Can Family Therapy Help Symptoms of ADHD in Children or Teens?

by family therapist, psychologist R. Y. Langham, M.M.F.T., Ph.D.

Many mental health professionals diagnose children and teens demonstrating behavioral problems (i.e. inability to sit still in the classroom, excessive talking, pacing, running around, and/or inattention) with some form of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). As a result, they often automatically prescribe ADHD medications like: Ritalin, Adderall, Concerta, etc. to help reduce symptoms of ADHD in children or teens. These medications are used to “control” the behaviors of children with ADHD.

Family therapy and behavioral modification can be effective primary or adjunctive therapies.

Family therapy helps ADHD symptoms in children and teens.

Most mental health professionals believe that lifestyle changes (i.e. a healthy diet, regular exercise, and adequate sleep), and family therapy are effective as primary or as adjunctive therapy for ADHD symptoms in children.

If you are interested in learning more about the relationship between symptoms of ADHD in children and how family therapy can help, you have come to the right place. This article will teach you how family therapy can help your child or teen to reduce or manage ADHD symptoms.

What is ADHD?

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a disorder characterized by an inability to concentrate, in many cases hyperactivity, and in some cases includes irritability; it can be manifest with or without hyperactivity according to current thinking.

A child or adolescent with this disorder will have a hard time organizing his or her thoughts, following instructions, focusing on a task for an extended amount of time, and paying attention at school. He or she may also easily distracted by the most trivial things. When present without hyperactivity, this form of ADHD is referred to as “inattentive type.” With hyperactivity and inattention, it is referred to as “combined type”.  

How is Family Therapy Beneficial for Treating ADHD Symptoms in Children or Teens?

In some cases (not all), family dynamics can trigger or worsen ADHD symptoms in children and teens. How is that?  As one example, ADHD symptoms can arise when an adolescent is not getting enough sleep, or when he or she is consuming large amounts of “junk food” (i.e. salty, sugary, processed foods).

If a child or teen’s diet does not consist of primarily healthy foods, the risk of ADHD symptoms increases. Family therapy teaches parents how to provide healthy foods, resources for an optimum “ADHD diet“, and how to set a sleep schedule for children and teens. Similarly, if the child or teen has suddenly started to “act out” at school or at home, a family therapist can help determine the underlying causes of these behaviors.

ADHD is often misdiagnosed, one study indicates that only approximately 28% of children in one state in the U.S. diagnosed with ADHD actually met the criteria for the disorder. So it is important to examine all avenues of intervention before accepting the ADHD label. The goal of a family therapist is to provide therapy for the entire family to see how each family member may be contributing to the child or teen’s behaviors.

Family therapists believe that everyone in the immediate family plays a part in the development and progression of disorders with behavioral elements like ADHD.  They involve everyone (or as many members of the family as possible) in the therapy process.

The main question asked during family therapy is: “How might you be contributing to “Johnny’s” ADHD symptoms? Every person in the family considers this question. This takes the pressure off of the child or adolescent, and forces the entire “family” to take responsibility for the manifestation of the symptoms of ADHD in the one individual. Similarly, a family therapist involves the whole family in the question, “What can be done to help “Johnny” to overcome his symptoms of ADHD?”

Other Causes of ADHD Symptoms in Children or Teens

In some cases, children and teens may be exhibiting ADHD symptoms because they are being neglected or abused at home. In these cases, a family therapist helps the “family” acknowledge and resolve these issues (i.e. parenting classes, child protective services, etc.). Some children may have difficulty concentrating or behaving properly in the classroom as a result of their parents’ serious marital difficulties or divorce. A family therapist can help both parents and children get through these difficulties.

A family therapist teaches the “whole family” how to better communicate, and work through issues as a cohesive unit. If a stressful living environment (i.e. debt or poverty) appears to be contributing to the child or teen’s behavior, a family therapist can direct the “family” to valuable resources such as avenues for government assistance, housing, healthcare, daycare, food stamps, etc.).

Often times ADHD medications are prescribed to children and teens without exploring all the possible causes of ADHD symptoms or non-drug interventions. The family therapist is trained to provide psychotherapy that involves the entire family unit in the therapy process. The child or teen feels better supported during the therapy process and does not feel isolated in handling this difficult period in their life.

Additionally, the attention that he or she may be lacking in some situations, is fulfilled during the therapy process. A child or teen who may not feel understood may feel loved, supported, “heard,” and accepted through family therapy. Life’s circumstances may leave some parents, especially single parents, with little time or energy to provide the individual attention that each child needs.

For many, the extra support provided by a family therapist may help reduce or even eliminate many causes of ADHD symptoms in children over time. Other forms of psychotherapy can also help children and teens in a supportive role. A combination of professional therapy and self-help can be used to achieve a reduction in symptoms.

Behavioral Modification and Family Therapy for Addressing Symptoms of ADHD  Behavioral modification has proven to be an effective way of addressing symptoms of ADHD in children or teens. A family therapist can guide and assist families through this process. Family therapy is one form of psychotherapy, whether used in a primary or adjunctive role, that provides valuable support for children and teens manifesting symptoms of ADHD.


References for Can Family Therapy Help Symptoms of ADHD in Children or Teens?

Everett, C. A., PhD, Volgy, S., PhD. (2001). Family Therapy for ADHD: Treating Children, Adolescents, and Adults. NY: Guilford. Eyeberg, S. M., Schuhmann, E. M., Foote, R. C. (1998).

Eyeberg, S., Schuhmann, E., Foote, R. (1998). Current Management in Child Neurology. Chapter 19 – Behavior Modification in the Treatment of ADHD.

Family Therapy. Cincinnati Children’s Center for ADHD. Retrieved January 9, 2015.

PLAY Study Findings (Project to Learn About ADHD in Youth). Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). (2014, December 10). Center for Disease Controls and Prevention.

Sprinkle, N. (June/July 2014). ADHD Behavior Therapy: Promoting Discipline & Focus in Kids. Nicole Sprinkle. ADDitude.

photo: “Happy Father With Children Standing In Row” courtesy of stockimages,

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