ADHD and High Risk Behavior

by Eileen Bailey

The association between risk taking behavior and ADHD has been the subject of various studies. Partaking in high-risk activities is not included in the diagnostic criteria, as outlined in the DSM-IV. However, numerous lists explaining characteristics of both children and adults with ADHD include high risk or high stimulus activities. Some examples include: 

  • Driving fast
  • High stimulus hobbies
  • Acting without thinking 

It is not completely understood why individuals with ADHD seek out high-risk activities. Some theories include the inability to properly evaluate risk or the need for high stimulus to compensate for under arousal of the brain’s cortex. 

Ability to Evaluate Risks 

A 1995 study assessed two separate groups of boys between the ages of 7 and 11. Approximately one half of the group had been diagnosed with ADHD, the other half had not. Each child watched videos of various play activities and was asked to identify those that were risky or dangerous. The group of children with ADHD were able to point out which activities included risky behavior, however, compared to the group of children without ADHD, they either underestimated the risk involved and the consequences of the actions. In addition, the children without ADHD were more able to provide examples of preventive strategies to avoid dangerous behaviors. The study suggests that children with ADHD may routinely place themselves in situations that could involve high-risk behavior based not on “adrenaline seeking tendencies” but on their inability to assess the danger involved in such activities.

The Need for High Arousal 

Other studies (Zentall and Zentall 1983 and Douglas 1983) indicate that children with attention problems need a higher level of stimulation. According to the research, children with ADHD are under aroused by dull or repetitive tasks and will seek out high interest or high-risk activities to compensate. 

Further, (Farley 1981,1985) children that are under aroused will search for more intense activities and will be more open to different experiences. They will prefer complex tasks to simple tasks; will seek new and novel experiences that include the need for high energy and high risk. In short, Farley found that children with hyperactivity seek high stimulation. His recommendations for children with hyperactivity included modifications to education to include more interactive and creative experiences to provide the extra stimulation needed.

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