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Are kids with learning or attention issues more likely than other kids to engage in risky behaviors?

Teenagers and young adults with ADHD are more impulsive than their peers. This is especially true for teens with untreated ADHD.

When Dr. Ned Hallowell, a psychiatrist who specializes in helping kids with ADHD, talks to his teenage patients, he tells them, “You’ve got a Ferrari engine for a brain. But you’ve got bicycle brakes. You can’t stop when you need to. You’re going to get into trouble.

Teens with ADHD may also struggle with self-esteem if they feel like they aren’t fitting in or are having trouble in school. This can also lead to poor judgment.

All of these things make teens with ADHD more likely to engage in common risky behaviors.

Reckless Driving

Teenagers with ADHD may have challenges behind the wheel because of inattention or impulsivity. They have higher rates of traffic tickets and accidents, and their accidents tend to be more serious than average.

What Can You Do?

  • Take extra time and care when teaching teenagers with ADHD to drive.
  • Consider delaying the age when your teen begins driving (if you don’t feel she’s ready).
  • Limit how and when she can drive (and who can be in the car with her) until you’re absolutely sure that her skill and judgment make her safe on the road.
  • If your child takes medication for ADHD, be sure she’s taken it if she’s going to be driving.
  • Make sure she’s aware of the difficulties associated with driving and ADHD, including distractions like incoming texts and other kids in the car. She needs to recognize the importance of monitoring her own behavior to make sure she’s a safe driver.

Unprotected Sex

Statistics show that teens with ADHD tend to become sexually active at a younger age. They are more likely to have unsafe sex and have higher rates of sexually transmitted disease. Teenage girls with ADHD have higher rates of unwanted pregnancies than other girls.

What Can You Do?

  • Know where your teen is and who she’s with at all times.
  • Encourage extracurricular activities to minimize unsupervised free time.
  • Teach your teen the risks associated with sexual activity. Encourage her to have an open dialogue with you. You want her to know what your rules and expectations are. But you also want her to feel comfortable coming to you with questions or calling you for help if she finds herself in an awkward or dangerous situation.

Substance Abuse

Research shows that teenagers with ADHD tend to start using cigarettes, alcohol and drugs earlier than typical kids. Later, they tend to have higher rates of smoking and substance use and higher rates of alcohol-related problems.

Kids with ADHD may become dependent on drugs or alcohol because they are impulsive. They don’t think about consequences before they act. They also tend to have low self-esteem, and may be at risk for other psychiatric disorders, especially anxiety and depression. Some teens use alcohol and other drugs, like marijuana, as a means of self-medication.

What Can You Do?

  • Make sure your kid takes her medication. Research shows that kids with ADHD who take medication are at lower risk than those who do not.
  • Supervise your teen. Get to know her friends. Make sure she lets you know where she’s going and what she’s doing. Studies show that parental supervision leads to fewer behavioral problems.
  • Be on the lookout for problems she might be trying to “self-medicate” for conditions such as anxiety or depression. Get treatment for them if necessary.
  • Spend time with your child. Let her know that you’re available to talk with her and support her when she’s upset. Let her know that you’re interested in her.

Self-Harm

Studies show that teenage girls who have been diagnosed with ADHD are at higher risk than their peers for self-harm and suicide attempts.

A recent study showed that even teenage girls who have “outgrown” many of the symptoms of ADHD still have significantly higher rates of self-harm and suicide attempts. Dr. Stephen Hinshaw, one of the psychologists who led the study, explains that “the lack of social and academic skills—the cumulative effect of what they missed when they were younger—take a toll.”

Unfortunately, self-injury can be addictive. The more times a person self-harms to relieve emotional pain, the more she will likely feel the urge to do it again. Treatment is significantly easier if you catch it early.

Treatments That Work

  • Dialectical behavior therapy: DBT teaches kids techniques for tolerating distress and shows them how to handle uncomfortable emotions like anger, anxiety and rejection. DBT has been shown to be particularly helpful for cutting.
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy: In CBT, kids are taught how to manage negative, distressing thoughts and prevent troublesome behaviors. In many cases, particularly with teenagers, this treatment is very successful.
  • Family therapy: This kind of therapy, which is also helpful, focuses on how family structure might be contributing to self-harming behavior and how it can be used to support a child’s recovery.

Learning Disabilities and Risky Behavior

Kids who have learning disabilities (LD) may also be prone to dangerous behavior, but not as a symptom of LD. Rather, kids with LD may be more vulnerable if they have self-esteem issues.

“A lot of kids who have learning disabilities are at risk for not feeling that great about themselves,” explains Mike Rosenthal, a pediatric neuropsychologist at the Child Mind Institute. “A kid who doesn’t feel good about herself sometimes does things to attract attention to herself, including negative attention. If academics aren’t working out, she may be looking for other outlets for her energy, and then that can take her into behaviors that are problematic. “

What Can You Do?

  • Stay connected to your kid and reinforce her strengths—her learning disability is not who she is as a person.
  • Provide lots of supervision. Know where she is and who she’s with at all times.
  • Seek treatment if your child seems to suffer from low self-esteem in ways that affect her moods (anxiety or depression), friendships or behavior.

Being the parents of a teenager who has learning and attention issues isn’t an easy job. The good news is that the risks diminish as kids reach adulthood. Until then you can minimize the risk by paying attention and staying involved in your teen’s life.

About the Author

Child Mind Institute Logo

Child Mind Institute, Understood Founding Partner

The Child Mind Institute is dedicated to transforming mental health care for children everywhere.

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