Parents of preschoolers at risk for attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) may first want to try behavior training before they put their children on medications, suggests a new analysis of past studies.
Researchers found medications improved young children's behaviors but put them at risk for mood and growth problems. Training that teaches parents to understand their children's needs, however, did the same without side effects.
"Training also helps the parent feel more confident," said Dr. Alison Charach, the study's lead author from the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto.
Children with ADHD tend to have a hard time paying attention, to be forgetful, fidget and be easily distracted, to the point that it creates problems at school, at home and with their friends.
While it's difficult to diagnose children younger than six years old with the condition, Charach said it's important to start children with disruptive behaviors - including ADHD - on the right path.
"Immediately intervening at this age puts the child on an improved trajectory for school and adolescence," she said.
But Charach and her fellow researchers, who published their findings in Pediatrics on Monday, wrote that there's no information on the effectiveness of parent behavior training compared to the popular ADHD drug Ritalin - sold generically as methylphenidate.
For the new study, the researchers analyzed 55 studies from 1980 through 2011 that looked at the different treatments among preschoolers at risk for ADHD.
They found eight "good" studies that looked at parent behavior training, which consists of about 10 to 12 sessions that teach parents how to better understand their child. Those led to a moderate improvement in behavior, Charach said.
"The main thing is really helping the parent understand their child and read their child," she said.
For example, the sessions may help parents understand their child acts up after an hour of being at a birthday party, and that they should leave earlier.
Only one "good" study evaluated Ritalin use in preschoolers. That study showed a similar improvement in behavior, but the preschoolers were at risk for side effects, including irritability and slowed growth.
"For whatever reason children in this age group are more sensitive to the Ritalin side effects," said Charach.
While it's hard to compare the effectiveness of parent behavior training and Ritalin to each other, the researchers concluded that there is more evidence that the training sessions are effective in preschoolers.