Typically, teen behavior tends to be rebellious and boundary-pushing. Adolescents are seeking ways to defy authority and establish an experienced understanding of what is and is not okay. They are not content with rules and edicts, and experimentation is par for the course.
But does that mean parents should expect teens to experiment with drugs, as well? Is a lax approach to something as serious as substance use a positive and healthy way to deal with the inevitable, or does it invite harmful teen behavior that does not play a positive role in a teen’s development? Is it really “normal” and expected for kids to use drugs?
The answer depends on individual factors. Some teens grow up under circumstances that normalize drug use. Some cultures even see it as a rite of passage. But that does not make it healthy nor ideal, and many people underestimate the number of teens and young adults who have not used drugs, including alcohol.
While drug use doesn’t automatically doom your child to a life of crime, and the vast majority of those who grow up to develop substance use issues do so due to co-occurring mental health problems and/or serious socioeconomic factors, it is still a very risky teen behavior, and one that shouldn’t be brushed off as normal or part of the everyday modern teen experience.
Why Teens Use Drugs
Most people understand that drugs are dangerous. And most people who use drugs are intelligent enough to factor this knowledge into their decision-making process. They understand that continued drug use can be a sign of addiction and choose to use drugs despite the risks. This goes for legal substances like alcohol and nicotine, and illicit drugs as well. But teens are vulnerable in a unique way because their ability to recognize and factor risk in any decision-making process is inherently flawed.
Teens often overlook or downplay the risk of anything they do, in part because their brain has not developed the necessary tools to let them consider the dangers of what they are doing. It is not until the mid-to-late 20s that a person develops the total mental acuity needed to properly assess risk (some better than others) and make informed decisions. On the other hand, teens are more than capable enough of enjoying the short-term pleasures of drug use. Too capable, in fact, compared to the rest of their brain.
Drugs like cannabis, alcohol, nicotine, illicit substances like cocaine and heroin, and prescription drugs each interact with the teen brain in their own way. Because teen brains are still in development, positive reinforcement is that much stronger, and leaves a much longer-lasting impact. In other words, just as teens generally learn faster than older adults, so too does their brain translate that drugs = pleasure at a faster and stronger rate.
As a result, research shows that age of first use plays an important role in the development of addiction, and that delaying a teen’s exposure to any drug can reduce chances of addiction. This explains why teens might use drugs even if they know drugs are bad, and it helps explain why minimizing or eliminating drug use during adolescence is important in reducing rates of addiction. But there are other factors involved in teen drug use, particularly ones that serve as motivating factors for first-time use.
Parent-Child Relationships and Peer Influences on Teen Behavior
We have all heard of the impact of peer pressure on teen drug use. While peer pressure is a contributing factor, it is not as important as it might seem. Teens act rebellious, and they can be a major headache to their parents, but their decision-making process is heavily informed by the quality of their relationship with their parents. Teens who are on good terms with their parents are much less likely to use drugs, particularly if their parents do not approve of them – despite being exposed to drug use among friends.
Overall, parental relationships may be the strongest protective factor against the decision to use drugs. Another important consideration is that conversations centered around health risks are more effective at reducing risk, than those centered around consequences, parent’s own use of drugs, and permissive messages. What parents do also has a strong correlative effect on what teens do.
The decision to experiment with a drug is also informed by a great number of factors aside from parental and peer influence. Curiosity, availability, acute and chronic stressors, and mental health are all important factors, both for and against drug use. Mental health issues are a contributing factor as well – teens with depressive symptoms or symptoms of anxiety are much more likely to try and use drugs.
Does Your Teen Understand How Drugs Work?
Having an earnest and fact-filled conversation with your teens about drugs and drug use can significantly impact their decision to experiment with drugs, especially if they understand how drugs affect the mind and body, and how drug use negatively impacts long-term health and development. Teens want to be informed, and they would like to be informed by parents who are similarly averse to drug use at home, be it through drinking or something stronger. It is important to convey truthful information.
Kids are and always have been exceedingly good at sniffing out exaggeration and false information, and with the Internet at their fingertips, they can selectively refute anything you give them that isn’t completely true – and by association, they’ll be less likely to listen or trust your message. Psychoactive substances are not inherently bad, as many of them play a role in treating medical issues or have become an accepted part of human culture.
Kids also learn that you do not get addicted from a single hit, or that marijuana turns your brain into mush, or that everyone who drinks becomes an alcoholic. But truthful messaging that does not hide the impact that drugs can have on a person (especially early drug use) is still an effective deterrent and generates trust. And trust is something teenagers crave from their parents.
They are seeking autonomy and freedom, and while parents have a responsibility to limit both for their child’s protection, doing so at the cost of their parent-child relationship can push a teen towards using. If you think your child has been using drugs, then taking early action is important. Talk to your teen about the facts – about the impact of early drug use on the developing brain, about the potential long-term effects of “harmless” drugs like marijuana, and the information around misused prescription drugs and alcohol.