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Adderall Misuse and Abuse in Teens and Young Adults

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT
Meet The Team >

Adderall is a powerful central nervous system stimulant used primarily to treat ADHD and ADD in children and adults. It’s a prescription drug that works by boosting two specific brain chemicals: norepinephrine, which is associated with attention and response, and dopamine, which is associated with reward-seeking behavior and pleasure.

How is Adderall Abused?

Adderall is safe and effective when used as prescribed. It helps both children and adults maintain focus and attention. Doctors typically start patients – particularly children – at a low dose, then increase little by little to determine the most effective dosage.

Research indicates that youth and adolescents who are prescribed Adderall for ADHD aren’t any more likely to abuse drugs in later years than children who don’t take prescription Adderall. However, teens who misuse Adderall in middle school or high school are more likely to abuse marijuana, prescription tranquilizers, prescription painkillers, or cocaine as young adults or adults.

Adolescents who misuse the drug may take more Adderall than recommended, or for longer periods of time. They may also use the drug with alcohol or with prescription or over-the-counter medications, including antidepressants, seizure medications, or cough medicine.

There are many pathways to Adderall misuse and abuse. Most adolescents who misuse Adderall start with medication they find in the family medicine cabinet, while some buy or get it from friends. Some have their own prescription, or they purchase the drug illegally on the streets. A very small percentage of teens and adolescents say they buy Adderall online.

Is Adderall Addictive?

Yes – it can be.

Anyone who misuses Adderall can develop a physical dependence, which means larger doses are needed to attain the same results. Physical dependence to a prescription medication isn’t the same as a substance use disorder or an addiction, but it can lead to addiction or disordered use when repeated and prolonged misuse leads to problems with family, school, or health.

A person who misuses a stimulant such as Adderall and stops taking them abruptly may experience severe withdrawal symptoms, including the following:

  • Inability to feel pleasure
  • Anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Nausea
  • Intense cravings
  • Suicidal ideation
  • Changes in sleep patterns
  • Tiredness, lethargy, lack of energy

While physical withdrawal from stimulants is not life-threatening, a teen who displays these symptoms needs professional medical help, because the psychological symptoms of withdrawal can be intense and extremely uncomfortable. Parents who see these symptoms in teens should find out if the teen has been using Adderall or any other stimulants, and if they have, should then schedule an assessment with a behavioral health professional such as a psychiatrist, addiction counselor, or therapist.

Why do Teens Turn to Adderall?

The 2017 Monitoring the Future Survey (MTF), a survey published by the University of Michigan and the National Institutes of Health (NIH), shows a decrease in the non-medical use of Adderall for high school seniors: in 2015, 7.5% of seniors reported using Adderall in the past 12 month, while in 2017, that number dropped to 4.6%. Also, studies show that 7.3% of college students misused Adderall in the past thirty days, while 9.3% misused Adderall in the past 12 months.

Some sources estimate that as many as 30 percent of college students may turn to Adderall during finals. They aim to boost focus, to stay awake for all-night study sessions, or to improve grades. However, there is no real proof that students who use Adderall benefit academically. In fact, it appears that young adults who use non-prescribed Adderall tend to have lower grade point averages, possibly because they may use the drug with alcohol or marijuana.

Some adolescents take Adderall to perform better at athletics or in school, while others use the drug for purely recreational reasons. Unfortunately, it seems that many kids teens don’t understand the consequences of the fact that Adderall is an amphetamine, and are unaware of the potential risks of prolonged or frequent Adderall abuse. Many parents are also mistaken about the dangers of this powerful prescription medicine.

Adderall Abuse: The Warning Signs

Many teens and young adults believe Adderall is safer than most drugs purchased on the street, but the risks are just as dangerous.

The following are red flags that your teen may be abusing Adderall. One or two signs aren’t necessarily a reason for concern, but if more symptoms are present, it may be time for a serious discussion.

  • Frequently skipping school or missing classes
  • Missing work or showing up late
  • Academic problems
  • Lack of motivation
  • Low energy
  • Lack of interest in grooming and hygiene
  • Sneaking around and secretiveness
  • Hanging out with new friends
  • Stealing money or items to sell
  • Requests for money without providing a good reason
  • Angry outbursts
  • Staying up all night
  • Shortness of breath
  • Anxiety
  • Poor judgment
  • Jitters
  • Sudden weight loss
  • A decline in overall health

Side Effects

  • Dry mouth
  • Rapid heart rate
  • High blood pressure
  • Blurred vision
  • Weight loss
  • Fatigue
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Mood swings
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Constricted blood vessels
  • Headaches
  • Dangerously high body temperature
  • Stomach pain
  • Paranoia
  • Psychosis
  • Anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Seizures
  • Sudden death
  • Suicidal thoughts or attempts

Parents who think their teen may be abusing Adderall should listen for the use of the following terms, all of which are slang for Adderall:

  • Study Skittles
  • Smart Pills
  • A-Train
  • Study Buddies
  • Christmas Trees
  • Truck Drivers
  • Lid Poppers
  • Smarties
  • Zing
  • Amps
  • Addy
  • Co-Pilots

Treatment for Adderall Abuse and Addiction Works

If you think your teen is abusing Adderall, the best course of action is to make an appointment with a mental health professional for a full assessment. This article gives you solid information you can use to determine if your teen might have a problem, but only a trained professional can diagnose a substance use disorder.

The first step will be detox to ensure the body is free of the toxic substance. Stopping Adderall abruptly can be extremely uncomfortable, but the emotional and psychological symptoms of withdrawal cause more complications than the physical symptoms. That’s why it’s a good idea to ensure your child is monitored around the clock by medical professionals during the detox phase.

Medications may be prescribed to ease withdrawal symptoms, to treat anxiety or depression, or to prevent seizures.

Treatment begins at the completion of detox. Your teen or young adult will learn about Adderall, how it affects the brain and body, and the possible consequences of long-term abuse.

Counseling provides insight into why people misuse Adderall, and will also address anxiety, depression, or other underlying issues. Your teen or young adult will learn to identify the life-interrupting mental and emotional patterns associated with drug abuse. Then they’ll learn to replace them with life-affirming techniques and habits that help them live without the drug.

Treatment will also provide help with necessary life skills, including coping with stress, identification of triggers, improved communication skills, and enhanced emotional regulation skills. A program for teens and college students should also include education on time management, improved study skills, and setting reasonable expectations. Since addiction affects every member of the family, most treatment programs include family therapy, which helps mend relationships and restore balance to the home.

Find Help

To find a qualified psychiatrist in your area, use this psychiatrist finder provided by the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

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