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Medication in the Summer

A mom asks, “What should we do about medication in the summer-time? I have heard from some parents that they always discontinue their child’s medication during the summer. I asked my doctor what we should do and he said we could do whatever we wanted. So I am not sure. My child is active and disorganized all the time. I worry about him becoming frustrated. What do you recommend?”

This is a good question for this time of the year. Summer is right around the corner and many parents are wondering about the same issues your raise. At one time, it was assumed that the child would take stimulant mediation for attention problems and hyperactivity only during the school year. It was felt that the medication was primarily given to help with school.

The Physicians’ Desk Reference carries a recommendation that the child taking stimulants be given a “vacation” from his medication periodically. But does this mean that all children should interrupt their medical therapy for the summer?

The goal of the total treatment program for ADHD is to provide the framework in which an individual can perform up to his or her fullest potential. Medication, environmental structure, and behavioral management all play a part in maximizing a child’s function in any given situation.

The role of medication in this process varies with each individual. Thus, the answer about summertime medication must be evaluated individually. In this process, we should look at three major skill areas—academic, social, and behavioral.

An important reason for using medication is to promote focus and concentration in the learning environment. Studies have shown that children with ADHD learn better when taking their medication. Medical treatment also enhances the ability to use skills that have been learned. Therefore, the use of medication helps individuals function more appropriately in the many areas where they are continuing to practice and master skills, i.e., family, school, playgrounds, sports, reading, organization.

If, then, the child will be involved in activities during the summer which put demands on his need for concentration or organization (summer school, sports, special camps, etc.), medication may be helpful.

Special circumstances need to be considered. For instance, adolescents often take driver’s education during the summer. Teenagers with ADHD have a higher rate of moving traffic violations primarily due to being easily distracted and the longer time necessary to acquire skills. Teens with ADD may need more prolonged driving practice with their medication before they become safe and proficient drivers.

Building social skills is extremely important for the child with ADHD. “Summer involves more socializing and self-planning than does the school year,” the author points out. There is much more free time, much less adult supervision, and fewer structured settings to provide the usual external controls.

A large percentage of individuals with ADHD have difficulty acquiring and applying social skills. This is often seen as difficulty with peers and siblings when they are not taking medication. Some children will have much more difficulty dealing with these social situations without the medication due to persistence of impulsiveness and over-reactivity.

So in making a decision about taking a break from ADHD medication during the summer, consider these factors:

•Does the child find medication to be helpful in managing a routine day at home with family and friends?

•Without medication, are there many more negative social interactions leading to social failure, discipline problems, and lower self-esteem?

•Does the continuation of medication during the summer allow the family to successfully participate in activities together, such as going out to dinner, attending religious services as a family, or joining large family gatherings?

If the answers to these questions suggest that medication could be helpful during the summer, it would be wise to give it all summer.

But, then, there are certain reasons to consider a medication vacation:

If the child is experiencing significant loss of appetite with slow weight gain, a vacation from medication is in order. A few individuals on stimulant medications will have difficulty maintaining growth during the school year. In the vast majority of these children, this means poor weight gain. If there is concern about a child’s growth, the time to discontinue medication to allow necessary ‘catch up’ growth is during the summer. Most children will regain weight quickly.”

The second reason for taking a “medication vacation” is if the family and physician decide that during the summer, medication is truly not needed. Many individuals with ADHD can discontinue their medication in the non-academic setting, such as summer vacation, holidays, and weekends. But still find it necessary for the extremely intense focus required for the hours of concentration on school and studies.

I am often asked by parents about medication during the summertime. As we see, the answer to this question must be individualized for each child. I point out to parents that what happens in school is important for the child. But as far as his success and happiness in life is concerned, what happens at home and on the playground is even more important. Thus if the child is having problems in his social and family relationships, continuation of medication is probably helpful. Actually, there are several optional courses of action: continue the medication on the same schedule as during the school year, stop the medication all together, or consider a reduced medication schedule.

When there is some question as to how the child will do off medication, I suggest giving a break for the first two weeks of summer. If the child does well, then it is appropriate to continue without medication for the remainder of the summer. If the child has trouble coping with the ordinary activities of his summer during this trial period, then restart the medication.

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