Alcohol and Drugs Abuse in Teens

Adolescence is a unique period in human lives. Their brains and bodies change at rapid speed, while social lives usurp the family for the most important spot in their lives. It is also a time when they are exposed to many things for the first time, such as driving and working. And, unfortunately, drugs and alcohol.

Due to the changes their brains are undergoing and the fact that social pressures are amplified, teens are at very high risk of using drugs and alcohol as well as developing an addiction to them. The best defense against this is understanding why teens fall into addiction and helping them prepare to turn down chances to use. And should the worst occur, it is vital to know how to get help.

Why Do Teens Start Abusing Drugs and Alcohol?

The first thing caring parents need to understand is why teens start abusing drugs and alcohol in the first place. Some of the reasons teens end up using substances and becoming addicted to them are the same as seen in adult addicts. Others are more specific to the adolescent experience. To start, let’s take a look at which teens tend to be at the greatest risk and why teens abuse drugs and alcohol.

At-Risk Groups​

  • LGBTQ Teens: Teens who identify as being something other than straight and cis-gender experience addiction at higher rates than their straight, cis-gender peers. The difference is not small either; their rates of addiction can be as much as 400 percent higher. Factors that contribute to this vary, from societal stigma to bullying at school to rejection by family and religious institutions.
  • Racial Minority Teens: Some racial minorities are more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol than that national average. For example, the national average of people reporting past-month drug use is 10.2 percent. Amongst African Americans, it is 12.4 percent, 14.9 percent amongst Native Americans, and 15.6 percent amongst Native Pacific Islanders.
  • Those With Underlying Behavioral Health Issues: Teens with certain behavioral and mental health issues are more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol than teens at large. Those whose conditions are not treated are at the greatest risk, and boys are at a greater risk of developing a substance abuse disorder than girls with the same mental health concerns.
  • Those Under Chronic Stress: This is a broad category, but it includes teens who have some element in their life that places them under stress on a consistent basis. Some examples include poverty, having a parent with an illness, and being pushed to overachieve in school or sports. The more stressors in a teen’s life, the more likely they are to develop a substance abuse disorder.
  • Those With Low Self-Esteem: The lower a teen’s self-esteem, the more likely they are to develop a substance abuse disorder. It comes down to multiple factors, which pile up upon each other to make low self-esteem one of the greatest risk factors for teenage addiction. Lacking self-esteem makes it harder to say no when pushed to use, the feelings of approval from peers when using are addicting themselves, and drugs can help them mask their lack of self-esteem and perform better socially.

Causes and Reasons​

Of course, these are not the only reasons. Substance abuse is a complex issue, and all teens have at least a few risk factors. As such, parents cannot write off the chance of addiction occurring just because their child does not seem to it the profile of a teen who would suffer from substance abuse.

Society at large makes a big deal about drugs and alcohol—not just teens. They feature in television, movies, and music, and when parents and teachers talk about them, they often mistakenly add to the mystique. As a result, many teens decide to give drugs and alcohol a try just because they want to know what the hype is all about.

Teens often choose to use drugs because they think it will help them fit in with their peers.  In fact, teens tend to overinflate the number of their peers who are using, making them feel like they are in the minority if they do not use drugs or alcohol. As a result, they feel more pressure than is truly there.

Of course, the peer pressure is certainly there. Teens who are abusing substances often become very caught up in them, obsessing over them and thinking that they make them cooler and special. As a result, they work hard to introduce other kids to using them and can even use bullying tactics to get their peers to use with them.

When it comes to this reason, teens are not so different from adults. Many teens abuse drugs and alcohol because they are looking to escape from their reality. This can be difficult for adults to understand, as they tend to think teens should have few worries, but the truth is that teenage life is complicated and stressful.

Many illicit drugs were originally developed as medications. Stimulants, in particular, were developed to help people increase their physical and mental performance. For teens feeling pressure to do better, be better, and achieve all of their goals, the temptation of using stimulants can be too great to turn down.

Substances Abused by Teen

Teens are known to abuse all manner of substances, from household cleaners to prescription medication to the big street drugs. And if parents feel like the list of substances that can be abused is getting longer every year, that is because it is; right now, synthetic and designer drugs are causing significant problems for teens. However, it is important for parents to be aware of all substances teens might abuse as it allows them to reduce access and also better spot the signs of use.

