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Teenage substance use is an unfortunately common problem. But teen substance abuse disorder is an entirely different beast. Teens who struggle with addiction at a young age are more likely to relapse and experience long-term cravings and may have a harder time distancing themselves from drug use as they get older. Addictive substances affect the teenage brain disproportionately, and teens are more likely to develop a lasting addiction if their first-time experience was at a young age, versus adults who first experienced addictive drugs in their late twenties and onwards. But it isn’t all bleak.

Treatment and therapy can help teens arm themselves with the tools necessary to break and overcome addiction. Substance use can be overcome through long-term support, effective coping mechanisms, recurring individual, and group therapy sessions, and by addressing adjacent or concurrent mental health issues, indefinitely. Helping kids develop a greater sense of awareness for their own mental and physical wellbeing and foster important self-care habits can protect them from relapses and stressful situations and prepare them for the oncoming challenges of adulthood. It’s crucial to identify potential a substance abuse disorder in teens early and get them the help they need.

How Common Is Substance Abuse Disorder in Teens?

According to recent data published by the CDC, at least about 15 percent of high school teens have self-reported using an illicit drug at least once (drugs like cocaine, inhalants, heroin, methamphetamine, ecstasy, or illegal hallucinogens), and a surprising 14 percent have admitted to misusing prescription opioidsAside from “hard” drugs, over two-thirds of teens have tried alcohol by the 12th grade, and about half of the teens in grades 9 through 12 have reported trying marijuana. Although illegal, reports find that people aged 12 to 20 account for one-tenth of all alcohol consumption in the US. While trying drugs doesn’t translate directly into drug abuse, there is an obvious correlation.

Because it is difficult to pinpoint the transition between harmful substance use and a substance use disorder, studies currently place the prevalence of addiction in the general population between 15 and 61 percent, a significant portion of which includes teens. Co-occurring mental health issues sharply increase the risk of a substance use problem. An estimated 30 to 45 percent of teenagers with a mental health disorder have a co-occurring substance use disorder, and about 65 percent of adolescents with a history of substance abuse also struggle with a co-occurring mental health disorder. While we do know that illicit drug use has mostly gone down over time, some drugs have picked up speed in recent years, and the long-term effects of the pandemic on adolescent drug use are yet to be fully understood. Teen addiction is a potentially growing issue, and one we must address decisively.

Why Substance Use Affects Teens Differently

An apt way to describe the adolescent brain would be as a car with a fully functioning gas pedal (the brain’s reward systems) and an incomplete braking system (the prefrontal cortex, especially risk assessment and decision making). Every parent knows that teenagers are only all too keen to jump headfirst into situations without proper thinking and seem almost incapable of working out the long-term consequences of any potential action before they take it. While a lot of that ties into lack of basic life experience – and the importance of good life lessons – part of it is also neurobiology.

Teenagers don’t think ahead very well because they can’t do it as naturally as the average adult. That doesn’t mean all adults are automatically wiser and more careful than any given teen. But it does mean that, physically, teens are more likely to pursue short-term reward and forget about the ensuing long-term problems that might occur as a result of that decision. It also means that the teenage brain is still in development, and that the parts that are in development are crucial for risk assessment, executive functioning and decision making – all of which fundamentally represent what it means to be a self-sufficient human being.

Drug use can significantly impede and affect the brain’s development, cause delays, and can negatively impact a teen’s cognitive abilities in the long-term – even more so than in an adult, provided all other circumstances are the same. While illicit drug use is not good under any circumstances, it is especially bad for adolescents and young adults. Preventing early drug use can protect your teen from the long-term consequences of addiction, and the effects that addictive drugs can have on the brain – let alone the social impact of early drug use and addiction on a teen, from an increased chance of unprotected sex, unwanted pregnancies, and STDs, to a dramatic dip in academic performance, legal troubles, and long-term career consequences.

Risk Factors for Substance Abuse Disorder Among Teens

Substance use issues in teens are often associated with crucial protective and risk factors. These could also be seen as the most common “causes” of addiction.

Risk Factors

  • Genetics
  • Poor parental relationship
  • Authoritarian parenting
  • Uninvolved parenting
  • Socioeconomic background
  • Bullying
  • Mental health disorders

Protective Factors

  • Positive parental relationship
  • Strong attachment to community
  • Parental monitoring
  • Authoritative parenting
  • Community interventions

It’s impossible to weigh the relevance of any given factor because they depend on an individual’s case. In some cases, one factor may play a disproportionate role over another. The prevalence of certain risk factors also plays an important role in treatment. A co-occurring mental health issue changes a teen’s substance use into a dual diagnosis, meaning their case would be treated with special consideration given to both their addiction and their disorder. Treating these conditions separately would not be effective – an individualized plan that treats both concurrently is needed.

Getting Help for Teen Substance Abuse Disorder

If you recognize any signs of substance use in your teen – from paraphernalia to a dismissive or defensive attitude about drug use, erratic behavior, frequent disappearances, gaps in memory, signs of drinking or smoking, and symptoms of long-term drug use – it’s important to talk to them about getting help together. Some teens might not realize their habit has become uncontrollable until it’s too late, and others might hide their drug use due to fear of getting reprimanded, thrown out of school, or vilified by family. Make it clear to your teen that you’re in their corner, and that you want them to beat their addiction and live a life they can truly enjoy on their own terms. If you can’t get through to your loved one, consider approaching a clinic or treatment specialist about intervention.