication or medicine. Others may hide it in juice or food to avoid fear and help kids get it down. While this is well-intended, many children and adults take ADHD medication throughout their life, so hiding it can backfire long-term. Although the words you use can depend on how old your child is (for example, using metaphors to describe ADHD symptoms might work best for young kids) and related factors, it is essential that parents are honest about the medication and what it is used for from a young age. 

    Use age-appropriate language

    While it's important to help a child learn accurate information, your child's ability to understand it in-depth or through specific terms may vary based on a child's age. Explain ADHD medication with the way your child's brain works in mind.

    • Younger kids: If possible, mirror your child's language to help them understand. Maybe, they've expressed impulsivity before by saying, "It just happened - I couldn't help it." They might mention forgetting things or having trouble paying attention in class. Let your child know that a lot of people take medication for different things and that this medication helps people stop and think, concentrate better, or anything else that’s most relevant to your child.
    • Older kids: Older kids (or younger kids interested in science) can benefit from hearing the facts about ADHD and how medication works to treat it. It can be comforting for a child to hear that ADHD medication is well-researched and that a lot of people take it. Go over the facts about ADHD, such as that it affects around 1 in 10 kids, and discuss how medication can help.

    Be careful not to "over-explain." Let your child's interest level in the conversation guide how much you share, regardless of their age. Just the basics will work for some kids; others will ask a lot of questions and want to learn all they can. 

    Focus on the benefits of medication

    When you explain ADHD medication and symptoms to your child, focus on the benefits. Think about what symptoms that your child talks about or notices most. It could be memory, focus, restlessness, or something else. 

    Explain that medication is there to help them with these things at school, while they play, with friends, during homework, or in another part of their life. Be realistic, using phrases like "This is 'focus' medication. It can help you concentrate better." Finding the right medication can take trial and error, and some symptoms will remain a part of life, even if to a lesser degree, so it is best to evade over-promising. 

    Kids might not always understand why they have to take medication continuously. If it works, why do they need to take it more than once? Share with kids that medication wears off, which is why they must take it daily (or most days, if they take it only on school days).

    Address concerns and fears

    Listen to your child's concerns. Don't invalidate the child; be attentive and talk through any fears your child has about taking medications, calmly relaying the facts. Two of the biggest concerns kids tend to express about taking medication are the taste or inability to swallow pills. If this is the case, you might be able to switch to a flavored version, dissolvable tablets, or liquid, depending on the medication.

    If side effects (e.g., trouble sleeping, stomach problems) are causing serious distress, it is something to address. Prescribers may be able to make a change to a child's dosage or switch medications to help. While many ADHD medications function similarly, even switching to a different stimulant, for example, can help kids avoid the side effects they experience with another. 

    Involve your child in the process

    Children might not have a lot of control when it comes to certain things, such as what time of day they take medication. Involvement can help kids feel more autonomous. 

    A lot of parents find that even young kids can play an important role in helping themselves find the right medication. Consider involving your child in the process of assessing how their medication is working using a child-friendly symptom tracker. For example, a simple chart that rates symptoms on a scale of 1-10.

    If you take this approach, you might say something like, "This medication helps people focus. Sometimes, it helps a lot. Other times, it only helps a little. I want to know how much it helps you," when you explain how ADHD medication works to your child.

    Then, present a simple symptoms chart or tracker to the child and ask their thoughts on how it works daily. How focused did they feel that day? Did they have a breakthrough where they were able to stop and think before acting? Was it easier to sit during class? Talk it through and keep the information kids give you in mind. 

    Helping Your Child Feel Comfortable Taking Medication

    Now that you know how to start the conversation, helping your child make medication a comfortable part of their schedule matters. Making it a habit to take medication, using positive reinforcement, and addressing concerns honestly and compassionately can all make a big difference. Here are some specific steps to take that can help. 

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    Adults install Joon Parent App first and make a customized to-do list for their children. Your child's to-do list is fully customizable and can include anything you want, whether that's a medication regimen or household chores. Kids connect with a separate app called Joon Pet Game. Upon completing tasks, children get coins and experience points that allow them to progress in the game and take care of a cute virtual pet called a Doter.

