Understanding Teen Addiction

Teen substance use is sharply on the rise, and parents need to do everything they can to protect their children. Over 27% of youth have reported drinking alcohol within the last year, which is an all-time high for underage drinking. Let’s talk about teen addiction and how you can help your teen get sober starting today!

Understanding Addiction

Before we talk about teen substance abuse, let’s briefly talk about substance use disorder (SUD).

SUD is a serious mental health condition in which a person is either physically or psychologically dependent on a particular substance. To clarify: physical dependence means there is a chemical imbalance in the brain that can only be rectified by the continued use of substances. On the other hand, psychological dependence means that someone uses the substance because they believe they need it—and belief is a powerful force.

For example, research indicates that marijuana and its active ingredients are not physically addictive, but frequent users may believe they need to use it to “feel normal” or to function from day to day. Often this belief is more powerful than a physical addiction, as you can use your psychology (willpower, in this case) to overcome physical addiction, but not the other way around.

As a result, either type of dependence will need treatment if given enough time. Whether or not your teen experiences withdrawal symptoms is irrelevant. If they believe they are addicted to a substance, it will require addiction treatment in the same way.

Teen Boys vs Girls Addiction Issues

There are important gender distinctions to make when talking about addiction. Boys and girls may use different substances, use them for different reasons, and feel the effects of them differently.

For example, boys are more likely to use marijuana than girls, and girls are more likely to overdose from drug use. This is because girls often metabolize substances differently than boys and are more likely to miscalculate the dosage. Additionally, girls tend to become addicted to substances more quickly than boys, also partially due to their smaller sizes on average.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) notes that there are plenty of other important distinctions to be aware of, including social pressures, risks, and more.

Substance Use Trends in Young People

Every year the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) conducts a survey of drug use among young people in the United States, focusing on adolescents between 8th and 12th grades.

Their most recent survey found that overall drug use amongst middle school and high school students decreased in 2021. However, the data still suggests that substance use in adolescents remains a significant problem.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) also reports that 1 in 8 teens (12.5%) of teens aged 12 to 17 admitted to marijuana use within the past year. Marijuana use in young adults (college students ages 19-22) also increased significantly in the past 5 years.

Additional drug use data for teens (ages 12-17) for 2018 can be broken down as follows:

  • Over 2 million teens drank alcohol in the past month; 1.2 million of these adolescents reported binge drinking
  • Nearly 50% of teenagers report using a drug at least once by the time they reach 12th grade
  • Opioid overdose deaths have increased 500% since 1999
  • Young people are more likely to abuse prescription stimulants than illicit stimulants (like cocaine or methamphetamine), with a reported 4.4% of 12th graders reporting Adderall abuse and 1.7% having abused Ritalin
  • More than 2% of youth report abusing synthetic marijuana* in the past year

*Synthetic marijuana (also known as Spice or K2) is sold in gas stations, smoke shops, and via the internet. It contains synthetically-developed chemicals that are naturally present in regular marijuana. Vendors of synthetic marijuana are able to get around the criminalization of this substance by continually making slight changes to the chemical makeup of the drug.

Common Causes of Teen Substance Abuse

Teens are people, and people are complicated. Don’t assume that anything you read is going to be the exact cause of your teen’s substance use. There are simply too many factors to consider that are unique to each individual.

However, genetics and childhood experiences aside, some common threads link many cases of teenage drug abuse and teen alcohol abuse. Here are some examples.

Peer Pressure

Let’s understand “peer pressure” before we move on, as there are many false assumptions about the topic. Peer pressure does not have to be a friend of your teen’s telling them to try it if they want to be cool. Most often, the pressure to “fit in” is implied.

For that reason, your teen simply knowing that someone they look up to or connect with (including family members) is using these substances is enough for them to want to try it for themselves. This is a difficult pressure to help a teen overcome, especially as a parent.

While peer pressure is the first thing that comes to mind when we discuss causes of teen substance use, it’s far from the only pressure, and it could have nothing at all to do with why your teen chooses to use substances. There are cultural pressures, romanticization in the media, and so many other potential causes.

Mental Illness

Mental health problems are on the rise for teens all around the US, and the statistics are heartbreaking. Believe it or not, over 15% of adolescents report experiencing a major depressive episode within the last year. With this concerning trend, more than ever teens are turning to drug and alcohol use to cope with their mental health problems.

