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Medications for ADHD

Boy focuses on a ballMedication can help tamariki (children) with ADHD to concentrate, feel calmer, and think before they act. Parents or caregivers will decide together with a paediatrician or child psychiatrist whether medication is right for their tamaiti (child).

Often doctors will try behaviour therapy before medications. But tamariki with severe ADHD may need medications straight away.

Behaviour therapy is a talking treatment. A trained therapist counsels and supports your tamaiti and whānau (family), and teaches you skills to manage the behaviour that goes with ADHD. Some approaches involve working one-to-one with a therapist. Other approaches involve group activities with other tamariki or parents.

Studies have shown that medication is more effective than behaviour therapy alone.


The most common medication used for treating ADHD is a stimulant called methylphenidate. Methylphenidate comes as tablets and works quickly.

It may seem unusual to treat ADHD with a stimulant medication, but it actually has a calming effect on tamariki with ADHD.

Common side effects of methylphenidate include loss of appetite, mild tummy discomfort and mild headache. These can usually be reduced by starting on a low dose. They often improve once the tamaiti has been taking medication for a while. If your tamaiti develops any side effects, discuss them with your doctor.


If your tamaiti is on stimulant medication, they need to see a doctor every month to get a new prescription. This is because stimulant medication is a controlled script, which means it can only be prescribed monthly, by your GP, psychiatrist or paediatrician. Your doctor will probably check things like the height, weight, pulse and blood pressure of your tamaiti at the same time.

About one in five tamariki can stop medication after one year of treatment. Some may need medication for a few years. Your doctor may suggest trying no medication (for a few days up to two weeks) every now and then to see how well your tamaiti can manage without it. If there's a problem, they can start medication again.

Stimulant medications don't make tamariki with ADHD feel high, although some kids report feeling slightly different or funny. The medications are considered safe. Although some parents worry that stimulant medications may lead to substance abuse or dependence, there's little evidence of this.

Non-stimulant medication

Stimulant medication is usually tried first for treating ADHD. If your psychiatrist believes that a non-stimulant medication is a better option, they may prescribe Atomoxetine. It's the most common non-stimulant medication used for treating ADHD. You or your tamaiti will need to meet the necessary criteria for funding. Talk to your psychiatrist about this.

Written by HealthInfo clinical advisers. Last reviewed November 2021.

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Review key: HIADH-15144