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ADHD and Substance Abuse: The Link Parents Need to Know

Children and teens with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are more likely ​than other kids to smoke, drink, or use drugs. They experiment with all three at younger ages than those children without ADHD. They are also at a greater risk for developing a substance use disorder.

However, just because a child has ADHD does not guarantee he or she will have alcohol or drug issues as a teen. The key for parents is to be aware of the link between the two, step-up prevention efforts at home, and seek professional help if a drug problem is suspected.

Why Are People With ADHD More Likely to Abuse Drugs and Alcohol?

There are several theories as to why ADHD increases the risk for substance use:

  • Impulsivity, poor judgment and school troubles that can go along with ADHD may increase the risk for initiating substance use.

  • There could be a genetic link between ADHD and the vulnerability for developing a substance use disorder.

  • Individuals with ADHD may try to use psychoactive drugs to self-medicate. 

Early Treatment of ADHD May Decrease the Risk of Substance Abuse

The timing of treatment matters. Children treated at a younger age for ADHD may be less likely to develop substance use disorders compared to those who begin treatment later. Treatment may delay the onset of substance use. Treating mental health disorders that often co-exist with ADHD, such as anxiety and depression, is also important​ and may decrease the risk for substance use​.   

Are Stimulant Drugs for ADHD Addictive?

Stimulant medi​ations are considered "first line" treatment for ADHD. No study has ever found that stimulant treatment increases rates of substance use disorders, however stimulant medications can be misused, abused, or given to others. Close monitoring is recommended to prevent misuse. Your doctor may question you closely if your child loses pills or runs out early as those can be signs of misuse.   

Some types of ADHD medication are more likely to be misused compared to others. For example, short acting stimulant medications are abused more often than longer acting or non-stimulant medications. Talk to your child's doctor for more information about the risks and benefits of different types of medication used to treat ADHD.

Does Your Teen Have ADHD, a Drug Problem, or Both?

Alcohol and drug use can cause symptoms that are similar to ADHD, including:

  • Attention problems

  • Difficulty completing tasks

  • Disorganization

  • Trouble sleeping

  • Poor appetite

  • Reluctance to socialize with others

  • Loss of interest in school

Discuss any new symptoms or a sudden change in ADHD symptoms during adolescence with your child's doctor. One of the big differences is ADHD starts in early elementary school while most substance use disorders begin in middle school and not first grade.

What Parents Can Do:

  • Pay close attention to any change in behavior, even if you think it could be attributed to your child's ADHD.

  • Communicate with your teen about safe and acceptable behavior.​​ Set an example by not misusing alcohol, tobacco, or illegal drugs yourself.

  • Pay attention to your child's friends. If your child is hanging out with someone who is into drugs, it is very highly likely that your child may be exposed to drugs as well.

  • Talk with your child about the importance of using all medications, including stimulants, exactly as prescribed. Discuss side effects and other concerns with your child's doctor.

  • Sharing, selling, or distributing prescription stimulants is always illegal and is dangerous. Keep a close eye on your teens' ADHD medication, as prescription drug abuse among teens is on the rise. Make sure your child understands that he should never give his medication to anyone.

  • Do not keep the medication in a public place such as in the bathroom or the kitchen or anywhere else people can see it. Make sure it's locked up or put away and monitored. Teach your kids to be responsible for their medication, too. Help her learn to ​manage her ADHD and to own her condition, and be aware that she is at higher risk for certain problems.

Additional Inform​​ation on

Last Updated
American Academy of Pediatrics (Copyright © 2014)
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.
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