A study published in the February, 2013 edition of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry reports what many substance abuse therapists and parents suspected — children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are more likely to abuse marijuana and cigarettes, and they are more likely to require the services of drug and rehab programs than their peers.
The study tracked 600 children over a period of 8 years. By an average age of 15, 35 percent of children with ADHD reported use of one or more substances, compared to 20 percent of children without ADHD. By age 17, 13 percent of the ADHD group reported smoking marijuana, and 17 percent reported daily cigarette use, compared to 7 and 8 percent of the control group, respectively.
Perhaps most alarmingly, 10 percent of the ADHD study group met the diagnostic criteria for a substance abuse disorder, compared to only 3 percent of the control group. Alcohol use between ADHD and non-ADHD kids was approximately equal, possibly reflecting easy access to alcohol.
ADHD Medication Not Preventative
In a finding contradicting previous evidence, the study reports ADHD medication has no effect on substance abuse rates. Children on ADHD medication are as much at risk as children who didn’t take medication for the disorder. This finding implies current ADHD medication does not treat impulsivity as well as previously thought.
A number of factors may contribute to the increased risk. ADHD causes impulsive decision-making, a known risk factor for substance abuse. Kids with ADHD often struggle in school, and drug use may be a means of dealing with academic troubles.
The disorder also often makes it difficult for children to form healthy friendships. ADHD kids are extremely susceptible to peer pressure and may start smoking or drinking to fit in with a social group.
From a parenting perspective, the study proves the need to maintain a consistent and vigilant attitude towards substance abuse with children affected by ADHD. Talking with children about the dangers of drug use is always important, but appears to be even more so if your child has impulse control problems.