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The child who can’t sit still, doesn’t pay attention, never finishes homework, has little self-control: It’s the classic portrait of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Thankfully, advances in medicine mean most children who have ADHD can control the condition instead of letting it control them. But with the steady increase of prescriptions for ADHD medications, the risk for drug abuse grows. Are your children at risk? And what can you do to protect them?

The Drugs and What They Do

The drugs used most often to treat ADHD are methylphenidate (Ritalin® and Concerta®), dextroamphetamine (Dexedrine®), and dextroamphetamine and amphetamine combination products (Adderall®). All are stimulants. But surprisingly, these drugs have a calming effect for those with ADHD. They help children to be more alert, more focused, and better able to learn and get work done.

Many students believe that these drugs will improve their academic performance—although research shows the drugs don’t improve learning or thinking and may actually negatively impact academic performance among people who don’t have ADHD. However, this belief has created a growing trend of abuse among teens and college students. Some students may use ADHD medications to stay awake all night to study, or to boost their cognitive ability in general. Unfortunately, this is a dangerous game. Abusing these drugs can cause rapid or irregular heartbeat, high blood pressure, psychosis, seizures, heart failure, and addiction.

How Parents Can Help

Here’s what parents can do to help prevent abuse of ADHD drugs:

Protect your child. If your child has a prescription for an ADHD drug, teach the child never to share or sell medications, and to tell you if someone asks to buy the pills. Keep an eye on how many pills your child has. If he or she runs out early or loses some, it could be a sign of misuse or sharing pills.

Watch for signs of abuse. If your child doesn’t take ADHD drugs, these symptoms may signal that the child is experimenting with them illegally:

  • Extreme wakefulness

  • Lack of appetite or unexplained weight loss

  • Racing heartbeat

  • Anger or paranoia

If you suspect stimulant abuse, seek help from your doctor.

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