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How to Help Teens Overcome Substance Abuse

This entry was posted in Mental Health on by .
Medically Reviewed Fact Checked

Last Updated on August 6, 2021 by Carol Gillette

Alternative to Meds Editorial Team
Medically Reviewed by Dr Michael Loes MD

Try as we might to protect our teenage children, sometimes outside pressures from social norms are just too much to overcome. Teen substance abuse is a widespread phenomenon sweeping across the country. Marijuana use and alcohol use are causing the growing pandemic of teen substance abuse.

Nearly two-thirds of all high school graduates have tried alcohol, and almost one-fifth of 12th graders have tried prescription drugs without a prescription at some point. While some teens may simply experiment with alcohol or marijuana, others slip into ongoing abuse.

Teen Substance Use vs. Abuse and Addiction

It is essential to understand the signs and symptoms of substance abuse and understand the difference between experimentation and addiction.

Teenagers and high school kids are searching for their identity and trying to learn more about themselves. It is a part of growing up and becoming a young adult.

As a result, high school kids often experiment with different substances, including drugs and alcohol. Identifying the difference between experimentation and addiction is the key to recognizing substance abuse and finding solutions.

Experimentation with various substances and the abuse of substances are not the same but can easily transition from one to another. A teenager simply using a substance to say they tried it is problematic but relatively normal. With continued experimentation, though, a teen can quickly develop a problem with substance abuse.

As the teenage brain begins to process and anticipate the chemical reactions to substances generated in the brain, the body soon learns an immediate and welcomed reward.

Good, happy feelings generate dopamine that courses through the body. Eventually, regular use creates a need for an immediate response that trumps long-term brain functionality that processes rational thought and reasoning.3

Social pressure, family history, behavioral conditions, and traumatic events can contribute to the susceptibility of teens to abusing substances. As a parent, it is vital to recognize the warning signs in a teen’s life that may indicate they are prone to developing substance abuse.

Life-changing situations, pressure to fit in, continuous mood swings, or a rebellious nature are all reasons why a teen may be susceptible to ongoing drug use or alcohol abuse that breaches the experimentation phase.1

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Most Commonly Used Substances Among Teens

Teens have access to various substances through friends, family, and networks developed through school and after-school activities. Certain risk factors like genetics and family history can make a teen more likely to steer toward substance abuse. Meanwhile, many outside contributors like social pressure and life changes can make a teen more susceptible to experimentation.

The most commonly abused substances among teens include:

  • Most Commonly Used Substances Among TeensAlcohol
  • Marijuana
  • Tobacco
  • Inhalants
  • Opioid
  • Abused over-the-counter medication
  • Anabolic steroids
  • Methamphetamines
  • Prescription medication
  • Hallucinogens
  • Cocaine
  • Amphetamines

Digging deeper, the statistics surrounding teen substance abuse are staggering, and the National Institutes of Health list some concerning facts.

  • Alcohol is the most common substance used among teenagers, with 64% of 18 year-olds approving its lifetime use.
  • Marijuana is the second most used substance, with a 45% use rate.
  • Cigarette use is the third most common substance used, with a 31% use rate.

Reasons for Teen Substance Abuse

Psychologically, teens face several challenges that can make them more prone to experimentation and subsequently abuse substances. Teens are still going through active brain development, creating incomplete perceptions of risk.

Not only do teens have a skewed perception of the harmfulness of substances, but this is counterbalanced by a high drive for acceptance and impulsiveness. Couple this with a want and need to fit in with peers, and teens are prime candidates for substance abuse.

Ongoing behavioral health concerns or mental health challenges can compound existing social pressures.

Teens have a heavy weight on their shoulders. Not only are teens trying to find themselves and develop an identity, but they are surrounded by social pressure everywhere they look. Teens turn to substances for several reasons, and sometimes the explanation for teen substance use is compounding and layered.

Reasons for teen drug use can be from internal or external sources. Ongoing external social pressure from school and social media can push teens toward drugs and alcohol. Or, internal forces, such as family history, behavioral conditions, or traumatic events, can also push teens toward substance abuse.

Recognizing the threat of both internal and external pressures is key to identifying when conditions are ripe to allow substance experimentation to transform into substance abuse.

Social pressure

Young people have a lot of pressure to fit in. If they aren’t experiencing pressure in person at school, they are constantly surrounded by social pressure from the prevalence of social media. Whether teens simply want to fit in with peers or want to be accepted into a new friend group, social pressure is a leading cause of experimentation and drug abuse.

Family history

Sometimes, people have a family history or personality type inherited from their parents that predisposes them to substance abuse. Anxious or addictive personalities can make people more prone to turn toward substances and become addicted.

