Can ADHD Lead to Substance Abuse in Adolescents?

Aug 6 • Substance Abuse • 2817 Views • Comments Off on Can ADHD Lead to Substance Abuse in Adolescents?

Attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) can be a challenging diagnosis to live with, whether you’ve been diagnosed yourself or you have a child with the disorder. While there are many issues with which families of ADHD children need to be concerned, there’s one that is particularly troublesome as your child enters the teen years: alcohol and drug addiction.

Substance Abuse and ADHD

Research suggests that children with attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder have a higher risk for addiction to alcohol and drugs than their non-ADHD peers. One recent study, which included researchers from seven health centers across the U.S., found a significantly higher prevalence of substance abuse in teenagers with ADHD. The research, which followed about 600 children over an eight-year period, found that 35% of kids with ADHD had used at least once substance, compared to 20% of those without the diagnosis. Furthermore, 10% of teens with ADHD met the criteria for substance abuse or dependence, while only 3% of the non-ADHD group met that criteria [1].

How ADHD Can Lead to Addiction

One of the hallmarks of ADHD is impulsive behavior. Children with ADHD have a hard time curbing their urges.  As a result, they often don’t think before they act. In children and teens, this impulsivity can manifest itself in a variety of ways, such as constantly interrupting others or blurting out answers without being called upon in school. That same impulsivity may also translate into experimentation with substances.

This poor impulse control is pre-wired into the brain of a child with ADHD. Researchers in one study used MRIs to examine how the brains of teenagers react when asked to perform a task and then suddenly stop mid-task. They found that those with ADHD did poorly on the task. Interestingly, teens who had abused drugs but did not have ADHD also performed poorly, suggesting that those children may struggle with impulsivity as well [2].

Other factors may contribute to addiction in adolescents with the diagnosis. For example, teens with ADHD often struggle in social situations.  This can cause anxiety which in turn leads to substance abuse as a means of coping. Teens with ADHD may also face conflicts within the family that’s related to the challenges of their diagnosis, making them vulnerable to substance abuse as well.

Adolescents with ADHD also often struggle with other mental health conditions, like depression, an anxiety disorder, or bipolar disorder. On their own, each of these disorders can boost the risk of developing an alcohol or drug addiction.  Combined, the risk is even greater because coping with life in general is that much harder.

Addiction and Untreated ADHD

If your child has ADHD,  it’s not uncommon for the treatment to include medication, such as Ritalin or Dexedrine.  These potentially addictive stimulant drugs have a paradoxical effect on individuals with ADHD.  They work by impacting the signals of certain brain chemicals – such as dopamine – the same signals that play a role in the development of addiction. When taken as directed, however, ADHD medications can be very beneficial for individuals who truly have ADHD.  The use of medication as part of treatment may decrease the likeliness of an ADHD teen developing a substance abuse problem.

At least one large study, which examined approximately 1,200 children, found that these prescription drugs did not increase rates of addiction. In fact, it found that those who did not take the medications had twice the average rate of alcohol or drug abuse [3]. It’s a finding that suggests untreated ADHD may create a higher risk for addiction than the use of the drugs themselves.

Prevent Addiction in Teens with ADHD

Prevention may be a parent’s most important tool considering the chronic nature of addiction. Alcohol and drug abuse can affect a child far beyond the teenage years. One long-term study found that more than half of the children with ADHD were later diagnosed as adults with at least one additional psychiatric condition, with substance abuse being one of the most common co-occurring disorders [4].

Even though teens with ADHD do have a higher risk, the diagnosis is not a guarantee that your child will develop an alcohol or drug addiction. As a parent or caregiver you can give your child the foundation to make healthy decisions for himself or herself. Start by making sure your child receives the mental health treatment, including therapy and medication, he or she needs and deserves.

Family therapy can be another effective strategy for helping to prevent a substance abuse problem down the road. Even when ADHD is well managed, it can still alter the family dynamic. A family therapist can help each pinpoint sore spots and identify healthy ways for managing them.

Other psychosocial interventions can be beneficial by helping your ADHD teen learn to manage symptoms.  This will help reduce the negative effects those symptoms can have on his or her life. Your teen might benefit from a behavior management program, problem-solving training, and communication training. One review of studies examining psychosocial alcohol use prevention programs for kids with ADHD found that these strategies had the potential to stop substance abuse before it starts [5].

Treat Addiction in Teens with ADHD

The combination of addiction and ADHD can make treatment complex, but there is hope for teens with both ADHD and alcohol or drug addiction. In order to recover from addiction, the teen’s ADHD must be well-managed. Several studies have shown that substance abuse recovery rates are poor if the ADHD is left untreated [6].

A professional addiction team will work with you to tailor treatment options for your teen with ADHD. For example, if difficulty with attention is a primary problem one-on-one therapy sessions may need to be done in short bursts as opposed to prolonged interactions. The counselor might also avoid using group therapy, which can be a problem for an ADHD teen who is hyperactive or can’t pay attention.

Family dynamics also play a role in the recovery process. High stress levels can fracture relationships, hampering the teen’s efforts to reach and maintain sobriety. It is essential for the family to receive professional counseling as well so each person can learn how to address and resolve inevitable conflicts in a healthy way.

Find Help for Yourself

If your ADHD teen also has an addiction, he or she is struggling with a complex set of symptoms – symptoms that interfere with the way he or she thinks and makes decisions. As a result, the journey ahead might be a long one. One study suggests that people with ADHD take twice as long to recover from addiction as those without the disorder [7].

Please reach out for help for yourself and other family members. Speak to a therapist or find a support group for parents in a similar situation. Talking about your challenges and hearing insights from others will help you maintain better emotional well-being. In turn, you’ll be better able to help your child.

An ADHD diagnosis increases the risk of alcohol or drug addiction for any adolescent. If your teen has not started using substances, make the effort now to provide him or her with the necessary tools to make healthy decisions. If your child is already struggling with a substance abuse problem, seek treatment for it as soon as possible. Professional treatment can help your teen get back on track and live an addiction-free life.

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