Your teen is waking up later than usual. Is this something you should chalk up to changing hormones and the tiring demands of schoolwork and social activities? Or could it be that your teen is misusing his or her attention deficit hyperactivity disorder medications? Both are possibilities, and it’s the latter that the National Institute on Drug Abuse says is cause for concern.
This article originally appeared on U.S. News
“Prescription stimulants are sometimes abused,” the organization notes, explaining that they may be “taken in higher quantities or in a different manner than prescribed, or taken by those without a prescription.” For example, it’s not uncommon for teens and even young adults to engage in such behaviors, thinking that turning to ADHD stimulants will enhance their ability to perform better in school. Interestingly, the organization says that just the opposite is true: Research indicates that students abusing these prescription stimulants have lower GPAs in high school and college compared to people who aren’t abusing these meds.
How, then, can parents determine if their teen is misusing ADHD medications and potentially spiraling towards an addiction that can lead to all-out abuse of commonly prescribed stimulants?
First, parents should realize that misuse isn’t always about the desire to excel academically. There are other reasons that may prompt improper use of stimulants. It’s essential to learn about these reasons and recognize the signs of possible misuse.
The Institute says that prescription stimulants “are frequently abused for purposes of weight loss.”
Marcia Lee Taylor, chief policy officer at the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids, says that because ADHD stimulants tend to suppress the appetite, some people misuse them with the thought that they’ll lead to weight loss.
If your teen seems to be dropping weight yet isn’t intentionally making significant dietary or physical changes or facing health issues, that could be an indication of stimulant medication misuse.
Changes in Sleeping Habits
Another change parents may observe is a difference in a child’s sleeping habits.
Taylor explains that ADHD stimulants have the tendency to lead to increased wakefulness, often making it harder to fall asleep. Therefore, a person may be more inclined to sleep more in the morning. She says that when a teen has a harder time getting up the next day it might suggest an increase in their ADHD medication intake.
Changes in Spending Habits
For parents wondering how their teen might obtain ADHD medications beyond what’s prescribed by a medical professional, it’s not uncommon for people to purchase them illegally.
Stephanie Sarkis, an author and psychotherapist in Tampa, Florida, explains that some adolescents may be involved in buying or selling ADHD stimulant medications. “Be on the lookout for money that’s not accounted for,” she says. Someone misusing ADHD medications may end up “asking for more money than usual from parents.” On the flip side, Sarkis notes that if a teen is selling rather than buying, he or she may no longer be asking for money or for as much of it.
This frequently occurs in campus settings, where students turn to these medications because they believe they will heighten their focus and, in turn, improve their skills and grades.
Declarations of Anxiety
In addition to expressing the need for more or less money, an adolescent may communicate feeling as though they’re having an anxiety attack. Taylor says that stimulant medication abuse may cause the heart to race. “So if they’re being misused,” she says, “a person may feel like they’re having an anxiety attack or even think they’re having a heart attack.”
“Under medical supervision,” the National Institute of Mental Health notes that “stimulant medications are considered safe.” But NIMH also says “there are risks and side effects, especially when misused or taken in excess of the prescribed dose. For example, stimulants can raise blood pressure and heart rate and increase anxiety.”
A Departure in Friends, Mood
Not all changes will necessarily involve direct communication with parents such as requests for more money or conveying feelings of anxiety. Furthermore, they may not even involve physical changes, in the instance of possible weight loss.
Taylor explains that changes in friends and activities may suggest improper use of ADHD medication, although she points out “that’s a constant in any substance abuse behavior” and not just unique to ADHD medication misuse or abuse. A sudden departure in the choice of friends or the amount of time spent with them could be a telltale sign that a teen is involved with a group that is selling, interested in buying or already misusing these prescriptions.
Changes in mood as well as friends can also occur.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse says that because such stimulants “may produce euphoria, these drugs are also frequently abused for recreational purposes (i.e., to get high).” Sarkis explains that it’s important to observe significant mood shifts, especially if they represent a departure from the usual personality type.
How Can Parents Help?
At the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, Aaron Hogue, director of adolescent and family research, and Molly Bobek, senior research associate, agree that parental collaboration with the child is essential. However, it’s important to engage with the child during the course of his or her life, not just when a parent speculates medication misuse.
“Exhibiting a nonjudgmental curiosity throughout a child’s life,” Bobek says, “allows the parent to consistently stay in the know about all aspects of his or her activities and habits. It’s important to be willing to listen and be curious.” Not only does this strengthen the parent-teen relationship, she says, but it helps the parent better ensure proper medication management such as monitoring use. Hogue adds that “teens are more likely to listen when a parent exhibits nonjudgmental curiosity,” genuinely and routinely expressing an interest in their life.
Monitoring medication use, Hogue says, is “most effective when combined with this relationship strategy,” which involves engaging in more meaningful conversations with the adolescent on a regular basis.
Taylor also encourages parents to be mindful of the fact that kids are frequently stressed. She explains that people often say they’re worried about the carefree child, thinking they’re more likely to develop bad habits than the child who always studies and rarely goes out. But she says it’s often studious children who are more prone to academic and social pressures who are “more susceptible to ADHD misuse.” Therefore, she says parents shouldn’t be complacent when it comes to a quieter, academically-driven child.
She also suggests talking more with children and participating in physical activities with them to help fend off stress. “I often hear kids say that they’re stressed, asking, ‘What can I take?” Taylor says. Instead of turning to thoughts about taking something, she recommends turning to healthier options such as yoga or walking.
“Parents need to watch their child like a hawk for changes,” Sarkis adds. “This is especially important if they have exhibited past addictive behaviors like playing video games with 110 percent intensity instead of moderate involvement.” A family history of addiction may also increase the odds that a child could misuse ADHD or other medications. “Openly discuss what’s going on with your child,” Sarkis says. “If they deny anything, present what you’ve observed.” Next steps are up to the parent, she explains, saying that if it’s warranted, rehab may be worth exploring.