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Best ADHD Treatment for Kids is Therapy—For Their Parents

The Short of It

It turns out the best treatment for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder in young kids may be therapy—for their parents.

The Lowdown

According to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the key to sidestepping drug use when treating kids with ADHD lies in teaching parents how to help their children.

"Parents of young children with ADHD may need support, and behavior therapy is an important first step," Dr. Anne Schuchat, the CDC's principal deputy director, told NBC News. "It's similarly effective as medication, but it doesn't have the longer-term side effects."

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The CDC studied millions of medical records and found that about one-third of the 6 million kids in the U.S. with ADHD were diagnosed before age 6. And while the American Academy of Pediatrics advises parents to try behavioral therapy before turning to drugs, about 75 percent of kids younger than 5 were being given drugs anyway, and only around half had received any kind of behavioral therapy.

Now the CDC is calling out doctors, nurses, and other health professionals in a push for better support of kids with ADHD by explaining the benefits of behavior therapy to their parents and referring them for training.

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"Behavioral therapy may not be familiar," Schuchat explained. "When applied, these skills can help the child at school, at home, and in relationships by improving behavior, self-control, and self-esteem."

Of course, the practice is extremely time-consuming for parents. And even when it's properly implemented, Schuchat said some kids will still require medicine, but, "we think that it is worth the time if parents can work it in their schedule."

The Upshot

Could behavioral therapy really be the answer? It's certainly a concept worth exploring, especially given the fact that prescription ADHD meds, like Ritalin and Adderall, often can carry some pretty nasty side effects—sleep problems, irritability, and decreased appetite—and the consequences of their long-term use have not yet been determined.

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Schuchat said the recommendation is to first refer parents of children younger than 6 with ADHD for training and behavior therapy. It may be difficult to find therapists who train parents this way, but the CDC offers tips on how to find therapists across the U.S.

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