Are we turning children into drugged zombies?

Some parents even complain that they have to give their children Ritalin just to keep them in school or nursery
Click to follow
The Independent Online

People have funny ideas about children. Talking to my mother the other week, she told me that everyone of her generation that she spoke to was convinced that standards of behaviour in children had plummeted since their own parenting days. Children now were more wilful, more highly strung, less biddable and more spoiled.

People have funny ideas about children. Talking to my mother the other week, she told me that everyone of her generation that she spoke to was convinced that standards of behaviour in children had plummeted since their own parenting days. Children now were more wilful, more highly strung, less biddable and more spoiled.

At first I was inclined to accept what she said, knowing that my own standards of behaviour around my parents, and my brother's, were higher than those I encountered from my own children. But later, thinking about it, I realised that this was only part of the story. My children are rarely out of my sight, and most children nowadays live their whole childhoods under the watchful, sometimes deeply frustrated eyes, of adults.

For us it was different. We behaved when our parents were around. But we spent plenty of time out playing on our own as well. Away from grown-ups, children in the 1960s behaved every bit as badly as children do now. In fact, their behaviour was in some ways much worse.

From the age of about five - for many children it was much younger - I was allowed to go out to play on my own or with friends, in the open spaces around our housing estate of towers and flats. Inside, we were ruled by adults. But down there at ground level, children were their own bosses. The result was anarchy.

Other children were often frightening, and generally to be avoided. They bullied and hit whoever they could, picked fights and formed gangs. They smashed up whatever they found lying around, from the contents of bins to playground equipment. Young trees and plants were routinely destroyed. Animals, when captured, were subjected to appalling cruelty and torture. Toys and jewellery were routinely stolen from younger or quieter children.

It was useless except in the most extreme of circumstances to tell adults what was going on. A parent rarely listened when their child was accused of some heinous activity. Each and every one was convinced that their child would never do the things of which he or she was accused. Why? Because when authority was around, most children kept their noses clean, precisely so that their freedom to do whatever they wanted outside would not be curtailed.

All the same, it was clear that somebody's children were wreaking havoc. When we'd first moved into our housing estate, it was brand spanking new, a modernist dream of what public housing could be. Within five years, it was a hellhole, trashed by that generation of kids we're now asked to look back to and learn from.

Of course, far from all the children who played around the estate, indulged in the nastiest, most barbaric behaviour. We all did some things we shouldn't, and we all deceived our parents about what we had been up to. But only a minority of children really displayed an out-of-control, delinquent streak.

Back then, they were simply thought to be troublemakers. Now, they'd more likely be diagnosed than blamed, and find themselves among the many ranks of children who have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) or its subtler sister Attention Deficit Disorder(ADD). Thought to affect one in 20 children, not a great deal is known about these conditions, although it is known that the drug Ritalin calms many children who fit into their diagnostic parameters.

Last year, doctors prescribed the drug to 254,000 children, a leap from the already troubling number of 208,500 in 2001. The rising British use of the drug, which is similar in chemical make-up to cocaine and acts as a stimulant in adults, mirrors the situation in the US. But while some parents see it as a godsend, others are horrified by the effect it has on their children, suggesting that it makes them into personality-free zombies.

There are suggestions too, that prescription of the drug is more prevalent among children from deprived backgrounds than middle-class children. Some parents complain that they feel they have to give their children the drug to keep them in school or nursery (while Ritalin is only licensed for use in children over five, much younger children are sometimes given it). In some cases, Ritalin is even administered in the school rather than by the family. There are reports that sometimes children are given other anti-psychotic drugs to lift the effects of Ritalin and get them to "switch off" in the evening from their rapt chemically induced state of receptiveness.

There is something repellent about children's moods being manipulated by drugs. No doubt this unease is partly behind the call from the Liberal Democrat spokesman Paul Burstow for an investigation into Ritalin's use: "It has become the option of first choice rather than a last resort for some families, but it needs to be given appropriately and only when necessary."

Mr Burstow is not the only person who is worried by this sharp rise in diagnosis. In an edition of Cutting Edge, to be broadcast tonight, an ex-teacher, Warwick Dyer, contends that "a lot of symptoms ascribed to these disorders are in fact easily confused with basic behavioural problems that don't have to be treated with a drug".

Mr Dyer's answer is to retrain parentsvia his Behaviour Change Consultancy, and almost entirely over the telephone, without ever meeting the child whose behaviour is being complained about. His technique consists of a rigid regime of rewards and sanctions, an insistence on politeness and an end to parental anger towards children. He claims a 100 per cent success rate.

Others point to exposure to viruses or complications during pregnancy as triggers for ADHD and ADD. One doctor recently suggested that behavioural disorders are connected to a break in the oxygen supply during childbirth.

Yet more people swear by dietary modification, pointing to the usual - and rightly maligned - suspects such as sugar, carbohydrates, e-numbers and colourants. Sometimes, all that difficult children need is more sleep and less time on screen-based entertainment.

Many, though, are relieved by a medical diagnosis and a chemical remedy that works. Mr Dyer may believe that he has good news for parents when he tells them that their child's antisocial acts are all their fault, and not the result of a brain imbalance that can only be modified with the use of powerful and untested chemicals.

But instead many parents nowadays react with the same anger to such accusations as parents back in the 1960s did when confronted with the suggestion that their children were not the paragons of virtue they appeared to be.

Sometimes, parents have every right to be angry. As a parent myself, I'm highly aware of how sternly parents are judged for every deviation from some idea of perfect behaviour, especially by those who don't have children, or who have delegated much of the responsibility. While it is easy to blame parents, it is not so easy to help them. Many parents who want to be given more guidance in disciplining their children find that there is not much support until matters get serious.

The challenge is to find a way of helping parents without blaming them, and turning to drugs only when other methods - to do with diet, lifestyle, discipline or a combination of these and more - have been tackled. Disruptive children are nothing new, but Ritalin is so new that we have no idea what long-term effects it may have.