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6 Ideas for when ADHD Meds Don’t Work

It can be such a gut wrenching decision to put your child on prescription medication for ADHD…I know. I have been there. My son has tried a bunch of different ADHD medications – 7 to be exact.

And they didn’t do much good. In fact they made thing worse. (You can read all about our journey through meds in this post.)

This post is for you if you are looking for alternative, natural treatments for ADHD – whether you’re looking for what to do when ADHD Meds don’t work or you prefer to go the natural route right from the start.

If I have learned one thing over this ADHD parenting journey, it is that ADHD is not caused by just one thing.  I feel so strongly that there are so many things that affect my sons’ behavior and  their ability to get thru a day.

I’ve included a list of small doable changes under each alternative treatment for ADHD. If you want to make long-lasting changes, we all know it’s about baby steps.  I hope you find a few new things to try.

natural supplements for adhd

Alternative Treatment #1 – Supplements

We are big on taking natural supplements. They are not miracle workers in themselves, but I notice when my kids are getting all the nutrition they need, their behavior and ability to focus improves, markedly.

The most important ones for us – and very common for ADHD kids to take – are a high quality multivitamin  and some extra fish oil.(We love Barleens). Both of my kids are very sensitive to taste and textures, so we have worked hard to find supplements that taste good and are not filled with a lot of junk.

I also love a good magnesium supplement. Did you know we are all probably really deficient in this important mineral?  My oldest son has trouble winding down at night and a magnesium supplement really helps(as well as his weighted blanket).

ADHD kids often have low numbers) -Turned out he was really low on iron and zinc.  We are doing a little extra supplementation on these two for awhile(along with our normal, time-tested routine).

Our supplement routine just sets the stage for my kids to be successful in their day. I really notice when they get off their routine of taking daily supplements. They are more irritable, less focused and they seem to crave sugary treats more than usual.

Now it’s your turn

Is there one change you’ve been meaning to make?:

Alternative Treatment #2 – Whole Foods

A super healthy, whole foods diet has been big on my list of alternative treatments for a long time. Unfortunately, most doctors do not even broach the subject of food. Being a voracious (read: crazy) researcher over the last 4 years has helped and have found what works for us. What goes into my kids’ mouths makes a HUGE difference in their behavior and overall well-being.

Avoiding processed foods and sugar is at the top of our list.  Sugar, it turns out, is in everything! Carefully read your labels: there are over 61 names for sugar lurking in processed foods. With the recommended daily allowance for kids ranging from 12 to 25 grams, one serving of cereal or yogurt may put you over the limit – for the entire day.

What’s working for us lately

Avoiding sugar may seem like a tall order, and no, we are not perfect. My kids do go to birthday parties and enjoy treats from time to time. We are closer to 85% super healthy( gluten free, corn free, dye free, super low sugar)and have found that works for us since my kids do not have specific allergies.

I do my best to work in lots of good fruit and veg, focusing on what we can eat, instead of what we can’t.

I love Imperfect Produce for their inexpensive organic produce! I spend $30.00 a week to feed my family of four exclusively organic produce. Use this link to get 10.00 off your first order! (I’ll get 10.00 off too.)

Getting lots of fruit and veg in my kids is not always easy. They can be picky and tend to stick with the same few choices. Having hummus or a good dip around helps with the veggie consumption for sure. 

Now it’s your turn. Pick One Doable Change:

  •  Have your kids read labels and help you shop.
  • Think about adding in more fruits and veggies – try some new ones to compliment the old favorites.
  • Replace white sugar with maple syrup or raw honey.
  • Shop at the farmers market for fruits and veg. – make it a fun outing!
  • Start a garden.
  • Eliminate one processed item and replace it with a healthier option.
  • Find a new recipe and cook with your  kids.
  • Start the day with a super healthy low-sugar, high protein breakfast.
  • Keep a stash of healthy snacks in the car to avoid fast food runs.

Alternative Treatment #3 -Sleep

Poor sleep can really have a profound effect on kids with ADHD, worsening their symptoms and giving them even less control over their behavior. With the majority of kids in this country suffering from sleep deprivation, it may be hard to tell what’s ADHD and what’s just a lack of sleep.