The Primary Substances Abused by Teens

  • Alcohol: Around 8.7 percent of teens use alcohol in large amounts on at least a monthly basis
  • Tobacco: 3.7 percent of teens are daily smokers.
  • Marijuana: 14.8 percent of teens admit to having tried cannabis at least once in their lives.
  • Synthetic Marijuana: It is estimated that 3.7 percent of teens have used synthetic marijuana in the last year.
  • Synthetic Cocaine: Less common than synthetic marijuana, one percent of teens use this drug.
  • Cocaine: Out of the hard street drugs, cocaine is perhaps the most frequently abused by teens, with about 5 percent admitting to use of either cocaine or crack cocaine.
  • Heroin: Heroin is not commonly abused by teens. Less than 1 percent of teens report use in their lifetime.
  • Inhalants: Around 1 in 6 teens have tried inhalants.
  • Prescription Painkillers: While the majority of teens note that these are easily available to them, only 3 percent acknowledge their abuse of them.
  • Benzodiazepines: As many as 10 percent of teens abuse these prescription drugs.
  • Prescription Stimulants: Approximately 15 percent of teens have abused prescription stimulants.
  • Club Drugs: Nearly 5 percent of teens have used Ecstasy alone, making the number much higher when all club drugs are included.
Top Drugs among 8th and 12th Graders chart

While this list is not comprehensive, it does include the drugs teens are most likely to use. Still, parents should not rule out the possibility of their teen abusing substances just because they are able to rule these out.

Where Do Teens Access Drugs?

Society at large tends to have a specific idea about how drugs are obtained. They picture deals going down on street corners at night, in the shadows of street lights and in a neighborhood that in no manner resembles home. With the image in mind, many parents wonder where teens are able to gain access to drugs and alcohol.

The sad truth is that it is easier than you might think. Not only are the substances abused close to home, in some cases, they are already inside the house. Teen access to drugs is shockingly easy. So, what are some of the places and ways teens get drugs and alcohol?

Not all substances teens abuse are actually drugs. In fact, most younger teens start on the road to addiction with inhalants. These can be aerosol cans, paint, pens, cleaning agents, and other items. While it is thought that you only need to lock these items up when kids are little, in truth, it should continue even once they hit puberty.

Prescription medications are hot commodities amongst teens who are looking to experiment but are afraid of street drugs or unable to access them. Teens often take these themselves and trade them with the peers in order to gain access to other substances or curry favor. Parents should always keep their medicines secured and dispose of unused medications at their local pharmacy.

Though not as common as they once were, many homes still have liquor cabinets. And as in decades past, it is not uncommon for teens to sneak liquor from their parents’ collection. These cabinets should be locked, and the contents checked for missing quantities or added liquids meant to mask use.

Many parents assume this is the most likely place for drugs to be obtained by teens. However, due to stringent school policies, the presence of resource officers, and things such as drug-sniffing dogs and backpack checks, deals are more likely to go down outside of school in social settings.

No matter the setting, the people teens are most likely to obtain drugs and alcohol from are their friends. While there is ultimately a chain, and some teens are closer to the top than others, the vast majority will not be the dealers or working with older people to get what they are seeking; instead, they will be getting it from friends.

When teens do obtain substances from adults, it is usually from those they know, not unknown dealers. Parents and siblings will often get alcohol and even drugs for teens under the assumption that it is better that they use it around them to be safe than go out somewhere else and get hurt. While faulty logic, it does contribute to teen substance abuse.

Because parties involve bringing a lot of young people together into a place with little to no rules, there is a high risk of social use occurring. While it might seem relatively minor on its surface, this social use quickly becomes habitual in teens, leading to an addiction that can put their lives and futures at risk.

This is one that has been around for a long time. Teens can access fake IDs by purchasing them through friends, buying them online, or just using the ID of someone older than them. While these IDs do not always work too well, sometimes they do succeed.

Legitimate online pharmacies will not sell prescription medication to anyone without both a valid prescription and a valid ID. However, not all pharmacies selling online are doing so legally. Teens can easily use these websites to gain access to prescription stimulants and opioids.

