Risky Behavior and Teens With ADHD

The teenage years can be tough for kids. But for teens with ADHD, they can be especially hard. If your child has ADHD, you might notice he does certain things that upset you, himself, or other people. You might even realize he does things that are unsafe. Know that this is normal.

“Risky behavior is more common in both kids and adults with ADHD,” says Stephanie Sarkis, PhD, a mental health counselor who specializes in ADHD.

Experts think that genetics, differences in brain structure, and lower levels of some brain chemicals make people with ADHD more likely to take chances and do things that are dangerous.

Here are four risky things that kids with ADHD may do, and ways that you can help your teen stay safe and healthy.

Risky Behavior: Driving Too Fast

Teens with ADHD who drive have more car accidents than those who don’t have ADHD.

“When you have ADHD, you have lower levels of certain pleasure-causing brain chemicals like dopamine,” Sarkis says. “Teens and adults may be drawn to risky behaviors like speeding and ignoring traffic rules. That’s because these activities can increase dopamine and cause a ‘rush.'”

What you can do: Be kind but firm about your expectations. Your teen should know that you won’t tolerate unsafe driving. Teens should not use their phone, text, or do things like adjust music or look up directions while driving.

You may want to only let your child drive with you or by himself instead of with friends who could be a distraction, says Jon Belford, PsyD, a clinical psychologist specializing in ADHD.

“Make it very clear that there will be a stiff penalty -- like taking the car away -- the first time he doesn’t follow the rules.”

Risky Behavior: Blowing Off Important Commitments

You want your child to thrive and be successful. So it can be frustrating when he doesn’t do his homework, skips doctor or therapist appointments, or does other things that seem self-sabotaging.

“You may find yourself thinking, ‘You can play video games or build a Lego tower for hours at a time; why can’t you do a couple pages of homework?’” Belford says. “But ADHD is a disorder that can make it hard and often even impossible for kids to tackle things they don’t want to do.”

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What you can do:Try to understand that it’s the disorder, not your child’s defiance or stubbornness, that’s causing this. When you can, try to make tasks into a game or competition.

Rewarding him for completing tasks may increase his desire to follow through in the future. And don’t yell or scold, Belford says.

“It won’t bring results. You’re better off supporting your teen regardless of behavior,” he says.

Also, make sure your teen feels supported at school. Teens who feel overwhelmed by school are more likely to act impulsively.

Risky Behavior: Arguing and Causing Fights

Many kids with ADHD are prone to losing their tempers and arguing with others. They may get in physical fights, too, which can cause them to get injured or hurt someone else. They might do things that start a fight, like deliberately annoying their friends or people around them. That’s why they’re almost three times more likely to have problems with peers compared to kids without ADHD.

What you can do:A psychologist or therapist who specializes in ADHD can help your teen learn ways to keep healthy friendships and have positive interactions with others. You can find ADHD specialists by state at CHADD.org.

At home, put a priority on relationships rather than little battles, Belford says.

“Try to stay loving and supportive, and show your child you’re there for him even when he’s having a tough time,” he says.

Risky Behavior: Abusing Alcohol or Drugs

Kids with ADHD are more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol. They tend to become addicted faster, too. That doesn’t mean it’ll happen no matter what you do, or that you should just “accept” that your child will sneak behind your back.

What you can do: Talk to your teen -- a lot. In addition to regular conversations, ask him about what he’s doing when he goes out. Discuss how he feels about social situations, too.

“It helps to approach the conversation from a curious point of view,” Belford says.

For example, say, “So, you’re going to a party. Are people going to drink? What will you do if someone offers you a drink?”

And encourage you teen to get regular exercise. “It raises levels of some of the brain chemicals that are lower in individuals with ADHD, and that can make risky behaviors less tempting,” Sarkis says.

WebMD Feature Reviewed by Smitha Bhandari, MD on April 22, 2015

Sources

SOURCES:

Jon Belford, PsyD, clinical psychologist, New York.

CDC: “Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder.”

Mahone, E. Clinical Neuropsychology, August 2011.

Stephanie Sarkis, PhD, adjunct assistant professor, Florida Atlantic University; sub-investigator, Clinical Research Studies, Florida Atlantic University Schmidt College of Medicine, Boca Raton.

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