Aside from avoiding sugar, a good night’s sleep has the most positive effect on my oldest son’s behavior. I know this because on those rare nights when he gets  7 or less hours of sleep, the next day can be extremely difficult.  He is quicker to react, unable to keep calm and just generally everything is (way)harder – which makes it harder on the entire family.

What’s working for us lately:

I do my best to make sure both of my kids get about 8 to 9 hours of sleep a night. We go to bed at the same time each night, even in the summer! We have a bedtime routine, take magnesium before bed and really rely on a weighted blanket to help my oldest son fall asleep faster and stay asleep.

The weighted blanket has been such a remarkable discovery for my son!!!  The added pressure on his muscles is just what he needs to relax and fall asleep quickly and stay in bed!! Seriously, it’s worth its weight in gold!

Now it’s your turn. Which small  change seems doable?

  • Put your kids to bed 1/2 hour earlier(even 15 minutes)tonite.
  • Look at your bedtime routine. Do you need to revamp it?
  • Read up on weighted blankets to see if they might work for your child.

Alternative Treatment #4 – Connection

This one is simple and yet, often the most overlooked.   Dr. Ned Hallowell calls connection, “the other vitamin c” and touts the need for connection as a critical component to living a healthy, fulfilled life. But in today’s fast paced, technology filled, over-scheduled culture, making time for connection often gets pushed to the side.

Connection comes in many forms – connection with our kids, with friends and family, with our pets or to a religion. As humans we need to feel a part of something bigger than ourselves. As Hallowell says, its not our accomplishments that nourish us –  it’s our connections to something outside ourselves that serve us the most.

Whats working for us

The more positive time I can spend connecting with my children the better they behave, the calmer they are, the more they respond positively – period.

I often reflect on how much time I’ve spent really connecting with my kids on any given day. Yes, I may have been with them for hours – but how much time do I spend actively listening, looking into their eyes, or sitting close to them? Sadly, it may be less than 5 or 10 minutes.

I’m making a real effort to slow down and make time for connection with my kids. I don’t know who is benefiting more – me or them! I am just loving our talks and walks. When it seems like the day has gone to pot, there’s been yelling and fighting or pouting…a bit of time spent walking in nature, playing a quick game of cards, or reading a book together can get us back on track.

How can you make time for more connection ?

  • take a walk in nature
  • listen to them talk: about their latest book, camp, school, etc.
  • make a trip to the library
  • play with legos together
  • play a game(we love ” target=”_blank” rel=”noopener noreferrer”> Oregon Trail, and

    Alternative Treatment #5 – Monitoring Screens

    Screen time can be such a controversial topic. The limited research done on screen time and ADHD kids has had mixed results. Some docs believe that limited use is best and that some screen use can help actually help the symptoms of ADHD.  There is also the  extreme camp  that says kids with ADHD should not be in front of a screen at all.

    In my opinion, no matter what the research says, you need to look at your child for the answer. You probably already know how screens affect your kiddo.

    Do screens calm your child or turn him into a zombie?  Can they stop easily or do you have to stand in front of the screen and scream to make him turn it off? Can she assimilate back into the real world after being on a screen or is she constantly asking to get back on? Is your child spending so much time on a screen that there is little time left for family connection?

    As parents of growing children, we may not always be able to control how much time our kids spend on screens.  Also, as more and more schools are giving chrome books and iPads to kids, it’s impossible to have no screen time.

    But, we can’t throw in the towel!  There is still lots we can do to raise healthy kids in this world of screens.  I am making a very conscious decision to make sure my high schoolers are spending lots of time doing things they enjoy that are not on a screen.

    What’s working for us:

    I am focusing my energy on getting my kids to be thoughtful about their own screen use.  I want them to be aware of the time they spend on screens, to question what they see on a screen, and make choices for themselves about how they use their screen time.  There are some overarching limits from me, of course, but, I am starting with a few important things.

    Small changes can have big results. Try one and see:

    • Institute some screen free times or places.
    • Leave the devices at home when you go on an outing.
    • Ask your kids what they are playing and what they are enjoying most about screens right now.
    • Plan some screen free activities- a hike, picnic at their favorite park, board game night with friends.
    • Turn screens off complexity after dinner and have a family game night.

