Adderall and Ritalin Misuse: What Parents Need To Know

With teen Adderall and Ritalin misuse a real issue for some youths, you may wonder if your teenager is improperly using these prescription stimulant medications.  

Many young people with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) have found that stimulants, along with behavioral treatment, can help them focus and accomplish tasks. But when teens start taking Adderall or Ritalin, also known as methylphenidate, to give them an extra push, there’s reason for concern. In fact, if your teenager is misusing these medications, they can even develop an addiction.

Ritalin vs. Adderall

When speaking about Ritalin vs. Adderall, it’s important to remember that both are stimulants that assist those with ADHD who may have lower levels of dopamine. They cause the brain to release more dopamine and norepinephrine, which are neurotransmitters that help improve concentration. There are differences between them, though.  

Adderall is a combination of amphetamine and dextroamphetamine. Ritalin and Concerta are brand names for methylphenidate. These drugs are Food and Drug Administration Schedule II central nervous system stimulants and controlled substances, meaning they’re prescription drugs that are more likely to be dangerous or misused. Because of that, it’s important to note that Ritalin is a faster-acting drug whose effects wear off quicker. This can be dangerous, as someone using it to get high may take more to feel a longer high.  

Why Are Teens Misusing Adderall and Ritalin?

Keeping up with everyday activities, academic pressure, and even body image can all be causes of teen Adderall and Ritalin misuse. School is a common reason.  

Some students are seeking energy for all-nighters when final exams approach and papers are due. 

Over the years, caffeine pills, herbal supplements, energy drinks, over-the-counter stimulant medications, and countless pots of coffee have been called upon to keep students functioning through the night and into the morning. Several years ago, teens — and young adults — added Ritalin and Adderall to that list of chemical study aids, believing these stimulants give them energy and focus.   

Some college students refer to ADHD meds as “smart pills” because they believe these stimulants help them retain information better, even though scientific studies have never confirmed this belief.  

Another reason some people take these stimulants is to use them as an appetite suppressant for weight loss.  

What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Adderall or Ritalin Misuse?

According to Dr. Jyotsna Nair, who serves as residential psychiatrist for Embark Behavioral Health’s Calo Programs, a residential program for preteens and teens, there are multiple symptoms of Adderall and Ritalin misuse. 

Nair said, “Look for changes in behavior. Parents should look for falling grades, secretiveness, and lying. When someone is misusing amphetamines, they drink more water, they don’t get hungry, and they eat less.”  

She also advised looking for dilated pupils, higher body temperature, and a higher heart rate.  

There are additional symptoms of Adderall misuse and symptoms of Ritalin misuse that may pop up.  

If your teen is taking Adderall, look out for: 

If your teen is taking Ritalin, watch for:  

  • Reduced appetite. 
  • Anxiety. 
  • Dehydration. 
  • Insomnia. 
  • Irritability. 

Mental Health Side Effects of Adderall and Ritalin Misuse

Side effects of Adderall misuse and side effects of Ritalin misuse include long- and short-term mental health issues. 

“The number one concern I have about the impact stimulant misuse has on mental health would be psychosis,” Nair said. “Psychosis would be hallucinating and responding to what’s not around, as though the person was losing touch with reality.” 

According to Nair, long- and short-term mental health side effects of misusing these medications include:  

  • Irritability. 
  • Anger. 
  • Panic attacks. 
  • Nervousness. 
  • Trouble sleeping. 
  • Manic behavior or episodes. 
  • Psychosis. 

Can Teens Become Addicted to Adderall and Ritalin?

Parent talks with teen about Adderall addiction and misuse after finding pills in his backpack.
Parent talks with teen about Adderall addiction and misuse after finding pills in his backpack. 

You may be concerned about whether taking ADHD medications can lead to either an Adderall addiction or a Ritalin addiction. Because these stimulants impact a person’s ability to focus and perform under pressure, teens may want to use more and more of them if they believe they’re experiencing positive changes when taking them.  

