Why teens with ADHD may take more risks

ByErica Patino

Why teens with ADHD may take more risks, girls walking on a wall ledge

At a glance

  • Teens with attention issues may be more likely to engage in risky behaviors.

  • They may take more risks because of low self-esteem or immature thinking.

  • Studies have shown links between ADHD and risky behavior, such as distracted driving and substance abuse.

Teens are at an age when they naturally start to become more independent. But they may not always make the best choices. Teens with ADHD may be especially likely to take risks. It can help to be aware of this possibility and to understand what risky behavior can look like.

What may cause teens with ADHD to take more risks

It may seem like your teen is misbehaving just to be difficult. But this isn’t always the case for teens with ADHD. They may understand the risks of driving recklessly or failing school. But they may not be as able to regulate their behavior as kids who don’t have ADHD.

Teens with ADHD may have poor judgment, immature thinking, and trouble with impulse control. For example, a teen with ADHD may not want to start smoking. But to fit in and look cool, a teen says yes when a classmate offers a cigarette — and then continues smoking.

There’s a lot of research on risky behavior of teens who have ADHD. That’s because ADHD is often tied to behavior issues.

Keep in mind that kids who don’t have ADHD but who have other learning differences can have trouble making good choices, too. They sometimes struggle with thinking about and planning what they want to do. And, like kids with attention issues, they may have low self-esteem, which can sometimes lead to risky behaviors.

What risky behavior can look like

Researchers have found the following links between ADHD and risky behaviors in teens.

Problems with school: Teens with ADHD may be disruptive in class. Sometimes those actions aren’t intentional. They’re the result of poor impulse control. They might be late to class often, lose textbooks, and interrupt lectures. Teens with ADHD are expelled from school at a rate two-and-a-half times that of teens who don’t have ADHD.

Problems with driving: ADHD is linked with dangerous and distracted driving. Poor impulse control may cause teens to drive too fast. Inattention may cause them to daydream instead of paying attention to the road. Teens with ADHD have a higher rate of car accidents, speeding tickets, and getting their license suspended or revoked than teens without ADHD.

Sexual activity: Initial studies have found that teens with ADHD may start having sex at a younger age and with more sexual partners. One study found that teens with ADHD were less likely to use contraception and more likely to have a teenage pregnancy.

Substance abuse: Teens with ADHD may be more likely to abuse substances such as alcohol, marijuana, and cocaine — and to become dependent on them. This might be due to poor impulse control. Or it might be an effort to improve their attention span or deal with frustrations at school.

Problems with the law: It’s not yet clear if ADHD can be tied to criminal behavior, such as shoplifting and damaging property. Early studies found that teens with ADHD may be more likely to go to juvenile court. But the studies didn’t take into account behavioral problems that may be due to traumatic experiences or abuse.

Not all teens with attention issues do risky things, but some do. Knowing the signs of risky behavior can help you spot them in your teen. For ways to help your teen, consider these tips for reducing risky behaviors.

Key takeaways

  • Risky behaviors can lead to being expelled from school or trouble with the law.

  • Teens with ADHD may be more likely to abuse substances and have unprotected sex.

  • Knowing the signs of risky behavior can help you spot them in your teen.

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About the author

About the author

Erica Patino is an online writer and editor who specializes in health and wellness content.

Reviewed by

Reviewed by

Elizabeth Harstad, MD, MPH is a developmental-behavioral pediatrician at Boston Children’s Hospital.