Psychology Gets It Wrong… This Time

Last week’s New York Times editorial titled “Ritalin Gone Wrong” by Professor L. Alan Sroufe illustrates a troubling and recurring trend in American psychology: In the absence of clear evidence and research-based data, mothers and the environment are repeatedly blamed for whatever problems surface in children.

Professor Sroufe notes the significant increase in the use of stimulant medications to treat what he calls “troubled children” and questions the effectiveness of – as well as our growing reliance upon – pharmacological treatment.

Those of us who have actually worked with children in the classroom and have lived with children in our homes know that there is indeed a real condition, a set of “traits” as Dr. Ned Hallowell calls them, called ADD/ADHD. While it may be mislabeled (I don’t think of it as a deficit) and quite often misunderstood (children with the condition are often seen as willful and disruptive in class), it is real… and it is indeed disruptive to children’s learning and functioning.

Those of us who work with children everyday understand that solutions to complex problems are usually not simple and not easy.

Professor Sroufe uses the example of childhood diabetes:

“Back in the 1960’s I, like most psychologists, believed that children with difficulty concentrating were suffering from a brain problem of genetic or otherwise inborn origin. Just as Type I diabetics need insulin to correct problems with their inborn biochemistry, these children were believed to require attention-deficit drugs to correct theirs…”

Professor Sroufe then goes on to mischaracterize and misinterpret the research regarding the use of stimulant medications in the treatment of ADHD.

Here at Lawrence School where we specifically serve children who have learning differences and challenges focusing attention, we find that about one third of our students have a diagnosis of ADHD – and often these children are well served by a combination of medicine and effective programs (at school and at home) to support the development of time management, organizational and executive skills.

We would agree that there is no pill that will completely treat the symptoms of ADHD – just as most physicians would not propose that insulin alone is a “cure” for diabetes. Good therapy in many medical situations relies on both medicine and treatment programs to support good habits that, together with medical treatments, achieve positive results and outcomes.

Recently, Dr. Ned Hallowell spoke to parents at Lawrence. He compared the use of eye glasses to correct near-sightedness to the use of stimulant medication to treat ADD. He noted that neither eyeglasses nor Ritalin are cures for the underlying conditions – but both can be extremely effective at mitigating symptoms.

Noted local child psychiatrist Dr. Stephen Grcevich wrote a response to Dr. Sroufe, which we link to here.

Finally, what troubles me deeply is not that Professor Sroufe might question the data supporting stimulant medications to treat ADHD, but that he could be so indifferent to his own supposed standard of research by casually suggesting that the real cause of attention challenges in children comes from “family stresses like domestic violence, lack of social support from friends and relatives, chaotic living situations including frequent moves and, especially, patterns of parental intrusiveness that involve stimulation for which the baby is not prepared.”

This is an example of psychology gone wrong.

I invite Professor Sroufe to our school to meet some of the families and children he so off-handedly dismisses with conclusions that have no basis in research.

After meeting these families, I would defy him to not come to very different, positive conclusions not only about these children—but about the indefatigable, knowledgeable, and caring parents who support them.


About lsalza

Headmaster of Lawrence School serving children with learning differences in grades K-12; "Where differences are not disabilities and where great minds don't think alike."
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9 Responses to Psychology Gets It Wrong… This Time

  1. Bird says:

    Thank you for responding to Professor Sroufe, whose published opinion is a disservice to all families of children diagnosed with ADHD! These parents should be respected for all the support and time that they give to their children, and for the loving sacrifices they make to continually learn or design new strategies to encourage their children’s strengths. The “bad parenting” stigma is simply counter-productive!

    • Lou Salza says:

      BIRD!!!! how wonderful to hear even your virtual voice! Thank you for the feedback! These kinds of ‘blame the parents’ articles surface from time to time. I can’t ignore them anymore. I have sat with too many wounded parents to let this stuff pass. I must be getting old!
      Love to you and your family!

  2. Bob Baker says:

    Thanks Lou. You throw out an appropriate challenge to a “professional” who does not follow his profession’s own disciplines. Lawyers call this “junk science.” Thanks for your response to Professor Sroufe. When he accepts your invitation, I want to be there!

    • Lou Salza says:

      Thank you Bob! I don’t think I will be giving a tour to Prof. Sroufe any time soon, but if I do, I will call you. You will know it is me–I will just say, “Bob, Game On!”
      As usual, I got lots of help from Courtney who keeps my writing ‘on the rails’. My stuff never leaves home without her!
      Warm regards!

  3. Casey Feicht says:

    This makes me so sad! We do live in a society that feels that pills/drugs can cure it all. At times they are necessary, but when do they become dependence. From my point of view, I can relate to a lot of this. Here is my brief story; read more a t at the bottom of the post…

    • Lou Salza says:

      Thanks you for the comment, Casey,
      I tried to follow your link but I was unable to find your blog. I would like to read it.
      I support any medication that will help provide the appropriate quality of life for any individual at any stage of life. Many people wo are my age for example are completely dependent on medications to control bp, cholesterol, diabetes, etc., I applaud and appreciate the science that got us here and I welcome medicines that are necessary and helpful to us. Medications for ADHD are the most studied and researched treatments in all of pediatric medicine. The data is good and goes back several decades now. The medications work with few side effects in the majority of children diagnosed with these issues. Not all but most.
      These medicines do not ‘cure’ the condition, nor do they obviate the need for appropriately supportive programs at home and at school to develop executive function and organizational skills. Research indicates that both medicine and appropriate programs get better results together than either treatment yields alone.

  4. Gail Capretta says:

    Thank you for responding to Professor Sroufe.
    As with many medical conditions, ADHD/ADD has varying degrees…and coexists with other conditions. I was criticized by a mom in front of a support group once for medicating my child. When I realized that meds were a must….At first I felt like a failure… And defeated… That after 7 years of Drs. and psychologists I had to resort to the help of meds to even make it through homework at night. The fact of the matter is, Casey, If a child is able to function with yoga, a special diet, etc and this works for THEM… GREAT… Your child should NOT be on medication. But for some of us less fortunate we don’t have a choice.
    Nobody CHOOSES to medicate their child…but sometimes you have too so that the other therapies/ activities (because the meds certainly are not a cure all) can have the optimal effectiveness.
    So my response to the mother at the support group and all the other “experts” out there on ADD/ADHD that criticize parents that have to utilize meds, would be “Good for you, then your child doesn’t need them”.
    Thanks to people like Lou Salza who truly understand these exceptional children, our kids are given the opportunity to thrive in an academic institution that understands them and how they need to learn not how we wish they would learn.

    • Thank you for the response! I am confident that your willingness to share your experience will help others. Thanks to moms like you who continue the struggle to find the answers for their children through thick and thin!

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