What Parents Need to Know About ADHD Medication Abuse | Center on Addiction

What Parents Need to Know About ADHD Medication Abuse

What Parents Need to Know About ADHD Medication Abuse


The risks and benefits of treating Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) with prescription medication is a frequently covered topic in the news. Parents who are considering ADHD medications for their kids, or who may already have kids taking these medications, are likely to have lingering questions about whether or not these medicines place their child at an increased risk for addiction.

For adolescents who have received a diagnosis of ADHD from their physician, taking these medications as prescribed does not appear to cause addiction. However, it’s still important to note that most of the medications used to treat ADHD are stimulants. If teens and young adults misuse the medication — such as taking more than prescribed or taking it without having been diagnosed with ADHD — it can lead to serious substance abuse problems. These problems aren’t just limited to medication; they can also expand to alcohol and other illegal substances.

The ADHD diagnosis and prescription medication

It may seem like common sense, but it is important that ADHD medications are only prescribed for children and adolescents following an accurate diagnosis by a physician. ADHD medications like Adderall, Ritalin and Concerta can greatly help children and adolescents who suffer from this disorder, but parents should also be extra vigilant about their child’s prescription.

To that end, it’s important for parents to have a good relationship with the child’s doctor and talk through any decisions about diagnoses and medications. Parents should have a conversation with the doctor to make sure the prescriber has a deep knowledge of the youth’s behavior at home and school. If parents fail to take an active role, they risk their child being misdiagnosed, or, if properly diagnosed, incorrectly or over-prescribed medication.

Prescription stimulant medications, like those mentioned above, can certainly reduce symptoms of ADHD, but they also come with a host of side effects, including loss of appetite, sleep problems, aggressive and/or suicidal thoughts and behavior, psychosis and heart problems.

Why you should care about ADHD medication abuse

The number of young people abusing ADHD medication has been steadily increasing over the last five years. Data from 2013 showed that almost 9 percent of high school seniors had abused ADHD medications in the last year, with Adderall being the most common. Additionally, abuse of ADHD medication by college students appears to be even higher, with recent reports estimating the figure as high as 35 percent.

One contributing factor to these high numbers of abuse is the growing problem in which children who are not prescribed ADHD medications end up with them. Among those with prescriptions, passing out pills is extremely common, with up to 40 percent of prescription-holding adolescents and 60 percent of prescription-holding college students reporting having done so. Among adolescents, the most common recipients of ADHD medications are friends and family, and among college students, recipients are typically friends and acquaintances.

Reasons for medication abuse

Teenagers and college students report a variety of reasons for ADHD medication abuse. These include:

  • Help studying
  • Increased alertness and concentration
  • Improved cognitive performance
  • Weight loss or appetite suppression
  • Improved athletic performance
  • Wanting to get high
  • Being able to drink or party longer

Tips to reduce medication abuse

In light of these troubling trends, parents of children with ADHD often ask, “What can I do to help reduce the risk of medication abuse for my child?” Here are three options to consider:

  1. Do not rely solely on information from your child.
  2. Track your child’s pill consumption. Some parents choose to assemble a “monitoring team” if they aren’t always with their child. The team can include other caregivers, teachers, school nurses and counselors. Keeping a close eye on your child’s pill consumption helps you ensure your child is safely using the drugs as prescribed and is not handing them out to friends and classmates. 
  3. Check in with the individuals on your monitoring team. This can help determine if the child’s ADHD symptoms are impacting their school performance and their behavior


 Aaron Hogue, PhD

 Aaron Hogue is Director of Adolescent and Family Research at  CASAColumbia



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