Knowing this health information early can help pinpoint a potential propensity for drug use. If teens are regularly around family members who use or abuse different substances, they will be more likely to use substances the same.

Behavioral conditions

The way drugs and substances can influence a teen’s behavior can be attractive to young adults. Substances change the way a teen thinks, feels, and behaves, making them feel more comfortable and accepted in certain peer groups.

Acceptance gives them a much-needed self-esteem boost. Recognizing that substances help pave a clear path for acceptance can make substance use attractive for teens.

Traumatic events

Life is unpredictable, and unfortunately, some teens have lived through traumatic events. Deep-rooted stress and anxiety related to the traumatic event can be a lot for an adult to process, let alone a teen.

Substances can provide a self-medicating and soothing option that helps suppress anxiety. Drugs and alcohol can offer an alternative route for teens instead of thinking about or working through psychological distress caused by a traumatic event.

Signs of Teen Substance Abuse

Recognizing the early warning signs of teen substance abuse is vital for early treatment. Adults need to notice indicators that may suggest that experimentation has transformed to addiction, stop drug use early, and help set their teens up for success. Substance use disorders are easier to treat when identified early.

Behavioral changes

Signs of Teen Substance AbuseOne of the most prominent warning signs for teen drug addiction is a sudden behavior change. By nature, teens’ moods can change drastically daily, but recognizing troubling trends is key to detection.4 Some common behavioral changes in teens that may indicate substance abuse problems include:

  • Lack of motivation
  • Acting suspicious
  • Unusually happy
  • Inability to focus
  • Hostile
  • Silent
  • Loss of interest in usual activities
  • Breaking rules
  • Coordination is off
  • Avoids eye contact
  • Overly high energy

Appearance

Noticing a change in your teen’s appearance can also help identify a substance abuse problem.4 Some common changes in appearance include:

  • Smells of substances (smoke or alcohol)
  • Lack of usual hygiene
  • Consistently red/flushed face
  • Marks on arms or fingers (burns or needles)

Physical well-being

Most disturbing but most telling, physical changes in your teen can often point to teen drug abuse.4 Adults may notice the following physical indicators in a teen:

  • Consistently sick
  • Lethargic
  • Slurred speech
  • Consistent running nose
  • Dramatic weight loss or gain
  • Seizures
  • Vomiting

Risks Factors and Consequences of Teen Substance Abuse

Luckily, medical professionals and behavioral therapists have identified specific precursors and risk factors that can make particular teens more likely than others to develop early substance abuse problems.

Life experiences, such as family history and traumatic events, can make teens more likely to develop a substance addiction. Further, medical conditions like ADHD or depression can also increase the chances that a teen will turn to substances to self-medicate and soothe mental health disorders.

Risk factors for teen substance abuse

  • A research study found that teenagers, compared to all other age groups, are the most likely to initiate substance use, resulting in longer substance use problems in their future.
  • Teenagers are more likely to abuse substances if their family history had substance-related issues.
  • Males tend to have higher substance use rates than females.
  • Traumatic life experiences, peer pressure, little to no parental supervision, exposure to alcohol during prenatal development, ADHD, and depression increase the risks of teens using alcohol.3

Consequences of teen substance abuse

  • Alcohol and marijuana have been associated with poor cognitive development and functionality in teenagers.
  • Memory problems.
  • Poor performance with attention spans.
  • Slower brain processing speeds.3

Preventive Strategies for Teen Substance Abuse

Preventive measures are often the best way to protect your teen from possible substance abuse. Keeping your teen safe yet knowledgeable about various substances can take several forms. It is essential to use a combination of techniques to have the most significant impact on your teen.

Remember that preventive measures should be fluid and evolving. Teens will age and grow throughout high school. Preventive methods that worked one year may need to transition to different tactics the next.

While open communication may initiate a preventive strategy, transitioning to trusted yet established boundaries the following year may help maintain a level of trust and respect for one another.

Learn that communication, limitations, and involvement are all two-way streets. It takes equal effort on your part and your teen’s part to create a safe, preventive strategy to keep your teen away from dangerous substances.

