Medication is hard to swallow: Parents meander through a moral minefield with ADHD

Doctoral research from the University of Western Sydney has revealed the impossible position of parents, whose children are diagnosed with Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

Dr Anthony Dillon, a social scientist from the Centre for Positive Psychology and Education (CPPE) at UWS, has completed a PhD study of parents’ attitudes and perceptions of ADHD.

The results indicate that some parents experience stress in relation to ADHD, and are often uncertain about the appropriate course of treatment for their child.

“A diagnosis of ADHD is based upon the observation of a set of problematic behaviours, including hyperactivity, impulsivity and inattentiveness. There is no conclusive diagnostic test to diagnose it, nor is there any evidence to confirm that these behaviours are the result of an underlying brain abnormality,” says Dr Dillon.

“For some parents this is a tough pill to swallow. Without clear directives from health professionals, they find it difficult to make an informed decision about whether their child’s behaviours warrant the use of medication that can potentially have side-effects.”

As part of Dr Dillon’s study, 430 parents participated in an online survey to identify their opinions of the nature, causes, and appropriate treatments of ADHD, as well as to understand their decisions of whether or not to medicate. Thirteen parents were interviewed to further explore their experiences.

Of those 430 parents surveyed, 350 accepted the diagnosis of ADHD as an explanation for their children’s behaviour, while the remaining 80 rejected it.

Dr Dillon says parents’ perceptions of ADHD have a definite impact on whether they accept or reject a diagnosis, and also ultimately influences the treatment methods that they allow their child access to.

“Parents are generally divided in their views, of whether ADHD is a legitimate neurological disorder, or is the result of other, non-biological factors,” says Dr Dillon.

“Those who accept the diagnosis were more likely to view ADHD as a brain disorder; were more likely to report the diagnosis as a helpful relief; and were more likely to accept medication as an appropriate treatment.

“Conversely, parents who rejected the diagnosis as an explanation for their child’s behaviour were more likely to believe that ADHD is the result of non-biological factors; were less likely to perceive the diagnosis as helpful; and were less likely to report feeling stressed by their child’s behaviours.”

Dr Dillon says the parents’ assumptions of the causes of ADHD – and therefore whether or not they accept the diagnosis and opt for the use of medication – could be influenced by a number of external factors.

“Health professionals are a major source of validating information, and can influence parents in regard to their beliefs on what qualifies as a medical condition and what is the most appropriate treatment,” says Dr Dillon.

Other influencers include schools, relatives and friends – who all have a role in unintentionally directing parents to take control of their child’s behaviours in certain ways.”

Dr Dillon says the findings of his research indicate that, if parents have more support and are assisted in managing their stress, a wider range of options for managing ADHD-type behaviours may be considered.

“For many parents, the high levels of stress associated with their child’s behaviours, as well as their desire to be a good parent, leads to medication being seen as the only way forward,” says Dr Dillon.

“When making their decisions, parents should be relatively unaffected by stress, pressure from others, or the need to conform to the expectations of others and have access to information on the different treatment options available.

“The decision of whether to medicate their child or not is a personal one, and efforts should be directed to making more information available to parents, so that they can carefully consider current conflicting views and have greater autonomy in this decision.”

Given the strong and diverse views of parents and professionals regarding the methods for managing ADHD-type behaviours, Dr Dillon is conducting further research that focuses on attitudes and opinions on the use of medication.

All interested participants are invited to complete a short survey.


22 May 2012

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Contact: Danielle Roddick, Senior Media Officer