Bad boys, good mothers and the 'miracle' of Ritalin

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83 Citations (Scopus)


Contemporary debates around Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and the most common form of drug treatment, Ritalin, are rarely placed in the context of the social-scientific history of diagnosis and drug treatment. This is possibly due to the fact that brain talk and brain imagery have replaced earlier theories about children’s psychopathology that had mainly focused on the toxic effects of the mother. These theories and their psychoanalytic roots are considered somewhat embarrassing and certainly unscientific in a contemporary light, and modern biological psychiatry has worked hard to demonstrate that physiological and genetic factors underpin this contested disorder. Such theories have tended to make the history of ADHD and Ritalin seem irrelevant to scientific progress and understanding of disorder, as well as to public understanding and acceptance of disorder and drug treatment. Examining this history, however, clarifies the relation between social, cultural, and scientific values in constructing a need for medical intervention within the domestic realm. When Ritalin came on the United States market in 1955, neither psychiatric diagnosis of children’s behaviors, nor drug treatments for children’s behavior were commonplace. Mothers especially were located in the center of active political, moral, and scientific debates over boys’ normative behaviors. These debates helped codify an intimate association between a problem boy and his problematic mother in relation to ADHD diagnosis and Ritalin treatment. The story I tell here suggests that this association may have supported mothers’ acceptance of medical intervention and drug treatment for their boys’ troublesome, but arguably not pathological, behaviors. In the concluding sections I argue that the lack of attention to these social-scientific roots means that we miss seeing their potential relevance to the contemporary predicament of rising ADHD diagnoses and Ritalin use.
Original languageEnglish
Article numberN/A
Pages (from-to)577-603
Number of pages27
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2002


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