Communicate with your teenager

Sometimes, it is hard for parents to realize that their relationship with their teen has transitioned to a new phase of life. Open and ongoing dialogue is essential for a trusting and honest relationship. Maintaining open communication with your teenager about substance abuse is one of the best ways to prevent your teen from abusing drugs.2

  • How to Talk to Teens About Substance AbuseOpen communication for them about their need for wanting to fit in
    “I know that fitting in with your friends at school is important to you, but it is just as important to be happy with yourself. Love yourself the way I do.”
  • Talk to them about your rules for them, but explain your reasoning for each.
    “It may seem like we make rules to limit and restrict your fun, but we only want to keep you safe.”
  • Be clear and have an adult conversation.
    “As you get older, I forget you aren’t a little kid anymore. Let’s talk to each other like adults and have a real conversation together.”
  • Explain substance use in a rational and honest way.
    “Using drugs and alcohol may seem cool and help you fit in. But, it’s easy to become trapped with drug abuse. You can completely lose yourself.”
  • Give your teenager the chance to speak about their feelings.
    “How was your day? Why do you feel that way? Can you tell me more?”
  • Show you care about them through how you talk to them about this situation.
    “I’m not here to yell at you; I’m here to talk to you. Tell me more about what happened.”
  • Have casual conversations to help your teen feel comfortable, such as by going on a walk or driving while talking.
    “Want to grab a bite to eat? We haven’t had a chance to talk like we usually do since we’ve both been busy.”

Be involved

Teenagers tend to get pulled in several directions between school, sports, and friend groups. Staying involved with your teen’s life is essential to build a healthy relationship and to be present and aware of behavioral changes that indicate a potential substance abuse problem.5

It is important to stay involved with your teen while still giving them space and privacy as they grow into a young adult. To create an active relationship, try to:

  • Know what your teenager is doing.
  • Develop a good relationship with your teen to build trust.
  • Explain that you want to be involved in their life because you care, not because you’re nosy.
  • Spend high-quality time with your teen to let them know you care.
  • Ask specific questions about how their day went, etc.
  • Suggest that they bring their friends over to the house to keep a closer watch on their activities.
  • Communicate with your teen’s teachers and coaches to better understand how your teen is doing when he/she is not home.

Establish boundaries

While your teen may complain about restricted freedoms, boundaries are necessary with a young adult. Boundaries can establish a line of trust and also help keep your teen safe.2

Establishing boundaries, especially as your teen ages, is essential to early substance abuse detection. Remember, boundaries do not have to remain permanent but must remain flexible and fluid as teenagers grow, develop, and learn. To successfully set boundaries, you should:

  • Clearly establish a set of rules or boundaries for when your teenager goes out.
  • Avoid being vague so your teenager clearly understands the boundaries.
  • Set reasonable curfews.
  • Set consequences for breaking any rules or boundaries.
  • Be able to explain your boundaries to your teenager.

Provide support

Teens rely on their family support systems to help them succeed in life. Part of helping your teen is providing ongoing support. What active support looks like can change depending on the individual situations and circumstances.5

Your support may differ day to day. It is important to recognize when you need to change supportive tactics and emotions to give your teen the help they need at one particular moment. To support your teen, you may need to:

  • Actively listen to your teen.
  • Let your teen know that they can tell you anything.
  • Acknowledge that teenagers are going through an important stage in life.
  • Build trust with your teen and remind them that you are there to help guide them through this journey.

Treatment Options for Teen Substance Abuse

Finding treatment for a teen with substance abuse is essential to set your teen up for ongoing help and success. It’s important to remember that treatment is not a one-size-fits-all option. Sometimes it may require a few different approaches, combining tactics, to find a viable solution.

Resources for mental health treatment and support include:

  • Free Resources and Help to Overcome Substance AbuseThe Alternative to Meds Center, which offers drug-free treatment to help get teens on the right track. The ATMC uses lab testing to determine physiological reasons for why guests may abuse alcohol. Therefore, the ATMC can tailor each program for each guest’s physiological needs. Call (888) 906-1547.
  • The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration provides free, confidential, 24/7, 365-day-a-year treatment referral and information (in English and Spanish) for individuals and families facing mental and/or substance use disorders. Offers a treatment facility locator to find nearby treatment facilities. Visit samhsa.gov/find-help/national-helpline or call (800) 662-4357.
  • The Partnership to End Addiction connects families impacted by addiction with personalized support and resources. Visit drugfree.org to contact a therapist via call or email, or text CONNECT to 55753.
  • The National Institute on Drug Abuse performs research and provides resources and publications designed to connect teens with information, support, and professional help for drug use and addiction issues. Go to teens.drugabuse.gov for more information.
  • Smart Recovery is a self-empowering addiction recovery support group that offers resources for teens as well as youth support programs, meeting locations, and an online community at smartrecovery.org/teens or (440) 951-5357.
  • Sober Nation provides information resources in the form of an “addiction blog” and topical video. It also maintains an extensive directory of recovery centers, which is searchable by state. Visit sobernation.com or call (866) 207-7436.
  • Alcoholics Anonymous helps young people find AA meetings near them and offers brochures on teen addiction and related issues. Visit aa.org/pages/en_US to find a nearby meeting and access resources.
  • Narcotics Anonymous helps teens find nearby NA meetings and provides brochures and other resources for young addicts. Visit na.org or call (818) 773-9999.

