Can I Treat ADHD Without Medication?

  • Medical Author:
    Dennis S. Phillips, MD

    Dr. Phillips received his bachelor's degree in Psychology from Stanford University. After graduating from medical school at the University of Southern California, he completed his residency training and served as Chief Pediatric Resident at UCLA- Harbor General Hospital in Los Angeles.

  • Medical Editor: William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR
    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    Dr. Shiel received a Bachelor of Science degree with honors from the University of Notre Dame. There he was involved in research in radiation biology and received the Huisking Scholarship. After graduating from St. Louis University School of Medicine, he completed his Internal Medicine residency and Rheumatology fellowship at the University of California, Irvine. He is board-certified in Internal Medicine and Rheumatology.

Ask the experts

Is medication the only treatment for ADHD?

Doctor's response

To answer your question, I first want to stress that even for the child with ADHD in which medication is going to be used, it should be considered only one component of a multipronged approach. The child, his parents, his teachers, and others who support and work with him in and out of school will all need to understand and support the situations and conditions under which the child learns and behaves to his maximum potential.

Several years ago, there had been the hope that various dietary programs (such as the "Feingold Diet", etc.) and mega-vitamin therapies might "cure" ADHD. And while today many parents remain strongly convinced that dietary factors like excess sugars, salicylates, or food dyes definitely make their ADHD child worse, multiple studies have failed to show a real role for dietary factors or inadequate vitamins in actually causing ADHD.

Most authorities, however, feel that an approach called "behavior therapy" has a real role in the approach to managing ADHD. This approach can be used with or without the use of medication. The basic principles in this approach consist of:

  • Setting specific goals (completion of an assignment, playing peacefully at recess, staying in his seat for one hour, etc.);
  • Providing rewards (for example, play time on a computer) for achieving goals and consequences (for example, "time out," loss of privileges, etc.) for unacceptable behaviors; and
  • Keep using the rewards and consequences consistently for a long period of time.

To be successful, this approach requires a lot of coordination, consistency, and patience. Frequently, a mental-health professional (psychologist or family counselor) conducts the initial parent training in child behavior management plus teacher consultation in behavior modification.

A study by the National Institute of Mental Health concluded that "patients who received behavioral treatment alone displayed fewer or less prominent ADHD symptoms following treatment. For mild ADHD symptoms that do not warrant a trial of medication, behavior therapy is strongly recommended."

Medically reviewed by Margaret Walsh, MD; American Board of Pediatrics


"Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in children and adolescents: Overview of treatment and prognosis"

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Reviewed on 6/7/2017