When my son was in kindergarten, he wrestled with his classmates and bit one of them, and his teacher (who was one or two years out of school) suggested that I get him tested for “neurological issues.” I ran her suggestion past my son’s pediatrician, and he said that my son’s behavior was well within normal range for an active five-year-old. “He doesn’t need to be tested,” he said.

My son is now a healthy, well-adjusted 20-year-old excelling in college. But that long-ago episode came back to me this weekend when I was listening in on several panel sessions at the ICSSP conference in Syracuse (where I had been invited to speak). The theme of the conference was how to help parents deal with difficult children through “evidence-based” interventions rather than medicating them.

The 150 doctors, therapists and school counselors in attendance were concerned not only about the deleterious side effects of many psychoactive drugs (like Risperdal, Seroquel, Zyprexa, Ritalin, Paxil, Zoloft, Prozac etc.). But they also had a lot to say about the bankrupt promise of biological psychiatry and the role that the pharmaceutical industry has played in promoting this model. One neurologist noted that there is no evidence that the educational outcome of children labeled with mental disorders and prescribed drugs is any better than those children similarly labeled who don’t take medications. In fact, he said, children who are diagnosed as ADHD and prescribed stimulants like Ritalin often do worse in school than those similarly diagnosed but not on drugs.

Yet in session after session, therapists talked about how hard it was to resist the presumption that the only way to deal with unruly children was to put them on meds. As Dr. Jock McLaren, a psychiatrist at Australia, said, “It takes an extremely brave parent to stand up to the assembled multitude of nurses and school officials insisting on drugs and operating under a spurious biomedical model.”

Yet many of the therapists at the conference seemed determined to help parents do just that. And toward that end, speaker after speaker presented research showing the effectiveness of alternative methods of treatment for troubled children, ranging from family therapy to positive behavior modification to interventions in residential care.

Listening in on some of these presentations, it struck me anew how lucky I was, as a young mother, to have found a pediatrician who viewed the biological model (then just gaining steam) with skepticism and understood the importance of spending time talking to parents. Rather than whipping out his pen and writing my son a prescription, he took the time to chat with me and suggest safer, more effective ways of dealing with my son’s behavior. This pediatrician, Dr. Howard King, has since emerged as a champion of working with families, and he spearheads a pilot project called the Children’s Emotional Health Link.

I will always be grateful for this one doctor’s wisdom, and this weekend in Syracuse I was gratified to see that many other health-care professionals and parents have joined the fight and are pushing back against the wholesale drugging of our nation’s youth. To paraphrase Hillel: If not them, then who?

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