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Is ADHD Behavioral Therapy More Effective Than Drugs in the Long Run?

Posted by Dr. Robert Myers, PhD

Can cognitive and behavioral therapy possibly be a better solution for your child’s ADHD than drugs? The Scientific American published an article in May entitled Not-So-Quick Fix: ADHD Behavioral Therapy May Be More Effective Than Drugs in Long Run. The article was based on findings of the April 2012 Experimental Biology meeting held in San Diego. At the conclusion of the meeting, a consensus opinion was formed based on a new synthesis of behavioral, cognitive and pharmacological findings. According to Scientific American summary the basic conclusion was “behavioral and cognitive therapies focused on reducing impulsivity and reinforcing positive long-term habits may be able to replace current high doses of stimulant treatment in children and young adults.”

Does this mean that all children, teens and adults with a diagnosis of ADHD can be successful in life without taking any medication?  No.  What it is saying is that a combination of lower doses of medication combined with behavioral and cognitive therapy may produce better long-term benefits than medication alone.  Other research and current professional guidelines for the treatment of ADHD suggest that individuals with mild to moderate symptoms should be started on psychological treatment first with medication added only if needed after an adequate trial on the behavioral and cognitive interventions.

Julie Schweitzer and co-researchers at UC Davis’s psychiatry and behavioral sciences department and the Institute of the MIND recently did a study that supports the idea that Cognitive Behavioral Therapy can be helpful for kids with ADHD. These children, when asked to do memory tasks, showed extra activity in the “task-irrelevant” portions of their brains — they had more trouble focusing on the task at hand, and were distracted easily. They concluded that when trained in cognitive behavioral therapy, it’s possible these kids will have more mental control and will be able to concentrate more efficiently.

The article ends with a note of caution: “The trick will be identifying which of the new therapies is most effective, and making those therapies affordable. For now, stimulant medications are much cheaper and act faster than behavioral therapy, even if the latter may be the most effective in the long run. But experts as well as parents know that the long run is what matters most.”


About Dr. Robert Myers, PhD

Dr Robert Myers is a child psychologist with more than 25 years of experience working with children and adolescents with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and learning disabilities and is the creator of the Total Focus Program®. Dr Myers is Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at UC Irvine School of Medicine. "Dr Bob" has provided practical information for parents as a radio talk show host and as editor of Child Development Institute's website,, which reaches 3 million parents each year. Dr. Myers earned his Ph.D. from the University of Southern California.

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