Parents of teens on ADD meds need to be vigilant.
Several articles recently have pointed out that the use of ADD meds is rapidly rising. Antibiotic prescriptions are down for children, but stimulant medication prescriptions have risen 40% over the last decade.
Stimulant medications for ADD can be life-altering in a good way for students struggling with physical restlessness, distractibility, difficulty sustaining attention and whose academic and social success is stymied by these barriers. Virtually all children with organic causes for difficulty with focus and attention have disruptive symptoms early on in school. By the end of elementary school true ADD kids have been identified by and large, and those who would benefit from medication are on it.
The pressures of high school classes and the need to do your best on exams brings many teenagers to the office who have never had problematic issues in the past with focus and attention but who are struggling to pay attention without distraction long enough to absorb the boatloads of information high school classes demand. Most of these students do not have ADD. They are normal teenagers distracted by phones and music and crushes and friends, and finding the strength to put those distractions aside to concentrate on school work is challenging.
Some of these kids, worried that they’re going to get poor grades or not do their best on standardized tests, buy stimulant medication from their friends with ADD who may only take the medication on school days leaving them 8 extra pills each month that they don’t use.
Taking a stimulant medication when you don’t have ADD will indeed result in improved focus and attention. Some students can get in a hyper-vigilant zone of focus which allows them to stay up all night studying and still perform well the next day. So why not take it? Why not sell your extra pills for $10-20 a piece to earn pocket money?
Superior students who wouldn’t typically be thought of as drug experimenters are buying these pills from friends. Mediocre students who worry that they won’t get into college or disappoint their parents with less than great grades are taking them. The typical “burn out” profile doesn’t apply here.
Stimulant medications do have risks attached to them. They can result in increased blood pressure or rapid heart rate in people who don’t have a medical need for them. They can result in agitation, emotional lability, and sleeplessness as well.
Selling stimulant medications also has risk. It is against the law and if the student you sell the medication to has an adverse reaction, you could be legally at risk.
But to be honest, the risks of side effects aren’t my biggest worry. Teenagers who turn to medication (prescription meds, marijuana, alcohol, etc.) to cope with issues are at risk. A pill may help you study intensely for a test, but is that a good long term strategy? Is doing your utmost best on every exam essential? Is the pressure our students feel best managed with a pill?
I worry that by turning to medication to make up for weaknesses in study skills or poor time management is a recipe for abuse. In the same way teenagers use marijuana to escape the boredom or emotional struggles of high school and ultimately find themselves using it several days a week or more, students who use a stimulant “just this once” for a big exam may find themselves turning to them regularly over time. It’s a slippery slope and it worries me that parents are turning a blind eye to the problem.
Parents of students who show signs that they are using stimulant medication to get ahead (sleeplessness, agitation, up all night with energy the next day) need to confront their teens and ask about it. Parents of teens who take stimulant medication regularly need to be more vigilant counting pills and supervise the teen taking the medication to ensure their child isn’t dealing their meds to other students.
Life is more than tests or even where you go to college. Relying on medications (prescription or otherwise) to cope is a bad plan.