The Role of Parents in Teenage Adderall Abuse: How Families can Help or Hinder

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More high schoolers are using prescription medication to get ahead and get better SAT scores, according to a DEA agent quoted in the New York Times (The New York Times, June 11th: Family therapist Dr. Bonnie Eaker Weil says this speaks to a trickle-down effect of stress from parents, and explains that families must do a better job of dealing with the biochemical craving for connection.

The newest wave of drugs in high school is prescription medication that helps students focus, get ahead, and achieve higher SAT scores says the article in the New York Times which quotes DEA agents and child psychologists. (The New York Times, June 11th: The demand for Adderall - medication used to treat ADHD - has increased, according to this study, and study authors say it's being used by high schoolers to increase their focus and help them get ahead in school by doing better on the SATs.

Family therapist Dr. Bonnie Eaker Weil believes this shows a break down in how families deal with stress and support one another and points out that this type of behavior is a form of cheating. "There isn't much difference between this and getting someone to impersonate the student to take the test. Both are cheating by enhancing the student's ability. What kind of message is society sending these kids when they feel this type of pressure to excel and perform to the point where they take drugs and self-medicate to get ahead at school?"

This form of cheating is especially dangerous because students probably don't even know they're doing it. It's so subtle and they are worried about excelling in school due to societal, parental, and competitive pressures from other students which can be wrapped up in the student's self-worth based on the school they get into.

Additionally, it's then very difficult to maintain a level playing field in the academic arena. As CBS News states - it's a form of academic steroids. When kids are using it to get ahead, it's very difficult for students that aren't taking it. "The message that we're sending to kids is that it's necessary to be superhuman in order to succeed in life," Dr. Bonnie points out. "That's obviously not true. It's important to encourage them to be the best they can be, but not to make them feel the need to be super human."

When Dr. Bonnie treats adult patients who self-medicate they are frequently suffering from a biochemical craving for connection - a disorder that pushes them toward a thrill-seeking high and often plays out in alcoholism, financial infidelity, affairs, or other types of addiction. "Seeing prescription drug addiction in teens is troubling at such a young age and the fact that they're engaging in this behavior in order to outperform their peers in school can show a misguided ambition," says Dr. Bonnie.

Because teen's brains aren't fully developed, they aren't as fully equipped to deal with the type of pressure they may face at school and at home. Children need more love and connection with their families - kids in this situation are lost and they need help. "This is where a healthy support system comes in," says Dr. Bonnie, "It's important to encourage kids to be the best they can be. However, it's more important that they are healthy, happy, and able to manage their stress."

If these students are coming from environments where parents self-medicate and turn to addiction, it follows that this behavior will influence the teens. For this reason, Dr. Bonnie emphasizes the importance of learning how to deal with stress, separation, and loss as a family. "These factors are enough to push adults into addiction, how much more so for kids!" she explains. In order to mitigate any self-medicating or thrill-seeking behavior on the part of the teen, Dr. Bonnie suggests families do a few simple things:

  • Provide a consistent space for teens to share stresses and struggles, using Dr. Bonnie's Smart Heart Skills and Dialogue. "This can be difficult," acknowledges Dr. Bonnie, "because kids aren't known for their ability to open up and communicate." But she points out that if parents are consistent in checking in, their kids will know that when and if they do have a problem, they will be able to talk about it.
  • Be affectionate! "Just like I suggest that couples embrace and kiss more often to release the 'cuddle hormone' to help them feel protected and bonded, kids can also benefit from this advice," explains Dr. Bonnie. A touch is powerful, and a hug before kids leave in the morning or a supportive high-5 can do wonders toward helping kids like they are supported.
  • Break the cycle. Just as adults self-medicate to stress-bust and find a thrill-seeking high, teens are prone to the same behavior. Dr. Bonnie underscores the importance of parents dealing with their own addictive tendencies in order to set a good example for their child.

To see Dr. Bonnie talking more about stress, body, and mind, click here:
Plus check out her book Make Up Don't Break Up which teaches families to connect, and how to handle feelings of emptiness without self-medicating.

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