When he was younger, one of my sons had a little streak of hyperactivity. A few teachers were irritated by him, and yes, he could be a handful. He became anxious easily and responded either by becoming energetic and loud or by bursting into tears, falling apart at a level that was far beyond what the situation warranted. I spoke with a doctor, who did believe he had ADHD, but I thought that he could learn to manage it. I taught him Galatians 5:22- “the fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience…. Self control.” I taught him “be anxious for nothing… And the peace of God will guard you heart and mind.” (Phil. 4:6-8) I disciplined him when he was disobedient. When he was so wired he couldn’t sleep, I gave him a small dose of melatonin, talked to him about ways to calm himself, and prayed with him. I chose not to medicate, even when teachers or family members suggested it might help him because I believed he showed the ability to learn to control his behavior and to calm his heart.
However, as he got older and into middle school, these behaviors became a real stumbling block for him. Impulsivity that might have been just “a boy thing” in elementary school now seemed immature and inappropriate. His heart was maturing, so he began to feel intense guilt about the behaviors he felt unable to control. Adolescent hormones, the challenges of middle school, and peer pressure were new heart struggles to add to his plate. Eventually, I made the decision to try ADHD medication for him, and it made an incredible difference in his life. It’s not something that, for us, we are viewing as “forever,” but for this season, it’s helping smooth some things out so that he can have the mental and emotional energy for all the other battles he’s fighting as a teenager.
I am often asked the “medication” question when working with kids. While with younger kids the ADHD medication is a common question, with teens it tends to be anti-anxiety and antidepressant drugs, as well as sleep aids, that parents are trying to navigate. Anxiety and depression, already on the rise among teenagers pre-Covid, are on the rise now more than ever. So how can a parent navigate whether medication is right for their child?
Begin by asking God for wisdom. Whatever your child is struggling with is not just a challenge for them, but for you as the parent, as well. However, challenges, if we meet them, are what make us grow in character, and every challenge is not necessarily to be avoided or lightened. James chapter 1 provides some direction: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.” (James 1:1-5, NIV) In some cases, the challenge is one that, for that particular child, might strengthen his or her faith in and dependence on God. For others, a parent might decide that, for whatever reason, the child needs some additional help and intervention for a season, or that it’s a challenge the child isn’t spiritually or emotionally ready to meet yet.
Become familiar with diagnostic criteria. As this child’s parent, you are their advocate, above any health care professional. In the ADHD case, there are currently countless studies available showing countless possibilities for what causes it, and some argue that ADHD is not a condition at all. Unfortunately, the only method for diagnosis currently is based upon criteria listed in the DSM-V, Diagnostics and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. A diagnosis is made when a child displays a number of symptoms over the course of time as observed by parents, teachers, and doctors. This means, of course, there is opportunity for a biased scale of what constitutes “abnormal” behavior.
Anxiety and depression are also complicated. A variety of factors can come into play, including stressors in their home and/or school environments, the child’s diet and level of physical activity, social media and screen activity, peer interactions, spiritual life, and biological factors. The length of time the child has struggled with depressed feelings or the magnitude of the effect their anxiety has on their life are factors to look at. In dealing with clients as well as my own children, I seek to look at all of these with caution and care as I assist parents in making this decision.
Read up on any medication your doctor suggests, and be familiar with it’s side effects. This seems like a no brainer, but again, benefit vs risk comes into play. We can be so happy a medication seems to improve our child’s sense of well being that we are willing to overlook side effects that may cause other long-term issues. Many ADHD meds suppress appetite, anxiety meds can affect sleep, and some antidepressants cause an increase in suicidal thoughts. We need to watch all the elements of their overall health closely if as we weigh the decision.
What is already going into your child’s body? Many food allergies or intolerances can cause ADHD-like symptoms. Anxiety symptoms can be similar to those of hypoglycemia. Does your child consume caffeine? Do they take any cold or allergy medications regularly, or any vitamin supplements? Are they particularly sensitive to sugar, or do they eat too much of it? Anything we put into our bodies can cause an effect, which may be so subtle we don’t notice it, or so common we just assume the substance is safe and not the root of our child’s issue.
What’s going into your child’s mind? I’m seeing a lot of young women with eating disorders and depression who spend a lot of time comparing themselves to young women on Instagram and TikTok. Young men can be influenced by the “trash talking” that can take place on Discord servers while gaming. One young man I worked with struggled with homicidal thoughts, and encouragement to his parents to find out what media he was taking in led to a Netflix history search revealing hours of horror movies and serial killer documentaries. Some teens who seem depressed are secretly already pornography addicted, and the depression is actually coming from shame. While online bullying is gaining attention, it’s still a very real problem. The older your child is, the harder their media intake is to control, but we should be taking this into account when looking at their overall mental health.
Compare your child to other children. Ok, I know this is the number one parenting no-no, but hear me out! I’m not saying to compare them in a negative sense, as in, “why aren’t they more like….?” Rather I’m saying to try to interact with some other children enough to get a gauge on whether your child’s behavior is really that far outside of what seems to be normal for their age.
What are your beliefs about medication in general? We all know of those who believe a Christian should not take any medications whatsoever, as it limits our faith in God’s power to heal, as well as those on the opposite end of the spectrum, the person who abuses medications and more than likely does have a heart issue that needs God’s intervention. Most of us tend to fall somewhere in the middle- we see that in all situations, God does not always heal on this earth, or not always immediately. We also see God’s creative hand in the intricacies of the human brain and body, and the creativity He has given to man. Except in a cases where medical science violates Scriptural morality, we can give glory to God for medical advancements and discoveries. It is more difficult to feel ready to give medicine for a problem that cannot be physically and unquestionably diagnosed, but if we can admit that things can go wrong in the heart or lungs, we have to admit they can go wrong in the brain. Because we can’t know for sure if this is the case with our child, we must make the most informed decision we can, with God’s help. If you feel comfortable with your father taking blood pressure medication or your diabetic friend taking insulin, but not with a child with major learning difficulties taking medication to assist them, ask yourself, “Why?” If the only reason is the stigma from the world around you and not an honest conviction regarding your child, it may be time to go back to number one- pray for wisdom.
Personally, while I don’t have a conviction against medications, I do err on the side of being conservative with them. For my fibromyalgia I have learned that I cannot effectively care for my family without the assistance of a prescription medication, but I keep the dosage as low as I can by using natural supplements, watching my diet, and exercising. I don’t care for medication side effects, but my personal conviction is really more out of belief that a pill should not be my excuse to live however I want- I am still personally responsible for making right, disciplined choices, and want my trust to remain in God and not in a medication. As in many issues of life, for me it’s question of the motivation of my heart. Which leads me to my final point…
A Pill is not a magic “cure all.” Though medications might make a difference and bridge a gap for a child, making it easier for them to do the work of learning anxiety coping skills, doing therapy to figure out the roots of their depression, or whatever applies to their situation, it doesn’t absolve them of actually having to DO that work. With my son, the medication helped him with calm and focus, but he is the one who put in the work of mastering his impulsivity and learning time-management and executive functioning skills, so now those wins are truly his. He can be proud of them and carry into adulthood the perseverance he’s learned.
As one Christian parent to another, NO family should be judged for their decisions regarding the mental health care of their child. We are called to love one another, not to judge one another, and whether a parent chooses medication for their child or not, and whether we believe the child needs it or not, the job of the believers around them is to come alongside and support them in their parenting. We can choose to show love to both parent and child, understanding that each of us is doing the best we can with the resources we have. We should pray for one another, asking God to give parents discernment regarding what is best for their family, and that when they lack it, He still takes care of little ones and causes all things to ultimately work for their good.