Teen Substance Abuse

Parents worry, teachers warn, and teenagers experiment, but what is the truth behind substance abuse and addiction in teenagers today? With a youth culture that often glorifies substance abuse and un healthy decision-making, teens today are constantly faced with the tough decision on whether to cross the line into substance experimentation or play it safe and risk being judged by others. The lure of substance abuse affects teenagers daily, but what is the true severity of this situation?

Believe it or not, studies show that 75% of high school students have experimented with addictive substances, and of that 75%, 46% use addictive substances consistently. The danger in this situation is great. Why? Because up to 90% of Americans who meet the medical criteria for addiction began abusing substances before the age of 18.

And How to Cope With It

By Maggie Ledford

Do you know the most commonly abused prescription drugs?

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the most commonly abused prescription drugs by teens are opioids (such as the pain relievers OxyContin and Vicodin), central nervous system depressants (e.g., Xanax, Valium), and stimulants (e.g., Concerta, Adderall).

The Drug Enforcement Administration lists prescription stimulants like Adderall and Vyvanse (amphetamines) and Ritalin and Focalin (methylphenidates) as Class 2 controlled substances — the same as cocaine and morphine — because they rank among the most addictive substances that have a medical use.

Two New Drug Abuse Trends Among Teens

While the number of teenagers drinking alcohol in excess has declined by almost 30% since the 1990s, illicit drug use is on the rise, due largely to the increasing popularity and decreasing “taboo” status of marijuana. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, more than 40% of high school students experiment with marijuana before high school graduation. Among youth receiving substance abuse treatment, marijuana accounts for the largest percentage of admissions: 63% among those 12–14, and 69% among those 15–17.

Following closely behind, nonmedical use of prescription and over-the-counter medicines remains a significant part of the teen drug problem. FDA-approved, prescribed by doctors, and easy to access, it’s easy to understand why teens feel prescription drugs are safer than “hard” drugs like crack or heroin. Unfortunately, the body becomes addicted to them just as easily, and mixing them with one another can easily lead to accidental poisoning. Data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) shows that the amount of deaths due to accidental poisoning among people ages 15-24 has increased an alarming 113% mainly due to prescription drug abuse.

 How assertive is your teen?

When it comes to arguments, do your kids know how to fight back? A study published in the journal Child Development shows that teens who were able to “hold their own” in a discussion with their mom were better able to resist peer pressure and say no to drugs and alcohol.

The Story Underneath the Story

People often wonder why teenagers would even begin to go down a road of such great danger. In reality, there are many factors—biological, social, and psychological—that contribute to teens’ willingness to experiment with addictive substances. A few include:

• Curiosity, Boredom, Impulsivity, or Escape

Teenagers are naturally curious and also get bored easily, so it’s easy for them to see drugs and alcohol as a way to have fun and explore something new. Having an impulsive personality or trying to escape stress from school or a bad home situation are other common causes of substance abuse.

• Peer Influence

The type of people teenagers surround themselves with will largely influence their decision to experiment. Teenagers who have friends who use drugs are three times more likely to use them themselves. All teenagers want to feel as if they belong somewhere, so if their friends not only offer, but pressure them into using drugs, it’s likely they will eventually do it.

• Family History

Genetic predisposition and environmental factors both play a part in children of addicts developing addictions. Parents are looked upon as role models, so if they use addictive substances, it’s likely that their children will think it’s OK to use them. Plus, teens who are genetically prone to addiction are two to four times more likely than the average person to develop an addiction of their own if they experiment with addictive substances.

• Lack of Community or Support

Children who have had little parental discipline or community support are shown to be more prone to experimentation resulting in addiction.

Spotting an Issue

If parents begin to suspect their teen is abusing substances, they can look for telling emotional, physical, and environmental signs. One of the most obvious clues that something is wrong is watching how a child changes in their relationship dynamics. Are they pulling away from the family? Are they becoming closely involved with new friends you don’t know?

Parents can also look for a shift in priorities. A teen’s grades may drastically decline. They could lose interest in an extracurricular activity and instead want to go out every night. These changes may affect your teen’s overall mood, making them very hostile and angry, or even inexplicably giddy in sporadic intervals.

Parents can also look for missing medications, or pay attention to a teen’s living environment and physical appearance. A messy, careless appearance, poor hygiene, or unusual fatigue are just a few warning signs that can clue parents in to substance abuse. Ideally, however, parents should talk to their teen before resorting to detective work.

Helping Your Addicted Teen

Upon discovering that their teen has a substance abuse problem, many parents feel helpless as to how to handle the situation. Knowing how to intervene in a loving way and find a healthy healing process are very important steps needed to aid a child in recovery.

Talk to them. The most important first step is to talk to your teen and let them know they are loved and you want to help them. Most teens understand the severity of a situation of this nature, but they need to know that even though they have made a poor decision, they are still loved. It is important to discuss with your child why they are in their current situation. Help your teen identify their strengths so they do not feel like a failure. Be compassionate, but remain firm. It’s important to stay in the parental role and set clear boundaries for your teen throughout the healing process.

Develop a plan for treatment. There are a variety of treatment options for teenage substance abuse and addiction depending on the severity of the situation. For a teen with a smaller-scale problem, outpatient counseling is generally recommended for at least one day a week for as long as your counselor sees fit. Teens with more severe cases are often put in inpatient programs that last anywhere from 7-28 days or longer. No matter the course of treatment, it is important to involve your child in making the decision. They need to be part of the treatment, instead of feeling like it’s something that was forced upon them.

Find a support system for yourself. As a parent, it will be hard for you to go through this with your teen. Get involved with other parents who are experiencing the same trials. Inform extended family members of the situation to keep them engaged. Also inform the school guidance counselor of the situation so they can come alongside your teen and be a support to both of you. Family therapy can also help in rebuilding the stability of the family and its relationships. Contact a counselor who specializes in teenage substance abuse and family counseling in order to help the emotional healing process of the family as a whole.


Being in a teen substance abuse or addiction situation is very challenging and painful, but your family can take steps to avoid such instances. Countless studies have shown that a stable family environment greatly aids in preventing teens from experimenting with addictive substances. Having a safe environment with open and honest discussion gives children stability and standards to live up to.

Don’t be afraid to start conversations with children about the dangers of substance abuse while they are still young. It’s important to discuss the basic dangers and repercussions of drinking alcohol and taking drugs. Discuss “real world” examples of how situations that may have started out as fun eventually ended badly. Explain the consequences of substance abuse, but also focus on the positive things that come from staying sober.

Parents who experimented with drugs or drinking themselves when they were young often don’t know how to talk to their teen without feeling hypocritical. But instead of thinking of this as a set-back, think of it as an opportunity. Being open about personal experiences and their impact on your life can help demystify substances for your teen and give them a real-life example of their effects and consequences.

Maggie Ledford is an English teacher and coach at Bradley Central High School. She is a graduate of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, where she majored in English and currently resides in Cleveland, Tenn.