Adolescent Substance Abuse: What Parents Need to Know


No matter what statistics you look at, it’s clear that substance abuse by adolescents is a major public health concern.  Although recent years have seen the percent of adolescents who are abusing substances level off, there are some disturbing trends in which teenagers are using and how early they are starting to use.  When you consider that 90% of adults with substance abuse problems started using before they turned 18 and 50% of those adults started before age 15, the trend towards younger and younger adolescents experimenting and becoming regular users becomes even more important.

To many adults, the experimentation with drugs and alcohol that occurs during the adolescent years seems like a normal part of growing up.  But using drugs and drinking alcohol aren’t just inappropriate because they are breaking the rules, they can result in very serious consequences to both their future and their health.

During this phase, teens can have a hard time forming cause and effect connections between choices they make today and the long term consequences of those choices.  Substance use can further lower inhibitions resulting in a string of bad choices.  From the increased risk of being involved in a motor vehicle accident to the increased likelihood of developing a lifelong addiction, substance abuse during adolescence is life threatening and needs to be treated accordingly.


According to the current Monitoring the Future Survey as reported by the National Institute on Drug Abuse:

  • The daily use of marijuana increased in 3 of the 4 high school grades year over year and was the highest it has been since the early 80’s amongst those in the senior class.
  • Marijuana use has surpassed cigarette smoking amongst the seniors.
  • Although cigarette smoking has been declining in recent years, those declines have stalled amongst high school students indicating that smoking may soon be on the rise again.
  • While marijuana is the drug of choice for high school students, prescription drugs and the abuse of over the counter medication are now number two in 12th graders.  Although non-medical use of drugs like Vicodin and Adderall has not increased in recent years, usage statistics remain high.
  • Ecstasy, which had seen years of decreasing use, increased last year in 8th graders.
  • Overall, alcohol use has continued to decline year over year.


Risk Factors

While there is no way to determine which adolescents will try drugs and alcohol or which will become addicted to one of these substances, there are some risk factors that increase the likelihood of developing a serious drug or alcohol problem.  These factors include:

  • Being part of a family with a history of substance abuse problems
  • Being depressed
  • Having low self esteem or feeling as though they do not fit in anywhere
  • Drug availability in the community
  • Learning disabilities and mental health conditions
  • Poor academic performance
  • Being part of an unhealthy social group


Warning Signs

There are several warning signs that parents can use to determine if their teenager is in danger.  As many of these signs can also point to problems other than alcohol or drug abuse, it is important to discuss any concerns with a medical practitioner to rule out physical causes.

There are several physical signs like unexplained fatigue, ongoing health complaints, bloodshot eyes, glazed over gaze, and a cough that lasts for weeks and won’t go away.   From an emotional standpoint, adolescents who exhibit sudden changes in personality, rapid mood swings,  increasingly irresponsible behavior, and general lack of interest, especially in things that they were previously interested in should be evaluated.  Other warning signs include starting fights with family members, breaking rules, dressing differently, withdrawing from friends and family, swapping current friends for a different group of friends, skipping school, and requiring significant disciplinary action on a regular basis.


How to Help

There is no question that one of the most effective tools parents have in preventing their teens from abusing drugs and alcohol is the relationship they have and are able to maintain with their teenager.  Parents should initiate discussions on the dangers of substance abuse, be honest, open, and invite their teen to participate.  Parents need to provide a good role model for teenagers to follow by exhibiting responsible behavior, communicating often, and raising issues as soon as they develop in a calm and supportive way.

Research has shown that parents are in fact the “Anti-Drug” and are the main deterrent against experimenting with drugs and alcohol during adolescence.    The key is building a solid relationship that encourages open communication.  Remain a visible presence in their daily lives by being involved, supporting them in their interests, and attending their activities like games, plays, and concerts.  Be clear, consistent, and fair in setting rules and expectations.  Overly harsh and restrictive rules often have the same result as no rules at all, an increased risk of substance abuse.  Overall, remain an active and interested participant in their lives and be available when they need advice, support, or help as they navigate the challenges of adolescence.


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