By Stephen V. Faraone, PhD

The term “cognitive behavior therapy (CBT)” refers to a type of talk therapy that seeks to change the way patients think about themselves, their disorder and the world around them in a manner that will help them overcome symptoms and achieve life goals.  Because CBT is typically administered by a psychologist or other mental health professionals, CBT services are not available in primary care.  Nonetheless, it is useful for primary care practitioners to know about CBT so that they can refer appropriately as needed.  So, what can we say about the efficacy of CBT for treating adults with ADHD.   Based on a meta-analysis by Young and colleagues, we know for certain that the number of published trials of CBT for adult ADHD is small; only nine trials are available.  Five of these compared CBT with waiting list controls; three compared CBT with appropriate placebo control groups.  In all of these studies, patients in the CBT and control groups were also being treated with ADHD medications.  Thus, they speak to the efficacy of CBT when given as an adjunctive treatment.  The meta-analysis examined the waiting list controlled studies and the placebo controlled studies separately.  For both types of study, the effect of CBT in reducing ADHD symptoms was statistically significant, with a standardized mean effect size of 0.4.   This effect size, albeit modest, is large enough to conclude that CBT will be useful for some patients being treated with ADHD medications.  Given these results, a reasonable guideline would be to refer adults with ADHD to a CBT therapist if they are being maintained on an ADHD medication but that medication is not leading to a complete remission of their symptoms and impairments.  So listen to your patients.  If, while on an appropriately titrated medication regime, they still complain about unresolved symptoms or impairments you need to take action.   In some cases, changing their dose or shifting to another medication will be useful.  If such approaches fail or are not feasible, you should consider referral to a CBT therapist.


Young, Z., Moghaddam, N. & Tickle, A. (2016). The Efficacy of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Adults With ADHD: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials. J Atten Disord.