Happy family


ADHD and Addiction

adhd and addiction treatment for adolescents

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a common mental health condition among children, teens, and adults alike. People with ADHD have above-average levels of hyperactivity and, as a result, have difficulty paying attention and sitting still. In most cases, they also struggle with impulse control.

ADHD is very widespread among young children and adolescents, with average age of diagnosis being about seven years old. However, it is a disorder that affects every age. While the symptoms of ADHD most often start in childhood, they can carry through into a person’s teen and adult years.

Over six million children between ages 2-17 have been diagnosed with ADHD in the United States.1

If you have a child whose been diagnosed with ADHD, or even if you suspect it, it’s important to intervene now. Learning how to manage the symptoms of ADHD now can change the course of your child’s life. Left unaddressed, ADHD can cause behavior and conduct issues in youth.

Today, six in 10 children with ADHD have at least one other mental, emotional, or behavioral disorder. About half of these children have a behavior or conduct problem.1

Lying, stealing, and skipping school are common among children with undiagnosed ADHD. So is early substance use. Children with ADHD have a greater likelihood to smoke, drink, and use drugs, and on average, will experiment with these substances earlier than their peers. At this age, they are also at greater risk for developing an addiction (formally known as a substance use disorder).

ADHD Symptoms in Children, Adolescents & Young Adults

Does your child have trouble paying attention in class, or to rules? Do they feel the need to move around constantly, or interrupt conversations? Do they struggle to cope with boredom or tedious tasks? These are all telling signs of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

As its name implies, there are really three main characteristics of ADHD:

  • Inattention (difficulty paying attention)
  • Hyperactivity (being overactive)
  • Impulsivity (acting without thinking)

There are, however, many more symptoms. These include:

  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Trouble focusing on a task
  • Problems with organization
  • Inability to stay still for long periods of time
  • Gets bored very easily
  • Inability to control impulsive behaviors
  • Constant movement, activity, or fidgeting
  • Forgetfulness when it comes to completing tasks
  • Easily distracted
  • Inability to control speech (interrupting people while they are talking)

When these symptoms become overwhelming (for a child or adolescent especially), they may not know how to cope. They may not know how to handle such frustration simply at being bored. They may not know how to communicate their inability to pay attention in class, or complete their work. They may suffer from poor performance at work or school. They may constantly get in trouble with superiors – not listening, talking out of turn, skipping obligations altogether – because of their ADHD.

They may also act on impulse, and in stressful times, this can lead to drug or alcohol use.

The Link Between ADHD and Addiction

More than 25 percent of adolescents with substance use problems also show symptoms of ADHD.2 About 15 percent of adolescents living with ADHD have a co-occurring substance addiction.3

Why is it that these two mental health conditions often co-occur?

There are several theories surrounding the connection between ADHD and addiction. One of these is self-medication. As discussed above, those with a mental health disorder like ADHD do not always have the right strategies or tools to cope. Youth with ADHD may feel frustrated at constantly being in trouble, or at the thought of constantly being active and on-the-go. In efforts to “feel better,” they may turn to drugs and alcohol – to relax, to slow down, or to escape.

Interestingly, people with ADHD have an unbalanced chemical makeup in their brain, with issues regulating neurotransmitters like dopamine and norepinephrine. In efforts to compensate for these chemicals, and to avoid feelings of unhappiness, they may turn to drugs to cope.

Drugs and alcohol release chemicals in the brain that produce euphoric effects. They also allow many who feel “out of place” as though they belong. This is especially true for teens and young adults with ADHD. They may feel they need to go an extra measure to fit in, and may drink or use drugs to do so.

While these substances may provide temporary relief, drugs and alcohol can actually exacerbate the symptoms of ADHD – especially during the comedown or hangover period, when anxiety tends to increase.

Another known contributor is impulsivity. Impulsivity is a common characteristic of ADHD, in which a person does not think fully before acting. Impulsivity is also very common among teens, whose brains (and the parts that control decision-making) are still developing. As a result, teens with ADHD are more likely to make impulsive choices without thinking of the negative consequences, one of those being substance abuse. Those with ADHD are also more likely to seek “fun” and “different” activities when they are bored or feeling restless.


Treating Co-Occurring ADHD and Substance Use Disorders

When both ADHD and addiction happen simultaneously, they are called co-occurring disorders or (more formally) a dual diagnosis. Dual diagnosis can be made any combination of multiple, mental health disorders – such as anxiety and depression – and addictive disorders, such as substance use. ADHD and substance use are among the most common co-occurring disorders today.

Although there is no cure, both ADHD and addiction are very treatable disorders, that can be managed with ongoing and active management.

When a person is struggling with addiction and ADHD, the disorders must be treated simultaneously, at the same time and place. This is called integrated dual diagnosis treatment. In an integrated setting, your loved one will receive a multi-dimensional treatment plan that helps him or her:

  • Identify negative behavioral and thought patterns
  • Get to the root of their substance abuse problems
  • Understand how to cope with, and manage, the symptoms of ADHD
  • Develop strategies to control impulses, manage stress, and slow down decision-making
  • Understand that full recovery is possible
  • Develop methods for managing difficult drug cravings
  • Make positive and healthy changes in his or her life

For those struggling with ADHD and addiction, a range of behavioral therapies are recommended. These include counseling, support groups, family therapy, and holistic therapy methods. At home, parents can also help children with ADHD more effectively manage symptoms by:

  • Teaching stress management techniques
  • Helping their child stay organized with schoolwork
  • Breaking down large or long tasks into smaller, more manageable ones
  • Keeping a regular routine
  • Encouraging exercise and play
  • Giving rewards or praise when rules are followed
  • Having continual behavioral check-ups with a professional
  • Looping in schoolteachers and administrators, to adopt a reasonable and actionable plan for your child’s learning experiences. Special programs for children with ADHD are available.

If your child is young, implementing these tactics now can reduce the likelihood of your child self-medicating their ADHD with drugs down the road.

If your child is battling with ADHD and struggling with substance use, it is important to seek help now. Adolescents and young adults who use substances – before their brain is fully developed – can significantly increase their risk of addiction later in life. Early dual diagnosis treatment is key to keeping your loved one on the most healthy, successful path.

If you would like to speak with a professional at Turnbridge about ADHD and addiction treatment, please do not hesitate to reach out. You may also explore our dual diagnosis treatment programs for young men and women online.


1 https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/adhd/data.html

2 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2676785

3 https://www.psychiatrictimes.com/special-reports/adhd-and-substance-use-current-evidence-and-treatment-considerations