Sadly, it is not uncommon for teens to get the substances they abuse in a fully legal manner from their doctor. Teens with issues such as muscle pain or migraines might be prescribed large amounts of painkillers and muscle relaxers, and when their doctor stops prescribing or cuts back, they can engage in doctor shopping to get more.

Knowing When Teens Are Abusing Drugs and Alcohol

Because teens are going through a lot of changes, it can be hard for parents to pick up on the differences that signal the possibility of substance abuse. In fact, many of the signs you read about—such as mood swings and changing friend groups—apply to just being a teenager as much as they do to addiction. So what can parents do to know if their child is suffering from substance abuse?

Signs of Drug Abuse in Teens

signs of different types of drugs abuse in teens

Picking Up on a Problem

  • Keep the lines of communication open and do not be judgmental. When teens sense that someone is judging them, they shut down. With luck, the teen will admit to using or at least admit to thinking about it or being exposed to substance abuse, making it easier to further the discussion. First Item
  • Use the sense of smell. Most substances have tell-tale smells that will give away their use, or even if the teen has been near those who are using. Additionally, if there are no smells of substances but the teen is strangely freshly showered, has brushed their teeth, or is wearing heavy scents, this also points to substance abuse.
  • Watch out for a sudden intense focus on privacy. The teen may be locking their room, even when not inside or may have containers in their room that are locked. Their phone, tablets, and computers may have new passcodes or other ways of keeping people out. Secrecy means there is something to hide, and that is never a good thing.
  • Make eye contact. While this does tend to make people behave more honestly, that is not the idea here. Instead, it is to see what their eyes look like. Eyes that are red, heavy-lidded, and either have dilated or constricted pupils point to substance abuse. Additionally, if a teen is suddenly using eye drops a lot, this points to masking the symptoms.
  • Critically examine their narrative. This does not mean grill them like they are in a police interrogation room. It just means that if there are clear holes in their story about where they have been or what they have been doing, they need to be examined carefully and not dismissed because the possible truth is too uncomfortable.

Should You Search Their Room?

This is a question that many parents ask when they suspect that their child might be using drugs. However, the answer in most cases is no. By invading a teen’s privacy in this manner, it puts them on the defensive and risks the situation becoming volatile. Only if there is clear confirmation of substance abuse and danger to the teen’s health should this be considered an option, and even then, if it is possible to get the teen the help they need without searching their room without their permission, that would be the better course of action.

If a search of the room is needed, check the following common hiding spots:

  • Inside of pens and highlighters in the caps
  • Under the mattress
  • Inside the box springs
  • In makeup containers
  • Inside of the toilet tank, using a waterproof bag
  • Within special clothing designed to conceal, such as shoes with hidden compartments in the heels
  • Inside of books, which may even be hollowed out
  • Within cans that have been hollowed out
  • In stuffed animals
  • Inside electronics with large battery compartments
  • Wrapped in candy and food wrappers
  • Taped inside HVAC vents

Talking With Your Teen

While there are many steps that can be taken to prevent substance abuse or help a teen recover from it, the most important aspect in prevention and recovery is an open dialogue. Yes, teens are less open to candid conversations with their parents than they were as younger children, but they still crave and benefit from honest talks with mom and dad. It is vital that parents take the right approach to these conversations.

