Coping With Side Effects of ADHD Medicine for Children

5 year old boy reading a book in the dark

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If your child is on medicine for their ADHD symptoms, you may hear some complaints about stomachaches or headaches. Some kids experience a decrease in appetite. Others begin to have difficulty falling asleep at night. These are all common side effects of stimulant medications.

Though side effects may occur, especially in the first few weeks of treatment, most will disappear on their own as your child’s body adjusts to the medication. “For most children, the benefit of treatment outweighs any potential side effects,” says Michael Goldstein, MD, neurologist and vice president of the American Academy of Neurology.

In the meantime, here are some simple strategies parents can implement to minimize common side effects.

Stomachaches

To help reduce stomach complaints, have your child take their medicine with food or following a meal.

Headaches

Like stomachaches, headaches may be helped by taking the medication with food. Sometimes, however, headaches can be caused by a mineral deficiency; some children with ADHD have been found to be deficient in magnesium, which may result in headaches.

What Experts Say

“Equally important is to make sure your child is eating a balanced diet that is naturally rich in magnesium, B vitamins, and other helpful nutrients.”

— Jennifer Shu, MD, a pediatrician and author

Decreased Appetite

Give your child healthy, calorie-dense snacks throughout the day, especially at peak appetite times. Here are a few options to try:

  • Apples or bananas with peanut butter
  • Cheese and crackers
  • Protein bars
  • Hard-boiled egg and slice of toast
  • Muffins and glass of milk

Additionally, you can talk with your child’s doctor about planning for the medication dosage to be taken after mealtimes.

Difficulty Falling Asleep

Sleep issues in children with ADHD are a common occurrence. Sometimes the stimulant medication affects sleep. Other times, the restlessness that accompanies ADHD causes difficulty falling asleep.

A good sleep routine is also very important. Make this time a special time. Here are some tips to help:

  • Begin to settle down at least about half an hour before bedtime. While it might not be time to go to bed yet, it is helpful to have your child engage in quiet activities. It can be hard to transition from playing basketball or a fast-paced computer game to going straight to bed. Have your child move to activities such as reading, putting together puzzles, or coloring in preparation for bedtime.
  • Establish a bedtime routine. Have your child use the bathroom, wash their hands, brush their teeth, get into their pajamas, listen to soothing music, read a book, then say goodnight, for example.
  • Stick to a regular schedule. Try to have your child go to bed at the same time each night and keep a regular wake-up time in the morning.

If your child seems to have more difficulty falling asleep after starting medication, you may also want to ask the doctor if you can administer the medication earlier in the day or discontinue an afternoon or evening dose.

Work With Your Child's Doctor

If these strategies do not alleviate side effects, be sure to consult with your child’s doctor. Additional side effects you should discuss with them include:

  • Increased anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Tics (involuntary motor or vocal movements, such as excessive eye blinking, facial grimaces, muscle tensing, coughing, or throat clearing, among others)

There are also potential risks from ADHD medication that are important to discuss with your child's doctor. For example, non-stimulants Strattera (atomoxetine) and Qelbree (viloxazine) contain warnings about suicidal thoughts, and Qelbree also warns of suicidal behaviors, so it's important to monitor for any changes in your child's mood and behavior.

Be sure to discuss potential serious side effects and your child's medical history with your doctor to find a medication that's safe for them, and so you know what to look out for should anything arise.

If your child is having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

The Right Dosage and Medication

Your child's doctor may choose to prescribe a different type of stimulant, as this can be an important factor in managing side effects, particularly sleep disturbance and agitation/irritability.

Examples of this include:

  • Concerta (a long-acting for of methylphenidate) may be used in the morning with an addition of short-acting Ritalin in the early afternoon to allow for coverage that lasts all day but wears off before bedtime.
  • An individual may sometimes have more or fewer side effects on Ritalin (methylphenidate) versus Adderall (mixed amphetamine salts).
  • Jornay PM (methylphenidate HCI), which is indicated for the treatment of ADHD in patients age 6 years and older, is specially formulated to release its contents slowly enough that it doesn't impair sleep and then begins relieving ADHD symptoms upon waking up in the morning.

These are all issues your child’s doctor can assess. Another factor your doctor will likely consider to help minimize side effects is adjusting the medication dosage.

A Word From Verywell

If your child has just started a new medication, rest assured that many initial, common side effects should go away. In general, however, it's important to keep your doctor informed of what your child is experiencing while taking an ADHD medication to assess if any changes should be made to minimize its side effects.

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6 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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