Kids in foster care end up on antipsychotic medication for ADHD

A recent study, one that received relatively scant media attention (compared with a concurrent New York Times piece about a new psychiatric diagnosis termed “sluggish cognitive tempo” that may be the “new ADHD”) showed that antipsychotics are being prescribed to nearly one third of kids (age 2-17) in foster care who are diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

This disturbing statistic brought to mind a common complaint I hear from parents about putting on shoes to go out of the house. A child will dawdle, ignoring multiple requests. The situation will escalate to the point where the parent becomes increasingly angry and frustrated, and the child descends in to an all out tantrum.

This kind of scene likely plays out in some form in every household with a young child. It can be useful to keep in mind as we aim to understand why a child who is in foster care might exhibit behavior that calls for bringing out these pharmaceutical big guns.

While there is a range of reasons for a child to be in foster care, one can assume that there has at minimum been some experience of trauma and loss. This might include physical and/or emotional abuse.

Research in the field of developmental psychology and attachment offers a way to understand this situation. Young children inevitably have tantrums. It is a normal healthy part of development. But if a caregiver herself has a history of trauma, her child’s behavior may, as they say, “push her buttons.” She may become flooded with stress in the face of her child’s acting out. Unable to think clearly, she may respond with behavior that is either frightened or frightening. She may either become overwhelmed with rage, or shut down emotionally. In the language of psychology this is termed “dissociation.” For the child, it is as if his caregiver suddenly isn’t there. In this situation, the child learns to recognize his own emotional distress as a signal for abandonment.

Now put this same child in foster care and ask him to put his shoes on to go outside. What starts out as a “typical” parent-child interaction can quickly descend in to wildly uncontrollable behavior. I’ve heard parents who have adopted kids out of trauma say, “its like he’s not even there.” When the child was in this kind of situation with an abusing caregiver, he might, in a way that is in fact adaptive, responded to her dissociation with his own form of dissociation. Now he has learned that behavior. But out of context, in foster care with a non-abusing caregiver, it may look “crazy.”

When this kind of “not listening” extends to other arenas, it may be reframed as “not paying attention.”  This behavior often occurs together with the impulsivity. Impulsivity literally means to act without thinking. An inability to think in the face of strong emotions, as I describe in my book Keeping Your Child in Mind, can also be understood as part of the trauma, of not having been held in mind by caregivers early in development.  With problems of both inattention and impulsitivity the child may, according checklists commonly used to make the diagnosis, earn the ADHD label.

Perhaps this is how kids in foster care end up on antipsychotic medication for ADHD.

But by taking this path, we are essentially putting a muzzle on the child. The child’s behavior is a form of communication. It says, “I have never learned how to manage myself in the face of life’s inevitable frustrations.” Rather than silence him with a powerful drug, that is well known to have serious side effects, we need to listen to that communication.

The first step is to recognize the meaning of the behavior. Once caregivers understand the “why” of the behavior, they can better support the child’s efforts to regulate himself in the face of frustration. At first this might be in a very physical way. For example he might need to be held in a firm and loving embrace. Or he might need to run around the room. Or hit a punching bag. He might need a soft and gentle voice rather than a harsh and angry one. As a child gets older, regulating activities like dance, theater and marshall arts can have a significant role to play. Once a child has developed the capacity to regulate his body in the face of distress, he can begin, perhaps in the setting of psychotherapy, to give words to his experience.

But if we simply silence him with medication, all of this opportunity for growth and healthy development may be lost.

Claudia M. Gold is a pediatrician who blogs at Child in Mind and is the author of Keeping Your Child in Mind.

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