If you believe that your teen suffers from a mental illness, with or without SUD, then we suggest finding treatment for them as soon as possible.

Prescription Medicines

Teens may simply develop an addiction to prescription drugs they’ve been prescribed (such as Adderall), especially to treat pain, anxiety, ADHD, or depression. Antidepressants, benzodiazepines, amphetamines, and opioids are extremely addictive, and a teen may develop a dependence on them just from their prescribed dosage and frequency.

Alternatively, they may have begun using their prescriptions the wrong way early on out of curiosity, self-medication, or even boredom. Many potential reasons can lead to dependence.

Brain Wiring

The chemistry and wiring in our brains during adolescence make us far more likely and willing to engage in substance use, for more reasons than one.

First, adolescent brains are not fully developed, especially in certain regions of the brain. One of the most significant differences is that teenage brains have not developed the regions of the brain associated with risk assessment. For this reason, teens are far more likely to engage in risk-taking behaviors, including substance use.

We all remember being teens and wanting to experiment. For some of us, it meant trying new hobbies or going new places, while others may have turned to less healthy activities.

In addition, our brains have an underdeveloped pleasure center. The important neurochemical balance that we need to maintain for a healthy brain is not properly developed during adolescence, which may lead teens to pursue pleasure-seeking behaviors, again including substance use.

Signs of Teen Addiction

Again, every teen is different, but if you suspect teen substance abuse or excessive underage drinking, then there are some signs to look for.

Most commonly, these warning signs include:

  • Lying about whereabouts
  • Being overly secretive or deceptive
  • Hanging out with less-than-reputable people
  • Covering scent
  • Hiding arms or other body parts
  • Missing school or other obligations
  • Losing interest in hobbies or passions
  • Declining performance in school

The list goes on. Now, these are all behavioral and social signs, but there are others to look for.

In terms of physical symptoms, look for:

  • Red eyes (or overly white from eye drops)
  • Needle marks
  • Bad breath
  • Constant fatigue or excessive energy
  • Sleeping issues
  • Constant illness (withdrawal)

There are other symptoms that are specific to each substance, but these are a good place to start. Try to avoid conflict with your teen if you notice these signs while you’re still trying to figure it out. Don’t be accusatory, but develop a plan right away.

We’ll discuss that more later, but for now, see if these signs add up. None of them are telltale signs, as teens can be quite secretive, so pay close attention starting today to see if your concerns have merit or not.

Potential Risk Factors of Teen Addiction

Let’s be clear, substance abuse at any age is extremely detrimental to our health. Abusing any type of substance will cause long-term health concerns if given enough time, as well as potentially life-threatening complications.

However, these risks are amplified during our teenage years. Here are some of the biggest concerns.

Brain Damage

In the short-term, substance abuse in young people is likely to lead to lifelong brain damage. Our teenage years are a critical time for overall development, and substances can significantly impede that development.

Substance abuse will damage nearly every part of the brain, too. This will ultimately lead to effects on communication between parts of the brain, memory, critical thinking, and risk assessment. All of these pose long-term dangers to healthy adolescent brain development that they may carry throughout their lives.

Every time a teen uses these substances, they are only making these problems worse. Substances do not belong in a teenage brain unless controlled and prescribed by an appropriate healthcare provider, making this a time-sensitive issue. Our brains play a huge role in who we are as people.

Developing Lifelong Habits

Again, our teenage years are critical to our development in adulthood, so what we do during those years will affect the rest of our lives. Believe it or not, teens that have their first drinks before age 15 are 5 times more likely to develop an alcohol addiction later in life.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t just apply to alcohol. How many habits or hobbies did you pick up in your teenage years that you still use today, for better or worse? Substance abuse is a corrosive habit to develop so early on, and it needs to be stopped as soon as possible.

This is because the imbalance substances will introduce to our brains may change our reward centers, especially during adolescence. This may lead to long-term negative consequences such as:

  • Increased risk-taking behavior
  • Difficulty with impulse control
  • Poor decision-making skills
  • Developing alcohol or drug addiction later in life

Overdose

Nobody wants to think about it, but it’s a serious concern around the country, and it’s only getting worse. Even today, teen drug overdoses are still increasing by over 28% a year. If your teen is abusing illicit drugs, especially heroin or fentanyl, then overdosing is an immediate concern.

