The Teens’ Guide to Making Meds Work
If you are a recent or forthcoming high-school graduate, you are mature enough to begin managing your own ADHD medication. This treatment to-do list will help keep you on track in college and beyond.
I’ve spent my career as a specialist and coach working with teens and young adults diagnosed with ADHD. A lot of my time is focused on helping teens accept and successfully manage ADHD medication.
Why am I not writing this article for parents? If a teen is the one who has been prescribed medication, my goal is to help him fully understand and own his treatment plan. Even if he is still in high school, no one, including his parents or doctors, can force him to take medication if he doesn’t want to. If he’s out of high school, he’s already learned that taking ADHD meds is up to him. Here are some pointers I pass along to students I work with:
Tip 1: ADHD is a real medical condition, and medication is an important part of managing it.
Many teens and young adults have a hard time believing that they need medication. They feel they should be able to manage without it. Some teens I meet organize their lives successfully without medication, and others wish they could but can’t. What stops many teens from taking medication is the feeling that ADHD isn’t a real medical problem.
If this sounds like you, think about this: If you wear glasses (or contacts) and were asked to take them off (or out) and try harder to see, what would your reaction be? You wouldn’t do it and you would think it was a crazy idea. Given all the research done on the biological basis of ADHD, functioning without medication is similar to trying to see without glasses. Without glasses you might have fuzzy vision, take longer to do something, bump into things, and be fatigued by trying to see.
When you are a student, attention is key to learning and succeeding. Agreeing to use medication now doesn’t mean you’ll take it forever. Some students I’ve worked with find that, once they matured and found a career that matched their strengths and passions, they didn’t need medication. They developed lifestyle habits that enabled them to succeed. Others who tried to meet the challenges of adult life without medication were not successful. They are comfortable taking medication in the same way that others take allergy medications or get a new pair of glasses every year or two.
Tip 2: Form a working relationship with a doctor you trust.
If your parents are taking charge of your medical care, ask them to slowly hand this responsibility over to you. Knowledge is power, and learning everything about your medication is important. As you grow older, and leave the family for a job or college, your ADHD is going with you. So, having the skills to talk with a physician and finding one you trust is key to successful medication management. If you are attending an out-of-state college, think about transferring your care locally. Some college health centers will take over managing medication, but most of them require that you provide a current full evaluation diagnosing the condition.
Learn the name of your medication and why your doctor chose to prescribe it for you. Know the right dose and dosage schedule, as well as what it does to help alleviate the symptoms of ADHD. Sometimes students discover they need to change their dosage schedule or the medication. Before classes start, meet with your doctor to develop a college-level medication strategy. And if you have side effects, talk about this openly. Your doctor has a number of options for medications that might work better.
Tip 3: Develop and practice a system for taking your medication.
As one teen told me, “If I could remember to take my medication by myself, I probably wouldn’t have ADHD!” Remembering to take medication is a huge challenge when you have organization and memory problems. But you can learn. If your parents have done this for you, talk with them about coaching you to do it on your own. Lucky for you, there is technology to help you remember: setting an alarm on your smartphone, downloading a medication reminder app, such as MediSafe Free Pill Reminder, Rx and Medication Tracker (medisafe.com), or wearing a watch with alarms, such as Watchminder.
It is also important to practice ordering your own refills. Many pharmacies remind you automatically about refills. Learning to be independent with your medication now will make it much easier when you are on your own.
Tip 4: Store your medication in a safe place and never share it with anyone.
If you take stimulants, you probably know that you have a prized commodity that many teens and young adults would love to have. Being discreet about whom you tell and safely storing your medication is important, especially in a college dorm. Is there a locked file cabinet in your desk or dresser? Ask your doctor and parents for ideas.
Some students would rather carry their medication than risk having it stolen. That’s risky, as well. What if you misplace your backpack? If you lose your stimulant, most doctors won’t automatically give you more, because it is a controlled substance. Pharmacies won’t replace a lost prescription for stimulants. It’s a good idea to have a scenario ready to dissuade anyone, even a friend, from wanting to buy one of your pills. It is illegal for you to share stimulants, and you could face serious consequences if you say “yes.”
Tip 5: Remember that pills don’t teach skills.
Research on effective interventions for ADHD concludes that medication is only part of a comprehensive management plan. You may also need to have accommodations — extra time on exams, an electronic note taker, or audio books. You might also need tutoring in areas where you have skill gaps. You might benefit from a coach who is trained to help you develop skills, manage your time, live by a balanced schedule, fit in self-care activities, and study more effectively. If you have other emotional challenges, or a substance abuse problem, you should seek additional treatment for these issues.
It can be hard, even humbling, to take medication on your own; it can also be a game changer. Medication may help you form productive habits to experience the academic and after-college success you are dreaming about.