Why Do Teenagers Use Drugs
Here’s some good news for parents. The percentage of teens reporting general drug use in the US has remained low in 2022, following a drop in figures over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic. While this generation has historically been less likely to use drugs than previous generations, lockdowns seem to have further disincentivized drug use among teens.
But that doesn’t mean teens don’t use drugs at all. Alcohol, nicotine, and marijuana remain the most popular, the latter two usually being consumed in the form of e-cigarettes and vaping liquids. Other illicit drugs, from cocaine and heroin to prescription pills, have seen drops in usage, but have also become much more dangerous in recent years due to fatal additives like fentanyl, a synthetic opioid with an extremely low median lethal dose. Meanwhile, designer drugs with unknown qualities continue to hit the streets.
Whether it’s drinking or pills, parents are right to worry about whether their teens might feel compelled to use drugs in the future – and why.
Thankfully, there’s some more good news for parents here. Parental influence is a significant factor in a teen’s likelihood to use drugs. Your attitudes toward drug use, your parenting style, the quality of your relationship with your teen, and your own history of drug use or continued substance use (including alcohol) help shape your teen’s attitudes, thoughts, and behaviors. Understanding why teens use drugs to begin with can help you improve your teen’s resilience towards drugs and reduce their chances of addiction in the future.
Addressing Peer Pressure
Teenagers may use drugs to fit in with their peers or to impress others. For decades, peer pressure served as a crucial focal point in the discussion around teen drug use. Yet in too many cases, peer pressure is used as a central scapegoat, allowing a teen’s actions to be blamed on “a bad crowd” more than anything else. Today we know that there are many factors that influence a teen’s decision to use drugs, and their peers are just one part of the equation.
For one, a teen’s peers are often a result of their parental influences. In other words, teens are likely to pick peers that fit with their existing personalities and world view, which is shaped by their home environment – either in support of their parents, or to spite them.
Secondly, research shows that teens are more likely to act the way their parents might, than favor what their peers do. Teens look to their parents for guidance, first. If parents abdicate from their responsibility to role model for their teens or elucidate the topics of addiction and drug use, they look to their peer group.
Finally, teens experience more pressure at home than they do from their peer environments. The pressure to perform can be a major stressor that influences a teen’s decision to use drugs, whether to enhance performance (“smart drugs” and academic or athletic drug use) or serve as an outlet for stress.
This isn’t to say that peer pressure isn’t important, or that a teen’s choice of peers is entirely within the control of the parents (it is not). But it is important to point out that peers and parents play crucial roles in how teens view drugs, and their likelihood to try them, and that parents wield greater influence than they often expect.
Stress and Mental Health
Sometimes, teens turn to drugs as a way to cope with stress or to self-medicate existing and common mental health issues such as anxiety or depression.
Stress is an underrated and crucial risk factor for drug use in teens, and can include academic or athletic pressure, relationship troubles, stress at home, victimization, sexual identity, or inherent stressors, such as mental illness.
Cases of anxiety and depression can also greatly complicate addiction treatment. A co-occurring substance use disorder, or a dual diagnosis, requires a special treatment plan that addresses both conditions together.
Lack of Education and Awareness
Most teens know what booze is, or that weed gets you high, whether through movies, the Internet, older siblings, peers, or parents. But most teens might not be aware that marijuana usage, especially modern marijuana, bred for unnaturally high THC levels, can exacerbate existing or latent symptoms of schizophrenia, trigger episodes of psychosis, or cause cardiac problems, including arrythmia and heart attacks. Teens might also not know the difference synthetic and natural marijuana, and how severe the side-effects of synthetic marijuana can be.
Most teens might not be aware of the dangers of fentanyl, a common additive in street drugs due to its high potency, and the how quickly fentanyl can cause an opioid overdose.
While teens know that cocaine is a powerful and expensive stimulant and a status symbol in many circles, they might not know how often cocaine causes heart failure, or how regular cocaine use can burn the sinuses, and even cause lasting tissue damage around the nose and throat.
Finally, the snowballing effects of addiction need to be emphasized. Tolerance is one of the key characteristics of long-term drug use, and the degree and rate at which it builds differs from person to person. This can massively affect the financial impact of drug use: for some people, just a few months of cocaine use can lead to a point where amounts that used to last a full five weeks might be fully used up in a week or less.
Arm yourself with the facts. Use official sources and avoid bringing hyperbole into your arguments. Teens can often tell when they’re being lied to, and they’ll often fact-check you, if only to seize the chance to prove you wrong. When it comes to drug use, the facts are more than enough to support the argument that illegal drug use can ruin lives.
Drugs can be exciting. They’re forbidden, dangerous, and often feature in the “high life”, whether it’s through movies, TV shows, or music.
Furthermore, even if you emphasize and re-emphasize the legal, physical, and emotional consequences of illicit drug use, teens are less concerned with risk than adults are, and possess a diminished capacity to truly process the long-term impact of their actions.
If your teen has been using drugs, getting professional help is key. Treatment for teen drug abuse includes immediate detox and long-term sobriety, group support, psychological counselling, and a reintegration into sober day-to-day living.