The key with any substance abuse treatment program is to do plenty of research beforehand and choose the one that fits your teen’s needs best. Then have trust and faith in the program, and believe in the likelihood of success.

It’s also important, though, to recognize when the particular treatment is or isn’t suited for your teen. Being able to pivot to other treatment options quickly will help give your teen the help they need.

Several different treatment options give parents the chance to choose a treatment that will work best for their teen. Some effective treatment approaches are detailed below.

Behavioral approaches

Using different tactics, behavioral training, and therapy can help teens overcome the use of illicit drugs. Behavioral therapy can give teens valuable resources and skills needed to not only turn down offered substances but better rationalize substance abuse and its dangers.

Therapy can provide professional support for teens who need it and help address underlying mental health problems. This particular type of therapy is also used in programs that utilize various steps to recoveries, such as Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous.

Family-based approaches

Family-based therapy can take several forms and be adapted to suit any family or foster unit. This type of family therapy involves healthcare for the family and community in a group effort to help a teen struggling with substance abuse.

While some forms of family-based therapy may involve open dialogue and communication with all family members, other forms of this type of support may involve identifying potentially hostile or toxic inherited family behaviors or traits. Family-based therapy can provide medical advice and situational support for troubled teens.

Recovery support services

Once a teen has worked through troubling drug problems, it is vital to maintain their success well into the future. Several recovery support services are available for teens that provide ongoing support. Services can vary based on the teens’ needs but can include peer support, community support, or therapy-focused support.

Finding the right treatment center is easy with many versatile and adaptive options. There are individual classes, groups, or dedicated high schools for teens recovering from substance abuse. Ongoing treatment and success are about monitoring the future for potential triggers and situational challenges for teens.

While support groups for addiction treatment are essential for ongoing success for your teen, there are plenty of resources for parents, too. Understand that you are not alone. Help is available for parents struggling to support and treat their loved one suffering from substance abuse.

Several hotlines can offer immediate and professional assistance for parents. Parent helplines for teen substance abuse can help give you much-needed support quickly.

Raising a child in today’s world is tricky and confusing. Working through the challenges of a teenager can be even more taxing, as parents want what is best for their kids. Substance experimentation as a teenager is common, but transitioning to full-blown abuse is troubling.

Proactive detection and preventive measures are the best way to help your teen. There are plenty of substance abuse resources available to parents to give their teens the help they need. With early detection and active prevention and treatment, your teen can transition to the path to health and wellness, free of substance abuse.


1. Partnership to End Addiction. “Is Substance Use a Part of “Normal” Teen Behavior?” [Accessed 2021 July 1]

2. Child Mind Institute. “How to Talk to Your Teen About Substance Use” [Accessed 2021 July 1]

3. National Institutes of Health, US National Library of Medicine. “Research Review: What Have We Learned About Adolescent Substance Use?” [Accessed 2021 July 1]

4. Partnership to End Addiction. “Preventing Drug Use: How to Spot the Signs of Teen or Young Adult Substance Use” [Accessed 2021 July 1]

5. Partnership to End Addiction. “Preventing Drug Use: Connecting and Talking with Your Teen” [Accessed 2021 July 1]

6. American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy. “Adolescent Substance Abuse” [Accessed 2021 July 1]

7. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. “SAMHSA’s National Helpline” [Accessed 2021 July 1]

8. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Teen Substance Use & Risks” [Accessed 2021 July 1]

9. National Institute on Drug Abuse. “NIDA for Teens: The Science Behind Drug Abuse” [Accessed 2021 July 1]

10. Mayo Clinic. “Teen drug abuse: Help your teen avoid drugs” [Accessed 2021 July 1]

11. Michigan Medicine. “Teen Alcohol and Drug Use” [Accessed 2021 July 1]

12. MedicineNet. “Teen Drug Abuse: Statistics & Interventions” [Accessed 2021 July 1]



This content has been reviewed and approved by a licensed physician.

Dr. Michael Loes, M.D.

 

Dr. Michael Loes is board-certified in Internal Medicine, Pain Management and Addiction Medicine. He holds a dual license in Homeopathic and Integrative Medicine. He obtained his medical doctorate at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN, 1978. Dr. Loes performed an externship at the National Institute of Health for Psychopharmacology. Additionally, he is a well-published author including Arthritis: The Doctor’s Cure, The Aspirin Alternative, The Healing Response, and Spirit Driven Health: The Psalmist’s Guide for Recovery. He has been awarded the Minnesota Medical Foundation’s “Excellence in Research” Award.

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How to Help Teens Overcome Substance Abuse
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