The teen brain is in the process of maturing. In general, it's more focused on rewards and taking risks than the adult brain. At the same time, teenagers push parents for greater freedom as teens begin to explore their personalities.
That can be a challenging tightrope for parents.
Teens who experiment with drugs and other substances put their health and safety at risk. The teen brain is particularly vulnerable to being rewired by substances that overload the reward circuits in the brain.
Help prevent teen drug abuse by talking to your teen about the consequences of using drugs and the importance of making healthy choices.
Why teens use or misuse drugs
Many factors can feed into teen drug use and misuse. Your teen's personality, your family's interactions, and your teen's comfort with peers are some factors linked to teen drug use.
Common risk factors for teen drug abuse include:
A family history of substance abuse.
A mental or behavioral health condition, such as depression, anxiety, or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Impulsive or risk-taking behavior.
A history of traumatic events, such as seeing or being in a car accident or experiencing abuse.
Low self-esteem or feelings of social rejection.
Teens may be more likely to try substances for the first time when hanging out in a social setting.
Alcohol and nicotine or tobacco may be some of the first, easier-to-get substances for teens. Because alcohol, nicotine, or tobacco are legal for adults, these can seem safer to try even though they aren't safe for teens.
Teens generally want to fit in with peers. So if their friends use substances, your teen might feel like they also need to. Teens also may use substances to feel more confident with peers.
If those friends are older, teens can find themselves in riskier situations than they're used to. For example, they may not have adults present, or younger teens may rely on peers for transportation.
And if they are lonely or dealing with stress, teens may use substances to distract from these feelings.
Also, teens may try substances because they are curious. They may try a substance to rebel or challenge family rules.
Some teens may feel like nothing bad could happen to them and may not be able to understand the consequences of their actions.
Consequences of teen drug abuse
Negative consequences of teen drug abuse might include:
Drug dependence. Some teens who misuse drugs are at increased risk of substance use disorder.
Poor judgment. Teenage drug use is associated with poor judgment in social and personal interactions.
Sexual activity. Drug use is associated with high-risk sexual activity, unsafe sex, and unplanned pregnancy.
Mental health disorders. Drug use can complicate or increase the risk of mental health disorders like depression and anxiety.
Impaired driving. Driving under the influence of any drug affects driving skills. It risks the driver, passengers, and others on the road.
Changes in school performance. Substance use can result in worse grades, attendance, or experience in school.
Health effects of drugs
Teens may use substances that are legal for adults, such as alcohol or tobacco. They may also use medicines prescribed to other people, such as opioids.
Or teens may order substances online that promise to help in sports competitions or promote weight loss.
In some cases, products common in homes with certain chemicals are inhaled for intoxication. Teens may also use illicit drugs such as cocaine or methamphetamine.
Drug use can result in addiction, severe impairment, illness, and death. Health risks of commonly used drugs include the following:
Cocaine. Risk of heart attack, stroke and seizures.
Ecstasy. Risk of liver failure and heart failure.
Inhalants. Risk of damage to the heart, lungs, liver, and kidneys from long-term use.
Marijuana. Risk of impairment in memory, learning, problem-solving, and concentration; risk of psychosis, such as schizophrenia, hallucination, or paranoia, later in life associated with early and frequent use. For teens who use marijuana and have a psychiatric disorder, there is a risk of depression and a higher risk of suicide.
Methamphetamine. Risk of psychotic behaviors from long-term use or high doses.
Opioids. Risk of respiratory distress or death from overdose.
Electronic cigarettes (vaping). Higher risk of smoking or marijuana use. Exposure to harmful substances similar to cigarette smoking; risk of nicotine dependence. Vaping may allow particles deep into the lungs, or flavorings may include damaging chemicals or heavy metals.
Talking about teen drug use
You'll likely have many talks with your teen about drug and alcohol use. If you are starting a conversation about substance use, choose a place where you and your teen are both comfortable. And choose a time when you're unlikely to be interrupted. That means you both will need to set aside phones.
It's also important to know when not to have a conversation.
It's best to delay the talk when parents are angry or when teens are frustrated. If you aren't prepared to answer questions, parents might tell teens that you'll talk about the topic later.
And if a teen is intoxicated, wait until the teen is sober.
To talk to your teen about drugs:
Ask your teen's views. Avoid lectures. Instead, listen to your teen's opinions and questions about drugs. Parents can assure teens they can be honest and discuss without getting in trouble.
Discuss reasons not to use drugs. Avoid scare tactics. Emphasize how drug use can affect the things that are important to your teen. Some examples might be sports performance, driving, health, or appearance.
Consider media messages. Social media, television programs, movies, and songs can make drug use seem normal or glamorous. Talk about what your teen sees and hears.
Discuss ways to resist peer pressure. Brainstorm with your teen about how to turn down offers of drugs.
Be ready to discuss your drug use. Consider how you'll respond if your teen asks about your drug use, including alcohol. If you chose not to use drugs, explain why. If you did use drugs, share what the experience taught you.
Other preventive strategies
Consider other strategies to prevent teen drug abuse:
Know your teen's activities. Pay attention to your teen's whereabouts. Find out what adult-supervised activities your teen is interested in and encourage your teen to get involved.
Establish rules and consequences. Explain your family rules, such as leaving a party where drug use occurs and not riding in a car with a driver using drugs. Work with your teen to plan to get home safely if the person driving is using substances. If your teen breaks the rules, consistently enforce consequences.
Know your teen's friends. If your teen's friends use drugs, your teen might feel pressure to experiment, too.
Keep track of prescription drugs. Take an inventory of all prescription and over-the-counter medications in your home.
Provide support. Offer praise and encouragement when your teen succeeds. A strong bond between you and your teen might help prevent your teen from using drugs.
Set a good example. If you drink, do so in moderation. Use prescription drugs as directed. Don't use illicit drugs.
Recognizing the warning signs of teen drug abuse
Be aware of possible red flags, such as:
A sudden or extreme change in friends, eating habits, sleeping patterns, physical appearance, requests for money, coordination, or school performance.
Irresponsible behavior, poor judgment, and general lack of interest.
They are breaking the rules or withdrawing from the family.
The presence of medicine containers, despite a lack of illness or drug paraphernalia in your teen's room.
Seeking help for teen drug abuse
If you suspect or know that your teen is experimenting with or misusing drugs:
Plan your action. Finding out your teen is using drugs or suspecting it can bring up strong emotions. Before talking to your teen, ensure you and anyone sharing caregiving responsibility for the teen is ready. It can help to have a goal for the conversation. It can also help determine how you'll respond to how your teen might react.
Talk to your teen. You can never step in too early. Casual drug use can turn into too much use or addiction. This can lead to accidents, legal trouble, and health problems.
Encourage honesty. Speak calmly and express that you are coming from a place of concern. Share specific details to back up your suspicion. Verify any claims your child makes.
Focus on the behavior, not the person. Emphasize that drug use is dangerous, but that doesn't mean your teen is terrible.
Check in regularly. Spend more time with your teen. Know your teen's whereabouts and ask questions about the outing when your teen returns home.
Get professional help. If you think your teen is involved in drug use, contact a healthcare provider or counselor for assistance.
It's never too soon to start talking to your teen about drug abuse.
If you or a loved one are struggling with substance abuse or addiction and need help, our non-profit offers free Clinical Evaluations and Chronic Care Management services to individuals and families who need them. Our assistance is available for adults and adolescents.
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