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ADHD, Self-Harm and Sports: 3 Things That May Signify Higher Risk of Substance Abuse in Teens

The risks associated with tween, teen, and young adult substance abuse abound, and many parents are on high alert for the signs that their child may be experimenting with drugs or alcohol.

The good news is that parents are not alone in their concern. A great deal of research has been dedicated to identifying signifiers of potential drug and alcohol abuse among teens, noting the characteristics or issues that may indicate the need for greater vigilance among their parents.

Some recent studies have found that in addition to environment, genetics, and other well-known factors that contribute to drug abuse among young people, things like an ADHD or conduct disorder diagnosis, self-harming behaviors, and playing contact sports may all increase the risk of substance abuse. Here’s what you need to know.

ADHD and Conduct Disorder

A study published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence found that teenagers living with symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or conduct disorder have an increased chance of abusing drugs and alcohol. According to researchers, the more symptoms they exhibit of these disorders, the higher their risk.

Some of the 2,500 participants in the study were diagnosed with ADHD or conduct disorder while others showed symptoms of these issues but had no diagnosis. Some symptoms of conduct disorder include deception, aggression, and destructive tendencies. Symptoms of ADHD vary depending on the type of disorder but may include compulsive behavior, inattention, hyperactivity, and more. About 45 percent of participants had at least one ADHD symptom, and almost 15 percent exhibited at least one symptom of conduct disorder.

The study found that:

  • For every additional ADHD symptom exhibited, the participant’s risk of abusing alcohol or tobacco went up between 8 and 10 percent.
  • For every additional conduct disorder symptom exhibited, the participant’s likelihood of using tobacco rose by 31 percent.
  • Participants diagnosed with both conduct disorder and ADHD were three to five times more likely to use tobacco or drink, and they did so at a younger age as compared to those without either disorder.
  • ADHD alone was connected with a higher chance of using tobacco but not alcohol.

Dr. William Brinkman was the author of the study. He said: “Our findings underscore the need to counsel families about the risk of substance use as [these] children approach adolescence. This need is heightened among children with ADHD and/or conduct disorder diagnoses or symptoms.”


Self-harming behaviors without suicidal intent during the teen years are linked with an increased risk of substance abuse later in life as compared to teens who do not hurt themselves, according to a study published in the journal BMJ. Researchers found that:

  • An estimated 19 percent of the 16-year-old participants in the study had a history of self-harming behaviors.
  • Most participants who had exhibited self-harming behaviors did not seek professional help.
  • Over the next five years, the teens who harmed themselves without suicidal intent were more likely than peers to develop mental health problems (e.g., depression, anxiety, etc.).
  • The self-harming participants were also more likely to develop substance use disorders during the five-year period of the study.

Dr. Becky Mars of Bristol University in England was the lead researcher on the study. In a news release, she said: “There is widespread lack of understanding amongst health and teaching professionals about those who self-harm without intending to take their lives. It should not be dismissed or viewed as trivial, as it could be a warning sign for suicidal behavior or other problems later in life.”

Contact Sports

Wrestling, football, lacrosse, and hockey – teens who play sports that require high contact may be more likely to smoke cigarettes or marijuana and drink alcohol than peers who play non-contact sports, according to a study published in the journal Substance Use & Misuse. Comparatively, teens who took part in non-contact sports like swimming or gymnastics were less likely to abuse substances, according to Medical Xpress.

Philip Veliz of the University of Michigan was a researcher on the study. In a news release, he said: “Competitive sports participation can either inhibit or amplify substance use. It just depends upon which type of sport adolescents are involved with.”

This may run contrary to what parents have been told for years – that involvement in competitive sports discourages drug abuse among teens. It may be that teens who engage in contact sports feel that they can take risks with their bodies and apply that principle to things like drug use as well as to their behavior on the field or in the ring.

Protecting Against Risk

Just because your child is diagnosed with ADHD or on the school football team, it doesn’t necessarily mean that he will abuse drugs and alcohol. Like genetics, environment, permissive attitudes about drugs and alcohol at home, and other risk factors, these “risk factors” should be identified as potential warning signs that indicate the need for increased vigilance from parents. Teens with no risk factors at all may regularly smoke cigarettes or marijuana or drink alcohol – there are no guarantees.

If your child is living with any of the risk factors for substance abuse, it is recommended that you:

  • Pay attention to any changes in behavior, mood, temperament, friends, personal appearance, and/or interests.
  • Create house rules and a zero-tolerance policy for alcohol and drug use as well as consequences if those boundaries are crossed.
  • Be a good example and avoid substances as well as overindulging on alcohol.
  • Talk about drug and alcohol use, being honest about risks and perceived rewards, and make your personal stance on substance abuse clear.

Medical Disclaimer: Next Generation Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options, and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.

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