How to Find Help for Your Teen

If your teen is abusing substances, then there is no time to waste. Finding help is an imperative issue that carries enormous consequences for the rest of your teen’s life. Here are some of the options to choose from.

Inpatient Treatment

In most cases, for a first-time recovery, we would strongly recommend inpatient treatment. Inpatient or residential substance abuse treatment is the most effective, as it offers everything an outpatient treatment program will offer but with a controlled, substance-free environment and around-the-clock access to medical oversight. During detox, this can be life-saving.

These treatment centers typically offer support services at any time during the day, medical supervision, support groups, therapy services, recreational activities, and more.

Many facilities offer more niche services for various patients, including:

If you believe your teen could benefit from specialized services, consider looking into these options ahead of time. You may find a selling point when trying to convince your teen to attend rehab.

Outpatient Treatment

Outpatient treatments cover several options, including therapy and behavioral health services, doctor visits, and support groups. There are plenty of options, and you can attend them while still living at home.

However, this comes with a couple of downsides. First, there is a much larger chance of relapse, especially in the early days. If this is their first time detoxing, then the temptation to give up may be too high.

Also, lacking medical supervision during detox can be unsafe in certain circumstances. Detoxing from alcohol, opioids, and other substances can even cause lethal complications, which is why we generally recommend inpatient treatment during this time.

The next best thing to inpatient treatment is an intensive outpatient program (IOP). An IOP is the best option for those who are not ready to leave home quite yet, and the quality of care is comparable to an inpatient program. However, spending time in a substance-free environment is generally a better option.

Partial-Hospitalization Program

Alternatively, some facilities may offer a partial-hospitalization program (PHP), which can provide the best of both worlds. In this case, your teen may not have to miss too much school and still get the medical oversight necessary during detox.

Staging a Teenage Addiction Intervention

Have you ever tried to tell your teen to do something they don’t want to do? Do you remember being a teen and having someone tell you what to do? How did it go?

For most of us, we long for independence during our teenage years. It’s an age where we fully believe we’re ready to face the world and all of its challenges, and that the only things weighing us down are our parents. This is something to keep in the front of your mind when trying to discuss treatment options with your teen.

There is no “right way” to talk to every teen about these issues, as people are simply too complicated for that. However, there are plenty of wrong ways to go about it. For example, making accusations or demands, using harsh or condescending tones, or discussing treatment as if it were a punishment are simply the wrong ways to go about this.

Instead, you want to be as understanding and empathetic as possible. We are not trying to tell you that your parenting style is wrong, we are simply offering the best options for helping your teen. Here is the best path forward in most situations.

Lay the Groundwork

Finding treatment options ahead of time is essential for a successful intervention. Have options available to them and understand the highlights of each of them. If they agree to seek treatment, you don’t want to give them time to change their minds.

Also, you’re not trying to convince your teen to go, you’re trying to convince them to want to go. Reading this article is a good first step, as you can warn them about the potential dangers of the course they’re on (listed above) and offer the support that they need to change course.

Lastly, when looking for treatment options, you want to avoid any bumps in the road that may come up. For that reason, always reach out to the program ahead of time to verify your insurance.

Choose the Right Setting

Jumping right into the conversation the second they get home from school is not the best option. You don’t know how their day was, you don’t know if they’re under the influence, and it may just catch them by surprise. Also, who will be in this discussion?

Is there anybody that your teen loves and trusts the most? This could be a sibling, a distant relative, a family friend, a coach, or anybody else. If you believe they’ll have a better chance of reaching them, then why not ask for help?

Don’t include anybody that will be counter-productive, condescending, or cause unnecessary tension. If you think your teen would benefit from talking to someone other than you, then consider that as an option as well. A one-on-one conversation is better than a group of ten if it will put too much pressure on your teen.

From there, ensure that anybody who will be speaking to your teen is on-message. One person could easily spoil the entire intervention with one sentence. Try to review statements ahead of time if possible.

