When I was in high school, drinking coffee made me feel sophisticated and—I thought—helped me concentrate and stay awake. I have ADHD, but back then I was undiagnosed and not medicated. I really struggled with self-regulation.
I liked coffee and how the caffeine in it made me feel so sharp and alert. So I drank as much as I wanted to whenever I felt like it—without considering how the caffeine was physically affecting me. I’d have a latte at 4pm and then lie awake at 4am wondering why I couldn’t sleep.
It wasn’t until I was an adult that I figured out how to use caffeine in a responsible way. But I’ve always been curious about how caffeine affects kids with ADHD, so I dug into the research. Here’s what I found out:
1. Kids, like adults, get a buzz from caffeine. But it isn’t a reliable or sustainable way to manage symptoms like inattention. Too much caffeine can make kids feel jittery or lead to a “crash” in the afternoon.
2. The boost that makes caffeine feel helpful during the day can also make it hard for kids to sleep at night. And being tired makes ADHD symptoms worse, not better.
3. Too much caffeine—or using it too often—can be bad for a child’s health. This is especially an issue with “energy drinks” and “energy shots,” which are sold in convenience stores and often used excessively by teens and young adults. The consequences of too much caffeine can range from an upset stomach to more serious issues such as high blood pressure and heart palpitations.
4. Caffeine acts as a stimulant. If your child is already taking stimulant medication for ADHD, caffeine can heighten the effects and lead to the child feeling jittery or having even more trouble winding down at night.
5. Caffeine is OK to use in moderation, but that can be tricky when it comes to teenagers with ADHD. Many teens with ADHD have trouble self-regulating and planning ahead. (This was certainly true for me.) A soda with lunch may be OK. But a morning coffee, an energy drink or an energy shot with lunch, and a soda at the end of the day is not.
6. Caffeine is a drug, and like all drugs it can be addicting. If your teen has trouble setting limits or is prone to self-medicating, it may be safer to cut out caffeine altogether.
7. Caffeine is not a good way to manage ADHD symptoms. It should never be used as a substitute for proven treatments like medication and behavioral therapy.
Everything I read rang true with my own experiences. In my case, after I was diagnosed in college, it took a few all-nighters to help me realize that not only was drinking coffee at all hours not helping me with my ADHD symptoms, it was actually making them worse.
Not sleeping made it extra hard to stay focused the next day. An afternoon jolt didn’t help me stay awake—it just made me feel jittery, especially after I started taking medication. Eventually I decided it was time to say goodbye to the buzz.
These days I’m much better at setting limits. I still enjoy coffee, but now I’m careful to keep it as a morning treat and nothing more.
See how lack of sleep can affect how kids learn. And find out how to help college students with ADHD create a time management system that can help them avoid pulling all-nighters!
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About the author
Rae Jacobson, MS is a writer who focuses on ADHD and learning disabilities in women and girls.