The enormous benefit for educators in the new brain research is being counteracted by an equally enormous surge in prescribing medications destined for the brains of children we are trying to educate.
Drug companies are rushing to fill the marketplace with psychotherapeutic drugs for every syndrome and ailment that can be given a name or initials. Children are now given “meds” for sleeping, for attention, for mood, for anxiety. The vast majority of these prescribed drugs are used “off label”—they have not been tested or approved for use by children and adolescents.
Doctors readily admit that they don’t know exactly how many of these drugs work, and parents are told, “Let’s try this, and if it doesn’t work, we’ll try something else.” Meanwhile, college students and adults without diagnoses are using illicit prescription drugs in an effort to enhance their cognitive functions.
The major task of childhood and adolescence has always been to learn one’s self—to learn how to self-regulate, gain self-control, self-monitor. It is the time to learn how to focus, how to cheer one’s self up, how to control anxiety, how to get a good night’s sleep. Nobody is born knowing these things, and learning them can often be hard. New research is helping us understand what attention actually is and how to develop it, how moods are formed and changed, how the brain’s “plasticity” makes it possible to overcome many previously intractable problems.
Some people never can overcome these problems on their own, and new drugs may be an enormous benefit to those few. But if children are given drugs because self-regulation has not yet been learned, rather than because they cannot learn it, they are being robbed of the chance to grow up whole. We too often try to substitute drugs for genuine maturity, which comes only with effort and experience.
The brain is not fully formed until we reach our early 20s, and it remains plastic, able to change, throughout life. The prospect of putting powerful drugs into that growing brain is wrong from a number of standpoints. First, the effect on development is totally unknown. Second, although parents may think they are giving their child “every advantage” with medication, the child often gets the message that he or she is flawed. Finally, the job of teaching becomes much more complicated trying to understand and help children with medicated minds.
Schools must urge parents to be patient with their children—and must themselves be patient. It has to be OK for children to be different, even troublesome. It must be OK for adolescents to struggle, to take time to learn to be their own masters. Schools must allow students train their own minds, and help them understand their capacity to do so.
There are of course situations in which a severe mental illness has to be treated with medication so that a child can live a full and happy life. And when these medical miracles happen, it is wonderful to see. But such cases are relatively rare compared with the tens of thousands of prescription drugs that are being fed to American children every day.
If we want our children to grow up knowing, liking, and being responsible for themselves, they must be allowed, literally, to be themselves.
A version of this article appeared in the August 12, 2009 edition of Education Week as Children on Meds