Additionally, timing is everything. Try to find a time when your teen is sober and in the best possible state and avoid conflict for as long as possible leading up to the discussion. This could be early in the morning, on the weekend, or whenever your teen is at their best and schedules can be coordinated.

Convince Them

When starting the conversation, set the expectations immediately and let them know that you’re not going to say anything to hurt them, get them in trouble, or cause any conflict. This will be tense, so diffuse as much tension as possible at the beginning.

Persuasion is a difficult task, especially persuading someone to make such a substantial lifestyle change. Keep in mind that you’re trying to convince someone to spend 30 to 60 days in a new environment and give up something they may use as their only coping mechanism. That isn’t easy to do.

If you just say, “You’re going to rehab for 60 days,” and force them in, they’re far more likely to come out and continue abusing substances right away. If they don’t start treatment with the right mindset, then they may as well not have started at all.

Instead, appeal to their desires in life, how their actions are making their loved ones feel, and be as sincere as possible. Don’t try to berate them or make them feel guilty, but let them know how you feel and that you simply want to help them. This is your best chance of cooperation, even if it’s challenging.

Discuss Treatment Options

As we said, having multiple treatment options available is the best plan of attack. You don’t want to give them the option to change their mind, so offer them as much as possible, starting with inpatient treatment. Highlight all of the best qualities of the treatment plan you’ve found.

Let them know that the program is designed for teens, that it’s a safe space, and that they’ll come back to a loving home immediately after. If you can do that, you may just win them over.

If they aren’t ready for inpatient treatment yet, then offer outpatient treatment options. Any treatment is better than no treatment, so take what you can get. If they agree, ask them if they’ll reconsider inpatient treatment if outpatient doesn’t work for them.

If the teen isn’t ready for treatment or if they walk out of the room screaming, don’t force it on them. This may put them in a dangerous situation if they’re emotionally unstable and still abusing substances. Give them the space they need for now, and they may come around on their own.

Find Help Today

Now that you understand how teen addiction works, some of its causes, and treatment options, get your teen the help they need today. There is no time to waste, and you’ve already taken the first step by reading through this article. Develop a plan and intervene as soon as possible to prevent the worst from happening!

From there, stay up to date with our latest addiction recovery tips, and feel free to check out our resources for more information!

Reviewed by:Chris Carberg

Addiction Guide Founder & Mental Health Advocate

  • Fact-Checked
  • Editor

Chris Carberg is a visionary digital entrepreneur, the Founder of Addiction Guide, and a long-time recovering addict from prescription opioids, sedatives, and alcohol.  Over the past 15 years, Chris has worked as a tireless advocate for addicts and their loved ones, while becoming a sought-after digital entrepreneur. Chris is a storyteller and aims to share his story with others in the hopes of helping them achieve their own recovery.

Written by:

Content Manager

Jessica Miller is a USF graduate with a Bachelor’s Degree in English. She has written professionally for over a decade, from HR scripts and employee training to business marketing and company branding. In addition to writing, Jessica spent time in the healthcare sector (HR) and as a high school teacher. She has personally experienced the pitfalls of addiction and is delighted to bring her knowledge and writing skills together to support our mission. Jessica lives in St. Petersburg, FL with her husband and two dogs.

6 references
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  2. Prevalence of substance use, abuse, and dependence. Prevalence of Substance Use, Abuse, and Dependence | Youth.gov. (n.d.). Retrieved May 4, 2022, from https://youth.gov/youth-topics/substance-abuse/prevalence-substance-use-abuse-and-dependence

  3. The state of Mental Health in America. Mental Health America. (n.d.). Retrieved May 4, 2022, from https://www.mhanational.org/issues/state-mental-health-america

  4. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2020, June 1). Marijuana use at historic highs among college-age adults. National Institutes of Health. Retrieved May 4, 2022, from https://nida.nih.gov/news-events/news-releases/2019/09/marijuana-use-at-historic-highs-among-college-age-adults

  5. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2022, April 1). Monitoring the future. National Institutes of Health. Retrieved May 4, 2022, from https://nida.nih.gov/drug-topics/trends-statistics/monitoring-future

  6. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021, November 17). Drug overdose deaths in the U.S. top 100,000 annually. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved May 4, 2022, from https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/pressroom/nchs_press_releases/2021/20211117.htm

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