Stimulants like caffeine often affect people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) differently. Adults with ADHD sometimes report drinking energy drinks or coffee to fall asleep rather than stay up, and it's not at all uncommon to hear about people with ADHD self-medicating, or attempting to, with caffeine.
Many children and teens are following suit, especially with the prevalence of caffeinated drinks that appeal to kids. Since conflicting thoughts around caffeine usage are so widespread, it can be tough to scope out what is and isn't factual.
So, what should parents know about caffeine and ADHD? This article will discuss the effects of caffeine use on ADHD symptoms, limits for kids and teens, and alternatives that can help you manage ADHD symptoms without caffeine.
Effects Of Caffeine On ADHD Symptoms
Since caffeine is considered a stimulant drug, some people wonder whether it could have effects similar to ADHD medication. Some research studies and personal accounts suggest that caffeine can have some favorable effects on common symptoms of ADHD.
However, medical experts do not recommend using caffeine to treat ADHD, and for a good reason. First, caffeine is not approved to treat ADHD and isn’t a replacement for medication, nor is it as sustainable or powerful as treating ADHD via recommended methods. While caffeine is known as the most popular drug in the world, it's not necessarily safe for everyone, especially if usage isn't properly monitored.
Especially for kids, the downsides of using caffeine to improve attention span or curb other ADHD symptoms outweigh the advantages, and it can backfire. With that in mind, let's talk about the potential positive and negative effects of caffeine on ADHD symptoms.
Even with ADHD, everyone will react to caffeine intake differently. Some research suggests that caffeine may lead to a reduction in ADHD symptoms. Specifically, it may have a temporary positive effect on the following:
- Focus or concentration.
- Working memory.
- Feelings of calm.
While some people with ADHD see improvements following caffeine consumption, others have the opposite experience. Potential negative effects of caffeine use on ADHD symptoms include the following:
- Jitteriness, which may look like or lead to increased hyperactivity.
- Increased anxiety or nervousness, which may lead to increased distractibility or impairments in functioning.
- Increased impulsivity, agitation, or irritability.
How Much Caffeine Is Safe For ADHD Children?
With the possible consequences of too much caffeine for ADHD children- or even moderate consumption, for some - in mind, it's crucial that parents know how much is safe. Many children ingest caffeinated beverages like soda, sports drinks, and energy drinks or consume caffeine via food products regularly without adults realizing just how much they're taking in.
According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, kids under 12 years old should not consume caffeine at all. For those ages 12-18, limiting caffeine to no more than 100 mg is recommended. Furthermore, kids and teens should never consume energy drinks due to the potential for heart problems, dehydration, and other effects.
Factors that influence caffeine tolerance
In addition to age, some other factors influence caffeine tolerance. Some of the most notable factors that affect the way we tolerate caffeine include:
- Genetics. Genetics have a major influence on caffeine tolerance, so some individuals may have a tolerance that is naturally higher or lower than others.
- Medications. Some medications change caffeine tolerance.
Risks Of Caffeine Consumption For ADHD Children
Beyond the impact it can have on ADHD symptoms, there are a number of other short and long-term adverse effects associated with caffeine use. If children and young adults consume too much caffeine, the risk of serious health problems is higher. Let's review some of the most common side effects of caffeine consumption in kids.
Physical health risks
While soda intake, energy drinks, or other sugary caffeine sources come with specific risks, like a higher likelihood of getting cavities, other consequences can arise regardless of how caffeine is consumed. Possible physical health risks of caffeine consumption for kids include but aren't limited to the following:
- Increased tolerance (one may need more caffeine to achieve desired effects or start to experience withdrawal symptoms if they don't consume their typical amount of caffeine).
- Gastrointestinal effects include but are not limited to upset stomach, nausea, and diarrhea.
- Shaking, jitteriness, or trembling.
- Increased blood pressure.
- Heart palpitations.
- Trouble sleeping.
- Lower appetite.
Emotional and behavioral risks
Physical consequences aren't the only possible downfalls associated with caffeine. Possible emotional and behavioral risks of caffeine consumption for kids include but aren't limited to the following:
- Increased irritability or anxiety.
- A higher risk of depression.
- Mood swings.
Risk of Interaction with ADHD Medication
Children who already take stimulant medication for ADHD should not consume caffeine with it as this increases the effect of stimulant side effects. This includes increased heart rate, blood pressure, decrease in appetite, and jitteriness or shakiness. Particularly with energy drinks, the added strain on the cardiovascular system increases the risk of heart attack, stroke, and seizures.
Alternatives To Caffeine For ADHD Children
Children and adolescents usually benefit most from a combination of ADHD treatment and lifestyle changes. Since caffeine is not a sustainable way to manage symptoms of ADHD and is not recommended for children, it is critical to find suitable alternatives. Here are some approaches to consider.
Physical activity has many of the mood and concentration-boosting effects that people seek from caffeine use but without the potential negative consequences, making it an ideal alternative. Studies show that physical activity can help reduce ADHD symptoms, including impulsive behavior and trouble focusing. It also supports mood, stress relief, and physical well-being.
If a child does not yet have adequate ADHD treatment, this is a critical starting point. The first line of treatment for ADHD generally involves a combination of therapy (which may be parent training in behavior management or behavioral therapy for the child) and medication for kids ages six or older.
Kids under age six should receive parent training in behavior management alone before trying ADHD medication. ADHD medications come in different forms, but central nervous system stimulant medications are the most common type.
Getting enough sleep
Getting enough sleep can help manage ADHD symptoms and supports overall well-being. Creating a structured and supportive bedtime routine can be beneficial for promoting good sleep in kids. Bedtime routines often include habits such as:
- Going to sleep at the same time each night and waking up at the same time each morning.
- Engaging in calming activities (like reading) and personal hygiene before bed.
- Removing electronics from the bedroom 30-60 minutes before bedtime.
Other common approaches used to support children with ADHD include but aren’t limited to:
- ADHD-informed parenting via strategies such as the use of reward systems, chore charts, and daily routines.
- School support, in the form of tutoring, a 504 plan, classroom modifications, or something else.
- Additional evidence-based treatments based on a child’s needs, such as occupational therapy.
Despite medical hypotheses, caffeine is not a recommended way to treat ADHD. Research on caffeine and ADHD shows that caffeine works to improve some symptoms of the disorder, but the risks may outweigh the benefits, and it is not known as a sustainable or effective treatment. Instead, work with a healthcare provider to build a treatment plan for your child and make lifestyle changes, such as movement and getting enough sleep, that support ADHD management.