There's no cure--but there are effective treatments.
Medication is a critical element of treatment, research has consistently found. Stimulants are the gold standard, especially when combined with behavioral therapy; both help manage the disruptive and inattentive behaviors of ADHD.
Many people question why you'd give a stimulant to a child who is already unable to sit still. But medications such as Ritalin and Adderall stimulate the brain's ability to send signals back and forth in a way that promotes attention and impulse control. Doctors insist it's not just a valid treatment--it's vital. "To hold off on medication for a child who's been diagnosed with ADHD is like asking someone who is nearsighted to try squinting for a year instead of giving him glasses to correct his vision," explains Dr. Hallowell.
But a medicine that works for one child may not work for another. That's why doctors monitor kids closely, adjusting dosages or changing medications altogether until they find one, or a combination, that works.
If stimulants don't work or trigger too many side effects (such as agitation, sleeplessness, anxiety, and tics), which can happen in 20 percent of cases, doctors move to other drugs. These include antidepressants and antihypertensives, which also have a calming effect. However, they take longer to kick in and are not as effective in curbing ADHD behaviors.
"We're not sure why, but many children who can't tolerate a medicine at one age do better with the same medicine a few years later," says Dr. Kurtz. "The brain changes, so parents shouldn't rule out medication forever."