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ADHD Medications Have Placebo Effect on Parents and Teachers

Stimulant medications like Adderall and Ritalin are the most widely-used treatments to suppress hyperactivity and inattention among kids with ADHD.  After children take their medication for several, parents and teachers observe improved behavior and fewer symptoms.  However, a new study by psychologists from the University of Buffalo suggests that using medication actually provides a placebo effect on the parents, teachers, and adults who evaluate the children.

A placebo effect is when someone observes positive change or improvements after receiving a fake drug or procedure. In other words, the observed benefits are due to the belief in the treatment rather than to the treatment itself.  In the case of ADHD medications, the researchers noticed that when the parents believed their kids were taking stimulant medications, they tended to observe more favorable behavior, whether or not stimulants were actually given.  Researchers believe that the act of giving medication or thinking that the child takes medication creates positive expectations in the parents and teachers, which can influence how they perceive, evaluate, and behave towards a child with ADHD.  They might praise the child more often and provide more encouragement, which in turn results in improved behavior. 

According to the researchers' review of related literature, there are four possible ways by which placebos produce an effect:

  1. The expectations of change.  Any improvements in the child's behavior are attributed to the medication, not to the expectation of change.
  2. Change in the parents' perception when they think their child is taking medication.  The researchers believe that this is the phenomenon they observed in their participants.
  3. Change in the parents' behavior towards their child when they think he or she is taking medication, which produces positive changes in the child. The behavior of the participants supports this possibility.
  4. The operations of classical conditioning.  For instance, if a parent gives a child medication and notices an improvement, the parent might associate giving the pill with improved behavior.

This placebo effect on parents has some underlying dangers. If the frequency of medication is increased because the parent believes in its efficacy, it might not be a good thing. Furthermore, the positive effects of ADHD medications are known to wear off with long-term use. The placebo effect may prevent parents from noticing its diminished efficacy, which may prevent the child from receiving treatments that produce real and lasting effects.