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    Use positive reinforcement

    Positive reinforcement often works well for medication. Simple reward systems, like sticker charts, help kids keep track of whether or not they have taken medication yet and can act as motivation. Verbal praise is often comforting and valuable, too. Simply saying, "Yay! You did it," and giving a child a high five can be huge.

    Address concerns about stigma or shame

    Part of why it's best to avoid withholding information about what ADHD is, or what ADHD medication is, is that it can communicate that there was a "reason" to hide it later on when they find out. That said, even with your best efforts, there are times when concerns related to stigma and shame may come up. Be ready to navigate situations such as how a child might feel if they, for example, have to head to the nurse's office for a medication dose in the middle of the school day. 

    Give accommodating but shame-free advice. You might say something like, "There's nothing wrong with taking medication, and it is something many people have to do. A lot of people start needing medication at some point in their life. Even if other kids don't take any medication now, they might later. With that said, if you would like to leave discreetly, you can do so. You don't have to explain it to anyone." 

    If you take medication of any kind, you might try taking your medication when your child takes theirs at least once daily. Modeling the behavior and doing it together can be helpful and make kids feel less alone, othered, or singled out. This can be especially helpful for younger kids or children who feel scared about taking medication. 

    Address concerns about being "different" from peers

    Let's say your child says, "But other kids don't have to take medication." This is a great opportunity to talk about how everyone is different. Again, people take medication for many reasons, and it's not a bad thing. Some children need glasses; others don't. Like medication, it's just another way we're all different.

    Talking To Others About Your Child's Medication

    Various situations might require you to talk to other people about your child's medication. Especially with such a great deal of misunderstanding around ADHD medication, this can be nerve-racking. Here is how to handle a couple of everyday scenarios. 

    • Educating teachers, caregivers, and school nurses. Teachers and any individuals who take care of your child throughout the day should know your child's medication routine, particularly if they are to give your child their medicine at any point.
    • Addressing concerns from family and friends. Share the facts about ADHD medication with friends and family who show sincere concern and may not know better. If comments are out of line or made in front of your child, set firm boundaries, letting them know that it is not okay.
    • Explaining medication to siblings. Other children in the family may not have ADHD. Educate siblings on how everyone's brain works differently and communicate that both they and their sibling have talents and ways of thinking that are unique but special. Their sibling needs to take medication because their brain works differently and sometimes needs help with things like focusing or being able to sit still. Although it might not change all behaviors, including those that may affect siblings, the medication is there to help. 


    There are misconceptions surrounding ADHD medication. When it's your child, you want to do everything you can to learn the facts about how ADHD medication works, its benefits, and potential side effects. Once you have an adequate understanding, you can educate your child on their medication. Different approaches work for each child when it comes to the words you use or how you explain medication. Using age-appropriate language, focusing on the benefits, and involving your child in the process can all be advantageous. When it comes to helping your child feel comfortable taking medication, routines, positive reinforcement, and continued discussion can all be of value. In some cases, you may need to share some information about your child's medication with others, such as a child's teacher, school nurse, family members, friends, or siblings. You know your child best. Continue to advocate for your child, and if you feel that adjustments need to be made to the type of medication, talk to their prescriber.


    Sarah Schulze MSN, APRN, CPNP

    Sarah is a Pediatric Nurse Practitioner with a specialty certification in pediatric mental health. She works at a clinic in Champaign Illinois, providing care to children and adolescents with mental health disorders. She obtained her bachelor's in nursing from Indiana State University in 2011 and completed her master's in nursing from University of Illinois at Chicago in 2014. She is passionate about helping children create a solid foundation on which they can grow into healthy adults.


    Sarah Schulze MSN, APRN, CPNP

    Sarah is a Pediatric Nurse Practitioner with a specialty certification in pediatric mental health. She works at a clinic in Champaign Illinois, providing care to children and adolescents with mental health disorders. She obtained her bachelor's in nursing from Indiana State University in 2011 and completed her master's in nursing from University of Illinois at Chicago in 2014. She is passionate about helping children create a solid foundation on which they can grow into healthy adults.