Stimulant medications are the most effective type of medication for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). But some kids with ADHD are too young to take these medications. Parents may be reluctant to have their children take medication for other reasons, such as side effects.
In general, if stimulant medication isn’t working for your child, your first step should be to talk to your doctor about changing the brand or dosage. However, if these effective medications aren’t an option, then there are non-medication treatments that you can try.
Although the research behind these natural treatments isn’t conclusive, there is promising evidence behind some of them, like behavioral therapy. Other non-stimulant ADHD meds, like nutritional supplements, have more conflicting research. Especially when combined with medication and behavioral therapy, these “natural remedies” for treatment of ADHD could make a difference in your child’s symptoms.
Natural remedies for ADHD
While there are some non-medication treatment options for ADHD, it’s important to be informed that medication, specifically stimulant medication (such as Adderall or Ritalin), has been proven to be the most effective treatment. Around 80% of kids with ADHD who take stimulant medication find that it helps them.
Some of these non-medication treatment options can be effective, but they’re usually most effective when they’re paired with stimulant medication. Read more about Adderall alternatives for children.
With that said, here are 5 non-medication treatment options for ADHD that may work for your child.
Behavior therapy is one of the best-studied non-medication treatment options for ADHD. For kids under 6 years old, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends behavior therapy as the first-line treatment — before they try medication. This is especially important because many effective ADHD medications aren’t approved for kids under 6.
Unlike medication, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) doesn’t work on a neurological level. In other words, it won’t change your child’s brain to reduce symptoms. However, it can help your child learn tools to be able to manage their ADHD symptoms and be successful in spite of them.
If your child with ADHD is younger than 12 years old, then it is a good idea for you, as their parent, to be trained in behavior therapy techniques. Behavior therapy for ADHD can be delivered by professionals, but it’s the most effective when parents use the techniques at home.
Behavior therapy for kids with ADHD can include any intervention that helps them to manage their symptoms. Behavioral management for ADHD can include providing structure and environmental accommodations.
One of the most common types of behavior therapy is parent management training, where you, as the parent, learn ways to manage your child’s behaviors. Examples of parent training programs include:
- Parent-child interaction therapy (PCIT)
- Positive Parenting Program (Triple P)
- Parent Management Training
- Online parent training programs
The most effective behavior therapy, especially for younger children, is most often a whole family affair. Rather than simply work with children individually, most behavior therapists work with parents and adolescents.
Behavior therapy for ADHD also includes skills that your child can learn to help them with daily living tasks at home and at school. For example, they might learn how to use planners and to-do lists to help them manage their time. You might set a goal with them of getting ready to school on time.
Behavior therapy interventions can be helpful for any child with ADHD, whether or not they’re already taking medication.
The physical benefits of exercise are well-known: a healthy heart, weight management, and more. More and more people are also starting to learn about the mental health benefits of physical exercise. Aerobic activity has been linked to a boost in mood and decreased anxiety.
But what about the benefits of exercise for neurodevelopment differences, like ADHD?
Although we need more research to be able to say definitively, there is a lot of evidence that suggests that physical activity is helpful for kids with ADHD.
We know that exercise improves brain health, and leads to an increase in certain neurotransmitters like dopamine and norepinephrine. ADHD causes kids to have lower levels of these chemicals in their brains; stimulant medications work by increasing these levels. Here are well-known ways to increase dopamine levels to help treat ADHD.
Exercise has also been found to improve the brain’s executive functions, like planning and complex problem-solving. ADHD affects kids’ executive functioning and makes it harder for them to succeed in these tasks.
It would make sense, then, that exercise could have some benefit for kids with ADHD. On top of that, many parents find it helpful to find ways for their kids to expend extra energy.
One review found that just one 30-minute session of physical activity helped lower ADHD symptoms like inattention. And kids who got regular exercise along with taking stimulant medication have had better outcomes than kids who only took medication.
In addition to improvements in core ADHD symptoms and executive functioning skills, physical activity may also be able to help kids with ADHD with:
- Aggressive behaviors
- Social problems
- Thought problems
- Anxiety and depression
In general, physical activity is a healthy life practice that has lots of benefits all-around for your child’s health. You can try leading your child in a 20 to 30-minute fun physical exercise in the mornings before they go to school and see whether you observe any improvements.
Note: if you want an app/game to help manage your child's ADHD symptoms, try Joon. Joon is a to-do list game that schedules chores, tasks, school work, exercise that gets your child with ADHD motivated to complete them. Try a 7 day free trial here.
Electroencephalographic (EEG) biofeedback is also sometimes called neurofeedback or Neurotherapy. It is a non-medication treatment method that uses brain waves to train the brain.
It’s based on the idea that people with ADHD have lower levels of beta waves, which are the type of brain waves that are released when someone is concentrating. They also have an excess of theta waves, which are usually present when someone is daydreaming or restless, or even in a light sleep.
