There is a startling trend in the United States to medicate away children's bad behavior. According to research published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP), more children than ever before are being given powerful psychiatric drugs that can have serious, long term affects on their developing bodies. According to an article in the New York Times, the number of bipolar diagnoses in children under 13 has increased by a whopping 700 percent! Here is an in-depth look at medicating children with psychiatric drugs, health concerns and safer alternatives.
How Young is Too Young?
The ages that some parents begin medicating children are startling. What used to be called the "terrible twos" is now being labeled as bipolar disorder or some other serious form of mental illness, and children are being given prescription medication.
The fact is that most mental illnesses are extremely difficult to diagnose in very young children. Many of the behaviors that are hallmarks of mental illness in adults are also common in normal small children, such as inattention, argumentative and oppositional behavior and mood swings, especially when they are trying to develop a greater sense of independence from their parents.
Ultimately it's up to parents to decide if medicating their children with psychiatric drugs is appropriate, but they should try to examine all available treatment options, and rule out other factors such as developmental disorders.
A Genuine Cure or the Easy Way Out?
Given the evidence that children are being put on heavy medications in their very early years, has led many critics to wonder whether or not parents and teachers are just taking the easy way out with medicating children instead of dealing with behavioral issues. One set of statistics noted in the AACAP journal mentioned above shows that it may indeed be a case of taking the easy way out and using psychiatric drugs as chemical restraints.
These statistics show that less than half of the children using psychiatric drugs received any sort of evaluation or therapy based treatment from a qualified psychiatrist. They were simply given a prescription and sent on their way. This doesn't in any way mean that there aren't children who have severe mental and emotional health concerns. For those children, psychiatric drugs can mean the difference between an acceptable quality of life and one spent in misery.
Health Concerns of Medicating Children Too Early
When psychiatric drugs are given to young children, it bathes their still-developing brains in powerful chemicals that can have long-term, damaging effects. It is for this reason that there is no psychiatric drug on the market that is approved by the FDA for use in children under the age of six. There is simply not enough information known about how these medications affect the fragile minds and bodies of very young children.
It is a fact that psychiatric drugs can carry some very serious long term side effects. The use of stimulant medications, such as those used to treat ADHD have been linked to impaired growth rates, significant weight loss, and withdrawal symptoms with long term use. Antipsychotic medications, such as those used to treat bipolar disorder, have been linked to rapid weight gain and lifelong metabolic and endocrine disorders.
All of this is in addition to the immediate side effects such as severe headaches, slurred speech, tremors and twitches, and lose of balance, causing them to stumble when they walk. In some very sad cases, death has resulted, even after years of use. Because of the risks involved in medicating children, there is a now a program in Louisiana, administered in cooperation with Tulane University that is working to wean children off of psychiatric drugs and give parents safer alternatives for treatment.
Alternatives to Psychiatric Medications
There are a number of safe alternatives to help deal with the troublesome behaviors. Often a child's outburst is a reaction to some kind of stressor, whether it's something as simple as starting a new daycare or something like parents fighting. Here are some ways that parents can deal with behaviors drug-free.
- Set boundaries and stand by them, no matter how much the child is screaming. As is often the case with very young children, they will throw a tantrum to get what they want. Some research indicates children as young as six months old throw tantrums. As soon as they figure out that it won't work, they will typically stop. This can be hard on parents to do, but it typically works quickly.
- Older children, perhaps five and older, can be taught relaxation techniques such as deep breathing or progressive muscle relaxation.
- Many children experience problems with sensory processing. What often manifests as screaming, violent outbursts is really a child's need for sensory input, or being severely over stimulated. Occupational therapy can do wonders in helping these children deal with the world around them.
While it's a given that none of this will be effective for every child and that there are some children who really do need help, it is imperative that parents use an abundance of caution when considering psychiatric drugs for their small children. The risks are just too great not to.