The Link Between ADHD and Substance Abuse

Do you know how ADHD is related to substance abuse? In fact, does having ADHD increase the risk of addiction? Find out here.
The Link Between ADHD and Substance Abuse

Last update: 12 November, 2022

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) has been identified in almost all cultures. In fact, demographic studies on the subject state that approximately five percent of children and 2.5 percent of adults suffer from it. Although substance addictions are relatively more common among adults with ADHD than the general population, ADHD and substance use is present in only a minority of adults.

On the other hand, it’s known that the characteristics of ADHD increase the probability that adolescents will develop some type of addiction. Indeed, children with ADHD tend to experience the effects produced by substances with greater intensity. That’s why the risk of suffering from an addiction and the progression to it (the time it takes to develop the addiction) is greater.

“We know that one of the long-term effects of ADHD is a heightened risk for substance use. In fact, research has found that kids with ADHD are two to three times more likely to abuse substances than kids in the general population.” 

-Child Mind Institute-

child with attention deficit
ADHD increases the risk of addiction.

ADHD

The World Health Organization (WHO), in the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11), describes ADHD as a persistent pattern of inattention or hyperactivity and impulsivity that lasts more than six months. This pattern begins in a child’s developmental period, usually around early to mid-childhood.

The different types of ADHD

There are different subtypes of ADHD depending on the symptoms. For example:

  • Predominantly inattentive presentation. This type of ADHD is more frequent in adolescent girls and women. Selective attention impairment predominates and the sufferer’s academic work is usually negatively affected. That’s because they struggle to direct their attention and focus on something without allowing other stimuli to interrupt the task. For example, paying attention to a teacher while ignoring noises in class. This is the most frequent type of ADHD.
  • Predominantly hyperactive-impulsive presentation. It’s the most conflictive subtype. Highly energetic activity is characteristic of this type, appearing especially in sedentary, boring, and highly structured situations. For instance, in class. Furthermore, hyperactivity seems to be greater in front of the mother and teachers.
  • Combined presentation. Inattentive and hyperactive-impulsive symptoms are present. This type is more common in boys and men. It’s also closely related to antisocial personality disorder. When both hyperactivity and inattention appear, the deterioration it produces in the sufferer’s life is greater. In this subtype, the deficit in sustained attention predominates. That’s the ability to maintain attention to a specific activity for a certain period. For example, paying attention to a teacher for 30 minutes.

“Children with ADHD can also struggle with low self-esteem, troubled relationships, and poor school performance. Sometimes, symptoms lessen with age. However, some people never fully outgrow their symptoms.”

-Mayo Clinic-

These manifestations must be present in more than one context. For example, at school, at home, at work, in the nursery, in the park, or in extracurricular activities. The symptoms may vary within each one of them. Children with ADHD also tend to be more irritable and have more compromised emotional stability.

ADHD and substance use

These kids are more hyperactive, more impulsive, and their minds move at a faster pace, which is sometimes tiring for them. They tend to gravitate toward substances which decrease the pace of their thoughts.”

-Child Mind Institute-

To compensate for the hyperactivity and impulsiveness that characterize these children, they often come into contact with substances such as marijuana, this being the substance they consume the most, or alcohol or nicotine. Among the effects of marijuana are mild sedation and euphoria.

We’ve already mentioned that children with ADHD have impaired attention, both selective and sustained. The use of stimulant substances, such as nicotine or cocaine, is often attractive to them. That’s because they make them feel good. However, additional risk factors have also been identified when it comes to substance abuse.

  • Children with ADHD are more likely to suffer from co-occurring disorders, such as anxiety disorders, depressive disorders, or oppositional defiant disorder.
  • It’s common for children with ADHD to have difficulties in school or experience adjustment problems. They can also ‘attract’ other children, both with ADHD and without, but who share the same difficulties. In fact, they have a tendency to interact with other children who present risk behaviors and substance use, triggering opportunities for experimentation with them.

“So, when kids are introduced to a substance that calms them down, it feels good to them. Trying to engage in more productive behaviors to manage their ADHD such as meditating or going for a walk, becomes much harder because a substance provides such a quick fix.”

-Jeannette Friedman-

Teenager with concentration problems
It’s recommended to talk about drugs and their effects with children and adolescents suffering from ADHD.

What to do when a child has ADHD and is using substances

The most important thing that parents can do is to provide their children with the specialized care they need. Therefore, the child should be evaluated and the necessary measures implemented as soon as possible. Especially if unusual behaviors of restlessness, distraction, or forgetfulness appear.

The Child Mind Institute proposes a series of simple guidelines. They may well be helpful if you should find yourself in this kind of situation.

  • Talk to your children about substance abuse at an early age. Explain that ADHD makes them more vulnerable to addiction compared to their peers without ADHD. Take a nonjudgmental stand.
  • Don’t be excessively permissive. In other words, don’t make too many concessions. Your child must learn to handle and manage their challenges. If they don’t learn to deal with them, they might turn to a substance to reduce their anxiety.
  • Maintain positive communication. Difficulties are important, and identifying them is vital. However, repeatedly pointing them out won’t make them go away. Try to give your child the kinds of messages that get through to them and allow them to make progress toward a well-adjusted future.

Don’t rearrange the furniture. Teach them tools to walk around the furniture.”

-Jeanette Friedman-

The study authors urge families not only to seek out a team of professionals to assess and treat their children’s ADHD but also to work on having a positive relationship with them. Furthermore, they recommend that, if they’re in constant conflict, they can seek help in the different therapeutic frameworks.

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The contents of Exploring Your Mind are for informational and educational purposes only. They don't replace the diagnosis, advice, or treatment of a professional. In the case of any doubt, it's best to consult a trusted specialist.