Is Childhood ADHD a Precursor to Substance Abuse?

New research suggests that childhood ADHD poses an increased risk of substance abuse in both girls and boys. Researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital reviewed two previous studies to determine what factors, if any, in addition to ADHD, caused increased likelihood of the development of substance abuse issues. They found that children with ADHD were significantly more likely to succumb to abuse issues. “Our study, which is one of the largest set of longitudinal studies of this issue to date, supports the association between ADHD and substance abuse found in several earlier studies and shows that the increased risk cannot be accounted for by co-existing factors such as other psychiatric disorders or family history of substance abuse,” says Timothy Wilens, MD, of the MGH Pediatric Psychopharmacology Unit, who led the study. “Overall, study participants diagnosed with ADHD had a one and a half times greater risk of developing substance abuse than did control participants.”

Previous studies have identified a link as well, but were unclear as to whether or not co-existing conditions or other behaviors associated with ADHD were responsible for the increased risk. In order to clarify the results, the researchers looked closely at the two previous reports, one of girls and one of boys, and assessed and evaluated the presence of many different behavioral and psychological issues found in the children who had been diagnosed with ADHD.

The results revealed that co-existing conditions did not influence the risk for substance abuse, with the exception of conduct disorder, which tripled the risk in children with ADHD. “Anyone with ADHD needs to be counseled about the risk for substance abuse, particularly if they have any delinquency,” explains Wilens, associate professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. “We still need to understand why some kids with ADHD develop substance abuse and others don’t, whether particular treatment approaches can prevent substance problems and how best to treat young adults that have both ADHD and substance abuse.”

© Copyright 2011 by By John Smith, therapist in Bellingham, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

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  • Bonnie


    June 3rd, 2011 at 4:30 AM

    Honestly I get so frustrated sometimes when people start talking about all of the negative things that having ADHD can lead to. Yes it can have a tough effect on you in school, but as parents we have to step up and take control before it gets completely out of hand. If you let it go untended then of course there are going to be some bad consequences, but if you step in from the moment it presents and work with the school and teachers, this does not have to be all of the bad news that we are always hearing about. There are ADHD success stories too.

  • geoff


    June 3rd, 2011 at 12:49 PM

    it’s good to hear about this warning…when we havethis kind of information wecan be better prepared and teach such kids about drugs and their I’ll effects from a very early age. the fact that they are more probe to it makes such teachings a very good investment.

  • NikkiG


    June 5th, 2011 at 3:57 AM

    I am glad to see this too. Parents will sometimes think that they just have the one issue to think about but this definitely opens up a whole other can of worms for them.

    I agree that giving us this information gives us other things to be on the lookout for. The better prepared you are as a parent then hopefully the better chance you will have to head something off and avoid possible other problems.

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