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What Parents Need To Know About Teen Adderall and Ritalin Abuse

Adderall and Ritalin are brand names for two of the most prescribed stimulant medications used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Combined with behavioral treatments, many teens and adults with ADHD find that these stimulants calm their minds, give them focus, and help them accomplish tasks. 

But when college students and teens start taking these stimulants to give them an extra push, there’s reason for concern.

Why Are Teens Taking Adderall and Ritalin Without a Prescription?

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. 

How stimulants work for ADHD and why the medication isn’t good for teens who don’t have attention disorders

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

Adderall and Ritalin are amphetamines that 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. 

Side effects for anyone taking these medications include: 

  • Headaches. 
  • Nervousness. 
  • Dry mouth. 
  • Seizures. 
  • Increased body temperature. 
  • Cardiovascular issues, including increased heart rate, high blood pressure, irregular heartbeat, or stroke. 
  • Mental health symptoms like paranoia and/or psychosis. 

For adolescents who don’t have ADHD, prescription stimulants carry risky side effects. And, 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 is not a significant effect on improved cognition. 

Can teens become addicted to Adderall and Ritalin? 

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 that they are prescription drugs that are more likely to be dangerous or abused. 

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

According to Dr. Jyotsna Nair, who serves as residential psychiatrist for Embark Behavioral Health’s Calo Programs, a residential program for preteens and teens, “Most teens won’t become addicted because it’s less common for teens to regularly abuse 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.” 

The doctor has spent a considerable amount of time working with the patient to ensure they are getting the correct dose based on weight, age, and individual response. They’re also closely monitoring 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 abusing — which means an increased risk of addiction. 

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

Prevention is the best first step. 

“Talking openly with your kids about all kinds of topics, including drug abuse, helps your teen share their struggles with you,” Nair said. “Spending time with your teen and knowing their friends helps too.” 

If you think your teen is abusing Ritalin or Adderall or another ADHD medication, Nair recommends 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. 

What are the symptoms of Adderall or Ritalin abuse? 

Nair said, “Look for changes in behavior. Parents should look for falling grades, secretiveness, and lying. When someone is abusing 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. 

Should I also take my teen to a counselor or psychologist if I suspect substance abuse? 

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 students deal with 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 abuse in teens and young adults can help you and your child find effective and healthy treatment options for dealing with school stress or body image. 

A therapeutic educational consultant can also be helpful, working with your family to determine which types of treatment are needed for your teen, what’s available near you, and which resources work with your insurance. These consultants can help you come up with a plan and can serve as a “project manager,” making sure those who are supporting your teen are on the same page. You can learn more about therapeutic educational consultants on the Embark website.

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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 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-based approach; and offers the highest levels of quality care and safety standards. For more information about Embark or its treatment programs, including virtual counseling, intensive outpatient programs (IOPs), therapeutic day treatment programs, also known as partial hospitalization programs (PHPs), short-term residential treatment, wilderness therapy, and long-term residential treatment, visit www.embarkbh.com.