What the ‘Overmedicated Kids’ Narrative Gets Wrong About Families

When we took our youngest son to a therapist earlier this year, my wife and I were clear on one thing: We wouldn’t allow him to be put on medication of any kind.

A few months later we were begging for a prescription.

So far, the Prozac-like drugs are doing what we prayed they would do. They’ve given us our son back. And I’m not ashamed to tell anyone who will listen.

Mental illness is a challenging thing to talk about, even in our tell-all society. We shun what we don’t understand, and that goes double for medicated children. Debates about whether or not kids are overmedicated have raged for decades, but often cast more heat than light. Perhaps it’s time for more parents to start talking about their experience.

Here’s ours: Our six-year-old son is amazing, and that’s not just parental pride talking. He’s ridiculously athletic, for starters. He knows instinctively where to be on the soccer field at any given time. He plays hockey like the second coming of The Great One, which makes my wife nervous. Couldn’t he embrace a less violent sport?

He’s funny, smart, and unpredictable, too, with a puckish sense of comic timing. Yet from an early age he gave us fits. At two he’d melt down as I dropped our oldest son off at school. My fellow parents can probably recall me escorting him out of the building each morning. I carried him out like a sack of potatoes while he shrieked and thrashed by my side.

But hey, those are the Terrible Twos, right? The Threes weren’t a big improvement as many parenting experts warned. ‘If you think the Twos are hard … just wait!’

We waited. And waited. And, every time he got into one of his impossible zones it wouldn’t last. A month, tops, and he was back to his sweet, irascible self. We saw a therapist two years ago during one of his spells. Her guidance didn’t help, but the intense behavior eventually subsided. He just needed time to phase out of his meltdown mode. And, thankfully, he always did.

This year was different.

It started over summer break. He would defy our instructions, physically harass his older brother and destroy whatever got in his way around our home. His bedroom looked like a war zone, with magic marker scrawled on the furniture and gaping holes littering the walls.

He took odd joy in destroying property, even his own precious toys. He tortured babysitters, including our unsuspecting niece. We had no answer for the behavior. Traditional punishments failed. So did a half dozen other techniques we heard about from fellow parents and self-help guides.

Our lives became intolerable. We could only imagine what was going on inside his beautiful little head.

We finally found a new therapist whom we hoped could help us. She taught us some coping techniques along with ways he could process his anger whenever it flared up. The latter proved ineffective. Our son’s emotions were too big, too overwhelming. He’d instantly discard her tips and rage for hours.

Hours.

My wife and I stayed as unified as we could, but at times the tension spilled over into our relationship. Those days were the worst.

Finally, we looked at each other and realized medication had to be an option.

We knew this brought a fresh set of challenges. The drugs may not kick in right away, assuming they helped at all. It could mean he’s on the medication for years, possibly decades. And, at some point, he’ll be old enough to realize his brain doesn’t work the way it should and he’s different than his friends. We’ll be by his side when those days come.

So far, the drug therapy has been an overwhelming success. He’s still challenging at times, but the rage is mostly gone. We’re hoping more therapy can teach us how to introduce boundaries back into his life.

We don’t regret waiting this long to consider medication. We think alternatives to medication should be explored before taking this dramatic step.

But our little boy is lucky all the same. The fact that these medications exist is a miracle. Society’s collective understanding of mental illness is steadily improving, in part because more people who suffer its effects are speaking out and offering support to others. It doesn’t have to be just scary headlines and ignorance.

So for now, we hope that sharing our family’s story with fellow parents might help others who are on this journey.

Image: By Tom Varco (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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  • InklingBooks

    Quote: He plays hockey like the second coming of The Great One, which makes my wife nervous. Couldn’t he embrace a less violent sport?

    You may discover that an aggressive sport like hockey not only helps him work off his energy, but also teaches him to keep his behavior within rules. You might want to encourage his coach to teach him that.

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