Talking to Prevent AbuseTalking When Abuse Is Suspected
Do not approach the conversation as one big talk that drags and on then once it is done, the matter is solved. The conversation should be ongoing and organic, and it must start before the child is at an age where drug use and alcohol use becomes common. Start the conversation quickly. As soon as substance abuse is suspected, it is time to talk, even if the ongoing conversation that was supposed to happen never did. Chances are this will not be a smooth conversation, so parents must be ready for things to get heated.
Ask questions that get at their perceptions of drugs and alcohol. Questions like: Why do you think people choose to use drugs? Or: What are some reasons people try to get others to start drinking? These are non-accusatory, and they force critical thinking on the part of the child. Get them to talk about the negatives of their use and what their motivations are. In most cases, teens do not give much thought to why they are using, and rather than be deterred by the negative consequences, they gloss over them. Make this a focus.
Let the child talk. When it comes to hot-button topics like this, parents tend to default into lecturing or telling lengthy stories about the people they know whose lives were destroyed by drugs and alcohol. But children, and especially teens, do not respond well to lectures. Guide them towards realizing that help is needed. Emphasize that they do not need to do it alone and that there are numerous rehabilitation options out there. Make sure they understand that they can find one that feels right and that will allow them to successfully get clean.
Make the parent position clear. Because they are trying to avoid coming off as judgmental, many parents instead come off as soft on drug and alcohol use. It is possible to be firm in not approving of it while still avoiding a judgmental approach. Avoid being their friend. This is common advice for parents, but if confronting a teen about substance abuse, it is more important now than ever. They need a strong adult who will push them toward the help they need, not just someone they can vent to.
As children get older, get into the scarier parts of substance abuse. While not a fun topic, it is vital to helping children understand the risks of addiction, to them and to others. Emphasize that good choices can prevent these stories from being a part of their future. Never have the conversation while they are intoxicated. Because drugs and alcohol change perceptions, chances are good that the teen will be much more volatile at this time. Instead, wait until they are sober, then start the talk.

The Consequences of Underage Drinking and Substance Abuse

When having these conversations, teens need to understand the consequences of drinking and using drugs. And in truth, parents need to as well. Confronting the reality of their child having an addiction can be incredibly difficult, but knowing what is at risk can push them to talk about these consequences.

Health consequences are those that impact the physical and mental wellbeing of the person abusing drugs or alcohol. These consequences are significant as they quickly become permanent and have the ability to destroy the quality of life that the user has. In many cases, they can even lead to death. Possible health consequences include.
  • Changes in appetite
  • Resulting weight loss or weight gain
  • Extreme wakefulness
  • Extreme sleepiness
  • Psychosis
  • Overdose
  • Stroke
  • HIV
  • Hepatitis
  • Various other infectious diseases
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Respiratory disease
  • Gastrointestinal disease
  • Musculoskeletal defects
  • Kidney damage
  • Liver damage
  • Nerve damage
  • Brain damage
  • Changes to hormones
  • Mental health disorders
  • Cancer
  • Death
Keep in mind that these are only the direct health consequences of drug use. Secondary consequences, such as injuries while driving under the influence, are just as concerning—especially when you consider one in every 10 teens drinks and drives.

When talking to teens about consequences, sadly, physical consequences tend not to carry as much weight with them. They are somewhat abstract and seem far off. After all, teens are not used to worrying about their health. But they are used to worrying about their social lives. So when trying to get them to understand just how dangerous drug and alcohol use can be, social consequences may have the greatest effect. These include:

  • Losing older and important friends
  • Failing in school or dropping out
  • Getting kicked off of sports teams
  • No longer being allowed to hang out with certain kids
  • Getting into draining relationships
  • Being unable to hold down a job
  • Not being able to afford the things they want
  • Losing their identity
  • Disrupting their family
  • Hurting their loved ones

While it is important not to guilt the teen when discussing these aspects, they still need to be talked about.

Getting Help With Substance Abuse in Teens

While it is clear that if a teen has a substance abuse problem, help is needed, most parents do not know where to go for help. A good start is a drug or alcohol abuse hotline. Parents can also speak with their child’s primary care doctor to get a referral that they can use with their insurance company in order to get rehabilitation covered.

Substance abuse treatment rate in adolescents

Rehabilitation programs for teens are usually outpatient programs, though there are some residential options. While the teen may not be able to attend physical school during this time, there will be options for studying. Their school may prepare work from home or have an online schooling option. Some residential rehabs will even have their own school on their campus.

When selecting a rehab for a teen, it is vital that one that works with younger patients on a regular basis is selected. Best-case scenario is they only work with teenagers, but this is not a requirement. The parent must interview the people at the facility and learn exactly how they tailor their approach to teenagers.

Parents should be prepared to be an active part of the rehabilitation process. Rehab centers that work with teens often focus on family therapy. This ensures that when the teen exits their rehab and enters recovery, they have the support network they need to remain clean.

Ultimately, the process will not be an easy one, and the teen will need to spend a lifetime in recovery. However, it is possible for parents to help their teenagers escape a life of substance abuse.