Self-Medicating ADHD with Marijuana | Empowering Parents

Why Kids with ADHD Self-Medicate with Marijuana

Nearly a quarter of all 12 to 17 year olds in the latest National Survey on Drug Use and Health reported current marijuana usage. Unfortunately, kids with ADHD typically have the highest rate of drug use among their peers. According to Stephen Andrew LCSW, a substance abuse counselor and director of the Health Education Training Institute of Maine, the latest statistics say that 80 percent of all kids with ADHD are using illegal drugs.

What is the reason for this? “They don’t like the meds they’re given legally and there’s a high rate of non-compliance,” said Andrew, “so they turn to marijuana and other drugs.” Anger management and self-medication are two of the leading factors. “There’s an incredible correlation, in that kids with ADHD tend to have trouble with their anger. When they start using marijuana, the trouble with the anger goes away. This is interesting because people don’t understand why the child has changed, but they may like the change. There’s a collusion effect, so parents might be glad and not look into it too closely. For peace, you sacrifice the long term vision of the family…and pot becomes, ‘at least we’re not fighting.’”

In fact, that is one of the very signs Andrew said parents should look for in a child suspected of using marijuana. “If you have an angry child, a child you find in an oppositional situation a lot, and then you start noticing that they are not oppositional—this is one of the ways you may be able to tell they are using pot.”

The average child who uses marijuana tries it for the first time between the ages of 12 to 14. “Now the developmental period is coming along, so parents might think that all these changes are developmental; you can get caught by ‘these are just life changes’ and not understand what is going on,” said Andrew. He recommends that parents trust their instincts more and follow through on any hunches they might have when they suspect their child of using marijuana.

According to Andrew, who is a former substance abuse coordinator for the public school system, some signs a child who is using marijuana might include:

  • Spending more time lying around and not being active
  • Paraphernalia shows up in the home: “Usually they’ll say ‘I’m holding it for a friend,’ but usually the case is that they’re doing it with a friend,” said Andrew.
  • Academic studies are deteriorating
  • Not engaging with you and other family members
  • Less motivated in general

“Pot is an ‘amotivational’ drug,” said Andrew. “A place where you might see change is that your child’s academic studies might be going down. Or perhaps your son or daughter had been committed to a sport and now they’re not as motivated to participate as they used to be. Or they’re spending more time lying around, not engaging with you or others in the family.” Andrew defines amotivation this way: “If you think in terms of the opposite of motivation, which is of course what you want your child to be, if you think of education, social life, being part of the family, you begin to see a slow decrease in those kinds of activities…so the child who starts using will start to become less engaged.”

The real consequence of marijuana use, according to Andrew, is that the amotivated pattern can become permanent and the drug is used as a substitute for learning coping skills. “You don’t have an opportunity to spend a lot of time in amotivational states in our fast-moving culture. The second major thing is that kids are using an external material to modulate their emotional life. So they don’t learn how to moderate their emotions.”

Although many children—even those who smoke pot frequently—reduce or quit using the drug entirely by the time they are 22 to 24, the damage has already been done. “The consequences are there—they haven’t learned to regulate their emotions and that will become a problem both at work and at home, as they try to build relationships. They’re not using pot anymore, but the scars of using are left there,” said Andrew.

What are some short term steps you can take when confronted with the fact that your child might be using marijuana? “The truth of the matter is, they’re not going to let go of the pot just because you ask them,” said Andrew, but he listed the immediate steps you can take:

  • Speak to your child immediately when you suspect them of using pot: “Set boundaries around health and safety, and be very clear about them.”
  • Increase your relational time: “Make more efforts to spend more quality time with your child. Go out to dinner, do things together, even when they don’t want to spend time with you. And command it. Your child may say they’re not interested. But you’re the parent—you need to assert your authority and command that they interact with the family.”
  • “If you feel you can’t connect with your child, seek help. Get help to get the conversation started. Staying connected is the most important ingredient to preventing substance abuse.”

In the end, “The greatest prevention is a good, healthy relationship,” said Andrew. “It doesn’t mean kids won’t ever use. It means when they get in trouble, they’ll find a way out faster.”


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