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Medicating Children

Medicating Children

By Cassandra George Sturges MA, MA, Psy.D

When I was a counseling psychologist, I had several parents come to me and demand that I fix their child. The parent would run off the typical list of acting out behaviors that I had grown accustomed to: she doesn’t respect authority, he doesn’t listen to the teacher; she doesn’t or turn in her homework; she  disobeys the house rules;  he bullies his peers; he appears withdrawn; she is always fidgeting and so forth. Parents discuss their frustration with their child’s aggressive behavior, poor grades, low self-esteem and social withdrawal—always failing to see the connection between their child’s emotional behaviors and the home environment that the parent has created for the child.

Many children are acting out psychological frustrations that they can not or are unable to communicate to adults. No exercise, poor diet and no control ever their environment must be channeled into some type of emotional behaviors. The easiest thing for most parents or primary caregivers to do is to have their child’s doctor prescribe a “magic pill” for the child to eliminate the parent’s psychological headache that rids them from accountability and responsibility from putting forth real, heart-and-soul, down-to-earth efforts that are required to raise their children. Many parents today can not imagine what parents did 10, 15, 20 years ago before the era of Ritalin.

 Most parents prefer to control their child’s behavior through medication regardless of the emotional, psychological and social reasons that may be the root causes of why their child is acting out. It’s easier to give a child a pill than address questions about sex, drugs, war and the economy. It’s easier for parents to give children a pill than be honest with them about why they hate their jobs, abuse drugs or continue to select the wrong partner.

It’s easier for parents to give their child a pill that will help them only focus on history, math and science than explain or discuss how these subjects relate to current conditions or the real meaning of life.

 As a psychologist I am mandated to report any suspicions or reports or sexual or physical abuse. These are the easy cases because the rules are clear cut. On the other hand, we can not share confidential information that our client has shared with us during individual counseling sessions that could violate trust and destroy family relationships. I am going to share some of the issues that children have expressed to me about their parents.

 I am not saying that there aren’t any cases where a child does not need medication, but medication should be given to your child as a last resort after eliminating the following possible causes of why your child is acting out:

Are you working too many hours?

Many children complain that they never see their parents and that it is embarrassing when their peers talk about family game night, movie night or even doing chores together. One kid said, “My mother is always telling us that she is working hard to pay the bills and put food on the table. I can understand this. What I don’t understand is why when she has a day off from work, she would much rather spend that time with a friend than with me and my brother. When we tell her that we miss her, she says that she need “adult time with her friends”. I hope that she enjoys her adult time with my teachers and principal. This is the only time I get to see her during the day.”


Are you in an unhealthy intimate relationship?

Parents think that their children are sleeping or unaware of what is going in their dating or marital relationships, but I am speaking to you from the depths of my soul—your children know what is going on. They have told me more times than I care to count about their parents unhealthy relationship habits. One child said that what bothered him the most was that every week his mom would let a new guy sleep in her bed. His mother would sneak the guy out before it was time for him to get up, but she didn’t know that he would watch the new guy walk to his car and drive away. He explained to me as he sobbed uncontrollably, that this is why he hated his mother. He said, “My mother pretended to be into church and would always tell me what to do, but I just want to tell her that she is a lying slut.”


Another major complaint that I heard constantly from children was that they knew that their parents were having extramarital affairs. They hated the parent that was cheating and the parent that chose to stay in the relationship. On child said, “Everybody knows daddy has a girlfriend. The kids on my block tease me about it. My parents always want to pretend that everything is fine. The reason that I am so depressed is because I don’t want to be like them and I am too young to move out.”


One young teenager explained to me why she is anorexic, “My daddy is always looking at other women and porn and talking about how beautiful these women are. He never compliments my mom, he tells her that she needs to lose weight or get a tummy tuck because she has gone done hill after having me and my sister. I hate him.”


Are their changes in the family structure?

Have you moved to a new neighborhood? If you are recently divorced or have remarried this causes stress for your child. It makes them feel unstable and they need to find their place in the new family system. If there has been a recent death or birth in your family this also affects your child psychological well-being. When people come and go in any environment, it affects the morale of the people who are already there. Changes sometimes cause people to feel vulnerable and dispensable. Children also miss the way things use to be. To every degree possible try to maintain as many family routines and schedules as possible to help your child feel emotionally stable and secure. Cook their favorite meals; watch your favorite prime-time television shows and go to their recitals, practices and so forth.

Are you having financial difficulties?

If you have recently filled or plan to file bankruptcy, the strain on your resources and mental attitude is most likely going to have a negative affect on your child psychological well being. If you have lost your job, been laid off, sued or money is tight—your child is feeling the squeeze for resources. You are probably not in the best mood after arguing with bill collectors and preventing your car from being reposed. They are just as worried as you are about the lights remaining on, and having a place to live.