    If you replace screen time with connection time, you’ll have fewer moans and groans and your family will reap the benefits of quality time spent together.

    alternative treatments for adhd

    Alternative Treatment #6 – Exercise

    No one can argue that getting lots of exercise is great for ADHD. Exercise improves concentration, elevates one’s mood, helps kids sleep better, and can even have the same effect as a prescription stimulant. 

    The problem comes in getting enough exercise to make a difference- schools are doing away with recess, team sports are very controlled, and kids are spending less time outside than prison inmates.

    Most of the exercise that kids experience these days looks like running around a field while a coach tells them what to do. While there is definitely a place for organized sports, it should not be the only type of exercise your child gets. Free play – where children run, jump and devise their own games outside, is the lost art that seems to be making a comeback. This kind of play promotes choice making, creative problem solving, and learning to get along with others-all great skills our ADHD kids may be lacking.

    What’s working really well for us, lately:

    At the expense of a well manicured backyard, we have created space for my kids to build and play – yes at 11 and 13! We have a few pallets, some shovels, lots of sticks, and a few chairs that are used forts and shelters. My kids and a few neighbors LOVE to use the space – there is lots of creativity and problem solving going on all the time.

    We also have a trampoline that is amazing for getting energy out! We were lucky enough to get one from a friend, but check Craigslist or Freecycle in your area.

    What sounds fun to add in this week?

    • let your kids just run around outside
    • explore a local forest preserve
    • ride bikes with friends or family
    • build a fort outside with chairs and sheets
    • visiting a new park in a neighboring town

    And that’s a wrap!

    I hope this list of Alternative Treatments for ADHD has given you a few new ideas to try. I wrote this post when my kids were much younger. However, now with teenagers, these same things still apply.

    Remember, just pick one or two to try. It can be so overwhelming, but the fewer you try at one time  the easier you’ll see what works and what doesn’t. This ADHD parenting journey is so much better done together – sharing with other parents who are facing similar challenges. Please share whats working for you in the comments.

    What started out as a way to help my kids has really become a whole family lifestyle. We all participate in these “alternative” ways of being. I am certainly better for it, too.

    More inspiration for parenting ADHD:

    Read about how amazing a weighted blanket is for sleep, here.

    My most popular post on Parenting ADHD is HERE.

    alternative treatments for adhd



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  1. Thank you so much for this! I’m already implementing a lot of it but it’s refreshing to see down to earth lifestyle changes we can make. On reflection this would be a healthy way to live life for any family? We like to joke that our children span 2 generations. Ages 31-9 yrs. The first 4 had pretty much tech free days. The last 3 now ages 9-17 can’t imagine life without! It is a battle?

    1. Bonnie! What a perspective you have – I can only imagine our children’s children and how different it will be for them. Sounds like you are doing great work, mama! I’d love to hear what’s working for you and your kids right now.

  2. What a wonderful article. Since my son’s diagnosis, I’ve been making changes like the ones you mentioned. It’s an uphill battle sometimes but I think it will be worth it. Thanks for sharing you strategies and ideas and for inspiring me to do better for my children!

    1. Jennifer – good to hear from you – yes, it seems like two steps forward, one step back, but always in the right direction no matter how small the step!
      Sounds like you are doing good work, mama!

  3. We are going to try to make it without meds (we have tried some). This is one of the best things I have read. I love the way you put what works for you and then give easy ways to implement these strategies right now. Thanks so much!

    1. Thanks Kim!! Glad you found it. I am getting ready to publish Our ADHD Story today – Part One(It’s a really long story!) So check back in, to see our meds to no meds journey. Good for you for thinking differently!

  4. Very good article and very helpful ideas. Will be trying out the ones we do not do now. What dosage of magnesium do you suggest for a 12 year old girl. Thank you

    1. Hi Allison! 240mg is the rec. daily allowance for girls that age. If you take the KidsCalm Multi you get it all in there, the KidsCalm drink goes a bit under that, so you can do an additional supplement if you’d like. I’d do it at night if there are any sleep issues at all. My son takes magnesium an hour before bed and drifts off like a dream!!