Using medication to treat children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder could be avoided if parents were trained to help them deal with their emotions and improve their social skills, a study suggests.
It found that more than 40% of children showing high levels of behavioural difficulties fell into the normal range just 20 weeks after a parent programme intervention.
The NUI Maynooth study has found there has been a 62% increase in prescriptions for ADHD drugs over the past six years.
ADHD affects up to 5% of all children, with boys at increased risk of developing the disorder.
The evaluation of a programme, called Incredible Years, found that the most positive results emerged from children whose parents participated in the parent training element of the programme. None of the participating children were on medication at the start of, or throughout, the programme.
The study, Proving the Power of Positive Engagement, looked at families who only received the parent programme and families that received a combination of the parent and child programme, called the Dina programme.
It found that young children derived the greatest benefit from the parent training element of the programme.
Contrary to expectations, the programme for children, in combination with the parent training, did not result in benefits for parents or the children in the short term.
The researchers acknowledge that medication has been shown to help some symptoms of ADHD, but say there are persistent ethical and other considerations regarding their long-term use for young children.
The university’s Archway programme, which introduced Incredible Years for children aged 0 to 12 and commissioned the study, is trying to prevent and treat behavioural problems in children without the need for medication.
Archway chief executive Aileen O’Donoghue said the research was good news for parents and children living with the stress and uncertainty of ADHD.
While the researchers acknowledge that the number of families involved in the study, at 45, was small, they believe the findings are grounds for further and larger scale research. More than two thirds of the families in the study were from disadvantaged backgrounds.
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