 Read stories to your child about people who were raised in poverty but overcame their circumstances. Tell them that the best things in life are free such as love, integrity, and honor, and respect, hard work, being compassionate and empathetic towards others. Let them know that money does not define their worth as a human being.  Find creative ways to create a feeling of wealth in the home such as placing fresh flowers in a bottle; keeping your home orderly and neat; writing poetry; drawing or painting and; volunteering your time at a homeless shelter.

 Are you depressed?

Many parents don’t see how their own depression and sadness affects their child’s well being. Children discuss how their parent’s hate their jobs or bosses or both and when they come home from work they are distant and mean. “My momma gets up at 4 pm in the evenings, just in time to watch the Oprah Winfrey show. I am so embarrassed to bring my friends home from school because my momma is wearing her gown, her hair is standing up on her head and dirty dishes are in the sink. In between sleeping, she smokes, drinks, and complains about me not helping out around the house enough. I am a kid. She is too tired to take me to after school activities but expects me to go to school, get good grades and clean up the house while she does nothing.”

 A rule thumb for parents is:  if you are unhappy—there is a high chance that your child is also unhappy to some degree. No matter how hard you try to fake or pretend that everything is okay—kids know. Just because a child is unable to verbally articulate and explain adult issues the energy in the home and the feelings resonate in the emotional part of their brains which is why many children “act out” but can’t explain what is wrong.

 Parents, if you are depressed, please make sure that you are taking the right type of medication or herbal remedies. If you are in a negative mood, complain constantly about your life, have very little energy or overly critical of your loved ones, make sure that you are getting the help that you need. Creating a loving, nurturing, supportive environment begins with the parents.

 Are you addicted to alcohol or other illegal substances?

Many parents think that they are experts at covering up their addictions from their children. I am telling you as a professional counselor—the kids know! I know many parents believe that because they are good providers; there is food in the refrigerator; the kids are wearing designer clothes, the kids have expensive video games and cell phones and all of their material needs are met—that the children do not know that they are sniffing cocaine, smoking marijuana and drinking alcohol excessively. If I had a penny for every time a child reported to me how much they despised their parents for being hypocrites, I would be a billionaire.


Parents think back to when you were a child—didn’t you know more than what your parent’s let on to? Take an honest look at yourself—is this the type of life that you want for your child? Are you telling your child to “do as I say and not as I do?”


Is your Child Being Bullied?

Many children are too embarrassed to tell their parents that they are being bullied, but this is a major factor that leads to childhood depression and other psychological issues in adulthood. Most studies show that the children who are most likely to be bullied are children with few friends, rejected by teachers, or come from a home filled with domestic violence. If your child won’t open up to you, the best thing to do is to take a karate class together. Karate builds the child’s inner confidence and does not teach violence. Spend more quality time with your child doing simple tasks, such as cooking, washing the family car or going to the dollar movies and discussing the inter-relationships between the characters.  Your child’s inner picture of themselves is etched by your words and actions. A perfect movie to watch is Mask, starring Cher. This movie illustrates how inner strength and integrity supersedes physical differences.


Is your child having difficulty in school?

Many children act out because they don’t understand what is going on in the classroom. When some children are young they learn to compensate for learning difficulties by being quiet, asking their friends for help or finding creative ways to trick the teacher into thinking that they understand the material. As the academic assignments become more difficult the child begins to use negative behaviors to disguise their learning disorder. Many teachers assume that the child is lazy and not trying hard enough because of the child’s past academic performance.  The parent’s take away their child’s privileges such as cell phones, video games and talking to friends and the child’s negative behaviors increase.


Please, please, please have your child tested for dyslexia and other silent learning disorders. Find out whether or not your child is a left brain learner, right brain learner, auditory learner, visual learner, hands-on learner. Have your child tested for the 8 types of intelligence by Howard Gardener and nurture on three 3 top intelligences. When possible pick your child’s teachers, many times it is not personal but some learning styles respond better to certain teaching styles. What is the best time of the day for your child to study? The more you learn about how your child learns the better you will be able to help them become healthy productive, healthy adults.


Are you creating a healthy home environment?

Before you medicate your child ask yourself the following questions: Is my child receiving enough fresh air and exercise? When was the last time my child played outside? Does my child watch too much television and play video games indoors? Does my child eat too much fast food or fried foods? Does my child eat enough green vegetables or take a multivitamin?  Is my child getting enough sleep?


Have you conducted research about the long term effects and/or alternatives to medication?

Most parents put forth more research into buying a home, car or the best brand of washing powder to use than look up the current research on how medication is affecting their child’s long-term health and well-being.  There are some studies that show that certain medications for ADHD decrease a child’s adult height. Some studies show that there is a link being taking anti-depressants and increased teenage suicide rates. 

Be an advocate and investigator for your child long term health, not what is the easiest solution for you. Ask your doctor for studies and then compare and contrast them with your own research. Don’t trust pharmaceutical companies to tell you the whole truth because they are trying to sell a product. Put for the same energy and effort in helping your child that you would put into investing a million dollars. Your child’s life and health is priceless.