Do ADHD Medications Lead to Addiction?

By Dr. Mary Rooney, Ph.D.

ADHD medication can be an important part of a comprehensive treatment plan for kids with ADHD. When a child or teen responds well to medication, the positive impact on almost every aspect of their life is profound. They do better in school, with friends, and at home, and their self-esteem often greatly improves. However, many parents are understandably reluctant to have their child take medication for ADHD. One of the biggest worries is that ADHD medication will lead to addiction down the line.    

Fortunately, there’s been a great deal of research examining the effects of ADHD medication on future drug addiction. Numerous studies funded by the National Institute of Mental Health and the National Institute on Drug Abuse have found that ADHD treatment with stimulant medications does not lead to drug abuse during adolescence or adulthood. In fact, 11 studies showed either no increased risk or a decreased risk for substance use problems in individuals who were treated with stimulant medication. One study showed a slightly increased risk for later substance abuse only when ADHD medication was started earlier in childhood (although there are a number of additional factors that may have contributed to this finding beyond the use of ADHD medication). 

While research suggests that taking medication to treat ADHD in childhood or adolescence may protect against substance use problems during the teen and adult years, some studies suggest that treatment response to the medication may also be an important factor. Specifically, the kids and teens who had the best medication response (meaning their ADHD symptoms were well managed by their ADHD medication) are the least likely to go on to develop substance abuse problems.  

Overall, studies suggest that ADHD medication treatment may protect against later substance abuse – especially when a child or teen’s ADHD symptoms are well managed by their medication. This finding is extremely important because teens and adults with ADHD (when compared to teens and adults without ADHD) are at higher risk for substance abuse problems overall. While the exact reasons for this risk are unknown, there are several factors that probably contribute. Specifically, the impulsivity associated with ADHD likely puts individuals at increased risk, as does higher rates of a family history of substance abuse, and the possibility that teens and adults whose mental health symptoms aren’t well managed with medication or behavioral treatment are essentially self-medicating with alcohol, marijuana, or illicit drugs at teens or adults. 

Effective treatment with ADHD medication is just one of the many routes parents can take to help protect their child from future substance use problems. Effective academic and social supports for kids with ADHD may buffer against future drug abuse, as can strong and supportive family relationships. So, if you are leery of having your child take ADHD medication, or if your child simply doesn’t respond to or tolerate ADHD medication, then it’s especially important that they receive extra behavioral supports and treatment to help minimize the impact of their ADHD symptoms on their current functioning and future development.



Mary Rooney, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California San Francisco. Dr Rooney is a researcher and clinician specializing in the evaluation and treatment of ADHD and co-occurring behavioral, anxiety, and mood disorders. A strong advocate for those with attention and behavior problems, Dr. Rooney is committed to developing and providing comprehensive, cutting edge treatments tailored to meet the unique needs of each child and adolescent. Dr. Rooney's clinical interventions and research avenues emphasize working closely with parents and teachers to create supportive, structured home and school environments that enable children and adolescents to reach their full potential. In addition, Dr. Rooney serves as a consultant and ADHD expert to Huntington Learning Centers.


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This website does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. The material on this site is provided for educational purposes only.

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