Why Are We Still Medicating Our Kids?

So, if family therapy is safe, effective, and brief, why do very few people know about it? The answer is simple: follow the money.
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"To drug or not to drug our kids, that is the question we need to be asking -- ourselves, our political leaders, and our medical establishment." So wrote Arianna Huffington on April 2, 2007 in her insightful review of Lisa Loomer's play Distracted. Now, almost four years later, even more parents have clearly landed on the side of "to drug." As for our political leaders and the medical establishment, they have been lulled into trancelike compliance by the billions spent by drug companies on lobbying, campaign donations, perks, and research funding.

Psychotropic drug use in children is sharply up in this country for several reasons: biological psychiatry is still the mainstream treatment choice for our troubled kids; robust marketing by drug companies entices doctors and parents into thinking there are "quick-fix" capsule solutions for every childhood woe; and we are becoming an increasingly distracted and distractible society, where cell phones, smart phones, laptops, ipads and iPods compete 24/7 with parents for their kid's attention. The contemporary American home is coming to resemble a video arcade. And what child can focus on his algebra homework when there is the lure of a dazzling dose of eye candy?

Another factor that we cannot ignore is the increasing mood of competitiveness that is becoming a social norm among parents. Having high performing kids has become a status symbol for parents, a soothing stroke for narcissistic egos. Otherwise sensible parents believe that their child must be on the track to Harvard by age six-and-a-half. Blaming and shaming children into over-achieving is an approach that has received much publicity lately. Another approach is putting a tiger in their tank with drugs to speed them along to the top of their class. While no one would argue that a daily dose of amphetamine doesn't help a child focus better at school, we must keep in mind that stimulant drugs help anyone focus better, regardless of whether they have attention deficits. These drugs are potent performance enhancers, as college students and fighter pilots have known for decades.

Many courageous parents, told by a child's teacher that their child needs medication to keep up with his class, find their way to a family therapist's office seeking an alternative to pharmaceutical therapy. These parents discover that family therapy is surprisingly effective for most behavioral and emotional problems of children. Family therapists have a wide array of behavioral solutions in their toolbox and can help children overcome the most serious of challenges. One powerful but simple intervention is to make a small change in the way parents communicate to their child. Asking parents to tell their child three good things about their day on a regular basis can do wonders to relieve a child's sadness or distractedness.

Believe it or not, some kids become distracted and even depressed because they worry about a mother coming home stressed from her job or a father's having problems with his boss. Resolving these problems outside a child's hearing can have a profound effect on the child's mood or ability to concentrate. A child who is jumpy or fidgety in the classroom can also benefit from getting involved with an active sport. Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps, for example, found that vigorous swimming helped him overcome his ADHD. At age 13, Phelps decided that the drug he was taking was an unnecessary crutch, and put his mind to controlling his classroom behavior without medication.

A common misconception about family therapy is that family therapists blame parents. This is a myth. Family therapists do not blame parents, because if they did, most parents wouldn't bring their child to therapy. Rather, family therapists work collaboratively with parents as a team, finding solutions tailor-made to each individual child. Another misconception is that family therapy, like other kinds of "talk" therapies, takes months or even years. This, too, is a myth. Family therapy is brief therapy, and it rarely takes a good family therapist more than seven sessions to resolve a child's problem.

So, if family therapy is safe, effective, and brief, why do very few people know about it? The answer is simple: follow the money. Drug companies in concert with mainstream psychiatry have cornered the market on fixing kids' problems, spreading the word that children's emotional disorders are "brain diseases" for which drugs are a convenient fix.

Interestingly, however, current findings in neuroscience tell us that children's brains are the product of their nurturing environment. Neuroscience supports the view that a stressful home or school environment can have a negative impact on a child's brain, and can cause a child to have emotional or behavioral problems. Stress from the social environment can even be a neurotoxin, and nothing is more stressful to a child than hearing his parents argue and disagree -- especially about matters of discipline. Even a child hearing a parent violently argue with one of his siblings can have a toxic effect on a child's developing brain. Family therapy intervenes to change the way family members communicate, to create a more healthful home environment for a troubled child.

We can encourage parents to take heed of recent developments in neuroscience, as well as to read more carefully the apocalyptic-sounding "side effects" and "warnings" on the labels of psychotropic medications. Parents would then be motivated to seek out family therapy as a safe and effective alternative to medication for their children.

Marilyn Wedge, Ph.D., expert in family therapy and author of the forthcoming book, Suffer the Children: The Case against Labeling and Medicating and an Effective Alternative (Norton, March, 2011)

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