Family therapy for attention-deficit disorders in children

This review looks at whether family therapy can help children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) without medication. There are several medications and types of therapy used to treat ADHD. However, many families would rather that their children not take medication. Two studies met the criteria for quality of research method. One found no difference in children's symptoms of ADHD after either family therapy or normal treatment in the community. The second study found that family therapy was more effective than a medication placebo. Further research is needed.

Authors' conclusions: 

Further research examining the effectiveness of family therapy versus a no-treatment control condition is needed to determine whether family therapy is an effective intervention for children with ADHD. There were no results available from studies investigating forms of family therapy other than behavioural family therapy.

Read the full abstract...

Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is diagnosed in between 3% and 7% of school-age children and consists of the core symptoms of inattention, impulsivity and hyperactivity. Children are often treated with medication, usually stimulant medication such as methylphenidate. Stimulant medication has been found to be effective for alleviating ADHD symptoms, at least in the short term. ADHD is also treated with a variety of psychosocial and psychoeducational interventions for parents, children, and with multicomponent interventions combined with medication management. However, many patients (10 to 13% of patients) cannot or prefer not to take medication. Family therapy without medication may help to develop structure in the family, help to manage children's behaviour, and may help families cope with distress from the presence of the disorder.


This review seeks to address the question of whether family therapy without medication can reduce the core symptoms of ADHD as compared to no treatment or standard treatment.

Search strategy: 

The following electronic databases were searched using a specific search strategy: The Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (The Cochrane Library Issue 3, 2004), MEDLINE (1966 to April 2004), PsycINFO (1872 to April 2004), CINAHL (1982 to April 2004), Biosis (Biological Abstracts) (1985 to March 2004), Dissertation Abstracts (1980 to April 2004), and Sociological Abstracts (Sociofile) (1963 to April 2004). Hand searches of relevant journals and bibliographies were also conducted and experts in the field were contacted for further information.

Selection criteria: 

Included studies were randomised controlled trials investigating the efficacy of behavioural family therapy, cognitive behavioural family therapy, or functional family therapy for children with ADHD or ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder).

Data collection and analysis: 

Studies were evaluated for methodological quality and to determine whether they met the inclusion criteria.

Main results: 

This assessment yielded two studies. Data were extracted for both studies. The findings from Jensen 1999 (N=579) indicate that no difference can be detected between the efficacy of behavioural family therapy and treatment as usual in the community. The finding from the available data from Horn 1991 slightly favours treatment over medication placebo.