During an EEG biofeedback or neurofeedback session, the technician places electrodes on your child’s head to measure their brain wave activity. When your child has the correct brain waves (beta waves), they receive feedback. Proponents of biofeedback say that this process trains the child’s brain to release more beta waves (and fewer theta waves). This lessens ADHD symptoms overall. Teaching the child to understand the connection between ADHD and brain waves may make EEG more successful.
There are some studies that have found that EEG biofeedback works for kids with ADHD. Some authors even claim that EEG biofeedback is just as effective as stimulant medication, especially in the short term.
However, experts say that the quality of these studies isn’t great. Many are lacking a control group or consist of only small sample sizes. They also aren’t “blind” studies, which means that the clinicians were aware of which group was receiving which treatment. This can sometimes cause an unintentional bias in the findings.
Still, EEG biofeedback is a promising drug-free treatment for kids with ADHD. The Professional Advisory Board of CHADD (Children and Adults with Attention Deficit Disorder), a renowned organization, determined that based on the quality of the studies, EEG biofeedback is “possibly efficacious” for ADHD.
If you are interested, talk to your doctor about setting up biofeedback sessions for your child.
Spending time outside
Next, we come to a truly natural remedy for ADHD — spending time outside in nature.
A study from 2004 surveyed parents on what type of activities their kids engaged in after school. It found that kids with ADHD who spent more time outside, versus at indoor activities, had less intense symptoms. The results were the same regardless of whether the activities were done in groups, pairs, or alone. Nature activities also helped kids with ADHD regardless of gender, household income, age, and setting (rural or city).
The same author, in multiple other studies, has found the same results: Kids who have more access to green space have milder ADHD symptoms.
Other studies have found that nature can improve attention, cognitive functioning, and self-discipline in kids who don’t have ADHD.
We need more double-blind randomized controlled trials to be able to determine for sure if spending time outside is an effective natural remedy for kids with ADHD. But, in general, spending time in nature is a good thing for your child.
Some other research-backed benefits of spending time in nature include:
- Reduced risk of being overweight
- Improved mood
- Pro-environmental attitudes
- Increased intergenerational social interactions
- Increased ability to focus
- More relaxation
Being outside also had the added benefits of spending more time away from screens and increasing physical activity.
If you live in a city, consider getting your child out to green spaces more often. It doesn’t have to be expensive; spending time in a county park or even your own backyard may be helpful enough. You can plant a small garden with your child or invite them to play outdoor sports. The more time your child spends outside, the better.
Some natural supplements have been studied to see if they might make a difference in cognitive function in kids with ADHD. In general, the results of these studies have been inconclusive.
Although some supplements might make a small difference in ADHD symptoms, you should never replace your child’s prescribed ADHD medication with a supplement.
Some supplements that have some evidence that suggests that they might be helpful for ADHD include:
- Omega-3 Fatty Acids (fish oil)
- Vitamin D
- Iron (for kids with an iron deficiency)
- Zinc (for kids with a zinc deficiency)
- Melatonin for ADHD-related insomnia
- Magnesium supplements
- Ginkgo and Ginseng
But, again, the quality of studies promoting these supplements is low. On top of that, some supplements have dangerous drug interactions and side effects. Just because a supplement is “natural” doesn’t automatically make it safe. Many supplements are not well- regulated and make unsubstantiated claims.
Always talk to your doctor about giving your child supplements, even if you think they’re harmless.
Eliminate food sensitivities
Studies have shown eliminating food sensitivities and a healthy diet can help improve ADHD symptoms. Food sensitivities and food allergies are not the same - food sensitivities can cause symptoms such as headaches, stomachaches, and in people with ADHD, increase hyperactivity, inattention, and impulsivity. Food sensitivities can be identified through an elimination diet.
While eliminating food sensitivities may not be for everyone, eating a healthy diet is always beneficial, not just for people with ADHD.
Consulting with your doctor
In general, we need more research across the board to be able to say for sure whether most of these “natural remedies” are definitely effective for ADHD. Some of them, like spending time in nature and physical exercise, have numerous health benefits whether or not they work for ADHD. In general, these things are recommended for kids with or without ADHD.
Behavior therapy has the most research supporting its effectiveness. If the side effects of the ADHD medication are too much for your child to handle (even after trying different brands and dosages), or your child is too young to take medications then behavior therapy may be the next intervention to explore. Behavior therapy combined with stimulant medication is the best overall treatment for kids with ADHD and is what is generally recommended by experts.
Talk to your doctor about any natural remedies that you might be considering for your child. And never take your child off prescribed medication without consulting with their doctor first. Doing so could have dangerous consequences.
Although the research on these complementary and alternatives isn’t definitive, they might be able to help your child with ADHD. Talk to your child’s doctor or mental health or healthcare provider about all of their options, including alternative treatment options.
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.