Because the side effects — including possible addiction — can be harmful, Schedule II prescription drugs should only be used under the careful supervision of a doctor.  

According to Nair, “Most teens won’t become addicted because it’s less common for teens to regularly misuse these drugs.” But addiction is still a possibility, especially among teens who self-medicate for undiagnosed ADHD or who take it as an appetite suppressant for weight loss.  

Doctors spend a considerable amount of time working with a patient to ensure they’re getting the correct dose based on weight, age, and individual response. They also closely monitor for side effects. A teen borrowing ADHD medications from a friend may therefore be taking a dose that their body isn’t meant to handle.  

And since Adderall and Ritalin are stimulants, if adolescents take them at higher doses, they can experience euphoria and other side effects that could encourage them to keep misusing these prescription drugs — which means an increased risk of addiction.  

How Do Adderall and Ritalin Affect Teens With and Without ADHD?

When a person has ADHD, several systems in the brain have trouble connecting with each other, partly because the ADHD brain does not produce and retain enough dopamine long enough. This means people with ADHD have trouble concentrating or controlling their impulses and emotional responses.  

As mentioned earlier, Adderall and Ritalin stimulate the production of dopamine. For people with ADHD, the right dose may increase their abilities to focus, complete tasks, limit hyperactivity, and control their impulses.  

What about the effects of Adderall on teens who don’t have ADHD? According to this research by Brown University, the University of Rhode Island, and Breidholt Service Center, when individuals who don’t have ADHD take these medications, there’s not a significant effect on improved cognition.  

What Do I Do if I Think My Teen Is Misusing Adderall or Ritalin?

If you suspect your teen is misusing ADHD medication, you may jump to conclusions about how to stop Adderall addiction and how to stop Ritalin addiction, such as removing the stimulants altogether. But if your teen needs them due to an ADHD diagnosis, hasty actions could hurt more than help. Communication is key. 

“Talking openly with your kids about all kinds of topics, including drug misuse, helps your teen share their struggles with you,” Nair said.   

If, after talking, you still think — or confirm — your teen is misusing Ritalin or Adderall or another ADHD medication, Nair recommended contacting your primary care provider and getting a referral for psychiatry and substance use therapy, including evaluating if there’s a need for addiction treatment.  

“Your primary care doctor is usually the gatekeeper for referrals and knows your teen well,” Nair said.  

If your teen is not misusing Adderall or Ritalin and you want to be proactive so they don’t misuse them in the future, educate yourself and your child about the impact these stimulants have on young people if used incorrectly. 

Should I Take My Teen to a Counselor or Psychologist if I Suspect Substance Misuse?

If your teen is taking prescription stimulants to study better or to lose weight, they’re feeling pressure regarding their academic grades or their body image. However, using stimulants doesn’t help them deal with overwhelming stress or study effectively. It’s a short-term fix that carries high risk for your teen.  

Consulting with a mental health professional with experience treating substance misuse in young people can help you and your child find effective and healthy treatment options for dealing with whatever is troubling them so you can best address teen Adderall and Ritalin misuse.  

Embark is the most trusted name in teen and young adult mental health treatment. We’re driven to find the help your family needs. If you’re looking for support, contact us today!

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Embark Behavioral Health

Embark Behavioral Health is a leading network of outpatient centers and residential programs offering premier mental health treatment for preteens, teens, and young adults. Dedicated to its big mission of reversing the trends of teen and young adult anxiety, depression, and suicide by 2028, Embark offers a robust continuum of care with different levels of service and programming; has a deep legacy of over 25 years serving youths; works with families to adjust treatment in real time to improve results; treats the entire family using an evidence-supported approach; and offers the highest levels of quality care and safety standards. For more information about Embark or its treatment programs, including virtual services, intensive outpatient programs (IOPs), therapeutic day treatment programs, also known as partial hospitalization programs (PHPs), residential treatment, and outdoor therapy, visit