At a glance
Most kids with ADHD don’t misuse or abuse their ADHD medication, but it can happen.
Stimulant medication is the type most often misued, shared, or abused.
You can help make sure your child only uses ADHD medication as intended.
If your child is on ADHD medication, or if you’re considering it as a treatment option, you may worry about abuse. There’s reason to think about it. ADHD medication misuse, sharing, and abuse does happen. Especially among high school and college-age kids. But it’s important to know that most kids don’t abuse their medication.
Stimulant medications are the drugs prescribed most often for ADHD, because they’re usually the most effective. They’re also the drugs most often abused.
The U.S. government keeps tight controls on stimulant medications. The purpose of those controls is to reduce the potential for abuse and addiction. (States also have their own laws.) Doctors may only write prescriptions for one month at a time. And there can’t be refills without each one being authorized by the prescriber.
Learning all you can about ADHD medication can help you reduce risks for your child. It can also help you talk to them about how to safely take the medication that’s been prescribed.
How kids might misuse, share, or abuse ADHD medication
The term “misuse” means using more than the dose that’s prescribed, or using the correct dose more often than is prescribed. That goes for kids who have a prescription and kids who don’t. You may also hear about kids sharing or selling prescribed pills to kids who don’t have prescriptions.
The term “abuse” refers to behavior that’s even more serious than misuse. It’s actual substance abuse that affects daily life. And it can lead to addiction, which is an obsessive use of the substance in doses usually larger than have been prescribed.
Experts report that some teens and young adults with ADHD use their medication for reasons other than controlling ADHD symptoms.
When students get pills from kids with prescriptions, or misuse their own prescriptions, it’s usually to use during a crunch time. The extra boost in focus and energy may help when they’re cramming for exams or trying to catch up on long-overdue work. Using pills this way can be risky. That’s especially true if the doses are high or taken more frequently than has been prescribed.
Another thing kids sometimes do is take ADHD medications before partying. They may do this to stay alert while drinking alcohol. But it can cause them to drink dangerously high amounts of alcohol without realizing how much it’s affecting them.
How misusing stimulant medication can affect kids
There’s a difference in how stimulant medication affects kids and young adults who have ADHD and those who don’t. For kids without ADHD, it can offer a quick, short-term boost in focus and alertness.
Most kids with ADHD who take stimulant medication as prescribed have good results. These drugs can help reduce ADHD symptoms by improving the way parts of the brain communicate with each other. This can help improve executive function skills, such as .
But taking more medication than is prescribed, or taking it more often than is prescribed, can create unpleasant side effects. It can make kids feel jittery or cause their heart rate to increase temporarily.
Those sensations can make it hard to concentrate on work. Too much medication can also keep kids awake much longer than they want to be at night. Then they’re exhausted the next day.
For most kids, this experience is enough to keep them from taking high dosages in the future. But there are some kids who may actually like the sensation and continue to seek it out. These are the kids who may be at risk of becoming addicted.
Getting ADHD medication without a proper diagnosis
There are cases where kids are misdiagnosed with ADHD, and then get medication without actually having ADHD. Some kids who know they don’t have ADHD may try to fake ADHD symptoms to get prescriptions.
No person should be getting ADHD medication without having had a comprehensive evaluation from a medical or mental health professional with specific training in this kind of evaluation. Many (but not all) pediatricians, psychologists, and psychiatrists have this training. Private evaluations by a trained professional can be expensive and may not be covered by insurance. But there are resources to help you find a free or low-cost private evaluation.
How to help your child avoid ADHD medication risks
Misuse, sharing, and abuse of ADHD medication are serious problems. But you can take steps to minimize the risks.
- Make sure your child has had a proper evaluation before considering any medication.
- Keep medication in a secure place at home. This can be any place where visitors can’t see it and where you can easily monitor that it’s only used as prescribed.
- If your child lives away from home, such as in a dorm, caution about keeping the medication safe. That includes not leaving it out where it can easily be stolen. Also, help your child understand the importance of not giving in to friends who may want to buy or “borrow” medication.
- Start talking early and often to your child about ADHD and the risks of sharing or selling medication. It’s never too late to start talking to your child about this. But ideally, it’s best to introduce the concept no later than middle school. Teach your child to never share their medication.
- Talk to your child about the law. Medications for ADHD are classified as Schedule II drugs by the federal government. That means they’re considered to have a “high potential for abuse.” Explain that giving a Schedule II drug to anyone is considered “dealing” under the law.
If you suspect misuse, sharing, or abuse of stimulant medication, talk to your child’s health care provider. Share your concerns and discuss ways to help your child.
It’s important to know about potential risks so you can help your child avoid them. But it also helps to remember that most kids don’t have these issues with ADHD medications.
Learn about other things tweens and teens need to understand about ADHD medication. If your child is younger, get some topics to raise with grade-schoolers. Or listen to an In It podcast episode about common questions about ADHD medication.
Understood is not affiliated with any pharmaceutical company.
Kids shouldn’t take ADHD medication without a complete ADHD evaluation.
Understanding the potential risks — and talking to your child about them — can help kids stay safe.
If you suspect medication misuse, sharing, or abuse, talk to your child’s health care provider.
About the author
About the author
Margie DeSantis is an associate editor at Understood.
Thomas E. Brown, PhD is a clinical psychologist and director of the Brown Clinic for Attention and Related Disorders.