cartoon head with squiggly arrows radiating from itDid you know that children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) are more likely to develop a substance use disorder? It’s true! According to a recent article called Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder and Substance Abuse in the journal Pediatrics, there is increased risk. This blog will review the connection and give tips to keep children substance free over the years to come.

What is ADHD?

Children with ADHD are often fidgety, somewhat hyper, and have trouble paying attention and following through on tasks. These children can be impulsive – acting before thinking. They can be distracted easily. Many children with ADHD are highly creative and quite talented. Not all distracted, fidgety, creative children have ADHD.  A diagnosis will only be made if behaviors cause a child to have significant trouble in 2 or more settings. Ask a pediatrician if you are concerned about your child or want more information.

What is Known about the Risk of Substance Use Disorders?

The above-mentioned article in Pediatrics highlights a study showing that children with ADHD are over twice as likely as children without ADHD to develop a substance use disorder in their lifetimes.  These children are more likely to eventually become dependent upon nicotine, alcohol, marijuana, and cocaine. Children with ADHD are more likely to start using substances earlier and to try more types of substances.

The reason for the increased risk is not known. One theory is that people who are more impulsive are more likely to try substances. Perhaps school and other areas of life are often more difficult for people with ADHD, and substances might be used to self-medicate. Another theory is that people with ADHD might more easily develop physical addictions. Perhaps one day more will be known about why these children are at increased risk. In the meantime, let’s look at what can be done to try to reduce the risk.

What Can be Done to Prevent Problems?

Experts agree that treatment will likely reduce the risk of developing substance abuse disorders. Some suggestions include the following:

    • Ask your pediatrician or specialist about treating ADHD symptoms with prescription medication – and start young.
    • Don’t use medication only. Get behavioral treatment from a therapist for children at any age – even as young as 4.
    • Get other conditions such as depression, low self-esteem, anxiety and conduct disorder diagnosed and treated.
    • As your child ages, keep the lines of communication open. Talk to your child about substance use amongst their friends and in their school.
    • Teach your child the importance of taking good care of their bodies.
    • When it comes to substance use, what you do might have more of an impact on your child than what you say. Lead by example.

In my opinion, children with ADHD are some of the most creative, fun, and engaging people. They are at an unfortunately high risk for developing a substance use problem. Early intervention is a key approach to reducing this risk, and will help keep them healthy.

For more information:

See this article from The American Academy of Pediatrics:
Clinical Report: Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder and Substance Abuse
Elizabeth Harstad, Sharon Levy, and COMMITTEE ON SUBSTANCE ABUSE
Pediatrics 2014; 134:1 e293-e301; published ahead of print June 30, 2014, doi:10.1542/peds.2014-0992

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