ADHD Medication Misuse, Sharing and Abuse: What You Need to Know

By The Understood Team
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At a Glance

  • If kids or young adults share, misuse or abuse ADHD medication, it’s typically the stimulant type.

  • Most kids don’t engage in this type of behavior. But it’s important for all parents to understand the potential risks.

  • There are some key things you can do to help make sure your child only uses ADHD medication as intended.

You may have heard about kids misusing, sharing or abusing ADHD medication and worried about what it might mean for your child. ADHD medication misuse, sharing and abuse does happen, particularly among high school and college-age kids. And while there isn’t much reliable data on how often kids are doing this, most don’t do it at all.

To better understand the problem, you’ll need to know about the two types of ADHD medication. Stimulant medication is prescribed most often, because it’s usually the most effective. When it doesn’t work for a child, however, a prescriber may suggest trying a non-stimulant medication.

Studies show that both types are safe when they’re taken as prescribed and under medical supervision. But stimulants are the ones most often misused, shared or abused.

Learning all you can about ADHD medication can help you reduce risks for your child. It can also help you talk to him about how to safely take the medication that’s been prescribed.

How Kids Might Misuse, Share or Abuse ADHD Medication

The term “misuse” refers to something very specific. It 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 is much more severe than misuse. It’s actual substance abuse that interferes with functioning. And it can lead to addiction, which means a compulsive use of the substance in doses much larger than have been prescribed.

There aren’t reliable figures on how many kids misuse or share ADHD stimulant medication, or how often. However, experts do report that some teens and young adults with ADHD are using them 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, working on a big project or trying to catch up on long-overdue work.

Using pills this way—without medical supervision—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.

There is a potential for misuse to lead to abuse and even addiction. There are no reliable figures on how many kids abuse ADHD medications or become addicted. But it can happen if kids take it in higher doses and with much greater frequency than what’s safely prescribed.

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 those who don’t have 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. (According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 70 to 80 percent have good results.) When the medication is active in the body, it can help reduce ADHD symptoms by improving the way parts of the brain communicate with each other. This can help improve executive functioning skills, such as working memory.

When that happens, kids with ADHD are more focused and better able to stay organized and on-task. They’re also more motivated to complete tasks they have little interest in, but need to do.

But taking more medication than is prescribed, or taking it more often than is prescribed, can create unpleasant side effects. That’s true for kids with or without ADHD. It can make them 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, causing them to be 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.

It’s important to know that the U.S. government keeps tight controls on stimulant medications, just as it does for pain medications. The purpose of those controls is to reduce the potential for abuse and addiction. Keep in mind that states have their own laws, in addition to federal 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.

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. This evaluation takes two to three hours and also requires feedback from parents and teachers.

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 there are steps you can take to minimize the risks.

  • Make sure your child has had a full and complete evaluation before considering any medication. A comprehensive evaluation for ADHD usually takes at least two hours and requires specific training not all prescribers have had.

  • 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 him about keeping his medication safe. That includes not leaving it out where it can easily be stolen. Also, help him understand the importance of not giving in to friends who may want to buy or “borrow” his 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 not to advertise to other kids that he takes ADHD medication and never to share it.

  • Talk to your child about the law. If you feel like it’s appropriate, let your child know of the potential legal consequences. 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.”

  • It also means it’s illegal to use them without a prescription or in ways that aren’t prescribed. Explain that giving a Schedule II drug to anyone is considered to be “dealing” under the law. That’s true even if the person doesn’t pay for it. Kids who don’t have a prescription—including kids with ADHD—can also get into legal trouble for possessing or taking ADHD medication.

Explore other things tweens and teens need to understand about ADHD medication. If your child is younger, learn about topics to raise with grade-schoolers. This could help them be responsible about medications as they get older.

If you suspect that your child may be misusing, sharing or abusing stimulant medication, talk to his doctor. 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.

Understood is not affiliated with any pharmaceutical company.

Key Takeaways

  • Kids who haven’t had a thorough ADHD evaluation shouldn’t take ADHD medication. A comprehensive evaluation for ADHD requires specific training that not all prescribers have had.

  • Understanding the potential risks—and talking to your child about them—can help him stay safe.

  • If you suspect your child may be misusing, sharing or abusing stimulant medication, talk to his doctor.

About the Author

About the Author

The Understood Team 

is made up of passionate writers, editors, and community moderators. Many of them learn and think differently, or have kids who do.

Reviewed by

Reviewed by

Thomas E. Brown, PhD 

is a clinical psychologist and clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the Keck School of Medicine of USC.

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