While drug abuse and addiction can strike at any stage of life, teenagers and young adults are at particular risk for substance use.
In fact, by the time they reach eight grade, 28 percent of adolescents have consumed alcohol, 15 percent have smoked cigarettes, and 16.5 percent have smoked marijuana (1).
There are many reasons young adults are more prone to experimenting with drugs and alcohol than an adult who has, up to whatever point, gone his or her entire life without using substances. While teens experimenting with drugs and alcohol does not always lead to full-blown addiction, there is evidence showing that the risk of developing an addiction is higher among those who have a history of early substance use.
Teenagers may also make more rash decisions both about and due to their substance use. These decisions may result in long-term consequences that raise the stakes of an otherwise harmless experience.
However, it is important to keep in mind that it is unwise and unproductive to behave in a reactionary way to a teenager’s drug and alcohol use. This will only block the channels for meaningful communication and escalate tensions even when not necessary.
The key to knowing how to approach a teenager about their substance use is to understand the reasons teenagers start to use substances in the first place. Some of the more common reasons teenagers start using substances are:
The desire for social bonding is not the same as direct peer pressure. It is more subtle and fundamental to our nature than that. It stems from our basic animal need to establish interpersonal bonds and make friends. While this basic need for connection is universal, it can be amplified during the teenage years, when the struggle to figure out who we are and where we fit in manifest as insecurity. Seeing friends enjoying substances can influence us to partake in the enjoyment of substances as well, out of social camaraderie. Try encouraging your children to be involved in group activities such as clubs or sports, in which they may find a sense of acceptance and belonging.
Curiosity & boredom
The combination of youth and hormones during our teenage years can make us especially restless. We may feel both overstimulated and understimulated at the same time — sensitive and curious, yet bored and idle. Teenagers often seek out intense experiences. Drugs and alcohol can facilitate intense experiences. A teen without some sort of outlet for their restless energy can find substances tempting as a substitute for a meaningful job or hobby. Try giving your child more activities to do, supporting their interests, and encouraging their involvement in extracurricular activities.
While being a teenager is easy for no one, there is a tendency to underestimate the toll that the mental, emotional, and social pressures of being a teenager can really have. Self-esteem issues, depression, anxiety, and disordered eating are common among teenagers, but their severity may be masked by our assumption that these types of issues are “normal” for their age. Unaddressed psychological issues can lead to substance use, often with more serious consequences since the substances are being used as a coping mechanism. Try to remain aware of your teen’s overall moods and foster a healthy relationship in which he or she feels comfortable talking about their problems with you.
A certain degree of rebellion in teenagers is healthy. It is natural at their stage of development to test the boundaries of their relationship to authority figures, including parents. Ideally, teenagers would talk to their parents about their frustrations regarding their parenting choices before “acting out,” but this is not always the case. Because substance use is often prohibited by parents, teens may use drugs and alcohol as a way to push the limits of this imposed rule. This is not usually an explicit attempt to anger or embarrass their parents. Most teens will hide their substance use from their parents, unaware that they are, at least in part, trying to figure out the extent to which authority should be respected. Try not to be overprotective, excessively strict, or micromanaging of your child, giving them the space to find their independence within the context of a structure meant to support them, not smother them.
Attitudes about adulthood
Teenagers have the difficult task of navigating the awkward in-between, transitional phase between childhood and adulthood. On one hand, they want to feel grown up and able to make their own decisions. On the other hand, they feel as though they are too young to worry themselves about the future and about growing up. In other words, teenagers often overestimate their maturity and underestimate their vulnerability. Substance use addresses both a teenager’s desire to feel older than they are and a teenager’s desire to maximize their short-term enjoyment of life. Try giving your child more responsibilities and permission to partake in events and activities that they enjoy.
Overall, the most effective way to facilitate level-headed views of drugs and alcohol in teenagers is to talk to them and have them talk to you. Do not give lectures; have conversations. Educate yourself about substance use and addiction. Encourage your child to ask questions and answer them honestly and with tact. Try not to overreact or panic. Creating their sort of relationship and environment for your child can help them develop a clearer understanding of substance use and its risks.