What Causes Substance Abuse in Teens and Adolescents?

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Substance use and addiction in teens and adolescents can be caused by a variety of factors, only some of which are co-occurring mental health conditions, genetic predisposition, and dysfunctional family dynamics. Heavy substance use is both the cause and effect of physical, emotional, and spiritual issues that work together in complex ways that lead to a vicious cycle of active addiction and further problems. Young people may be particularly vulnerable to substance use because their brains and bodies are still developing, and exposure to intoxicants can derail this process.

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Teen Substance Use Prevalence & Statistics

Substance use that is initiated in childhood or adolescence has been associated with significant long-term health risks. With ample research linking the age of first alcohol use to the development of alcohol misuse or dependence, early (12 to 14) to late (15 to 17) adolescence is generally regarded as a critical risk period for the beginning of alcohol use.

Furthermore, research on a variety of other substances has shown that adolescents who start using these drugs are more likely to misuse them or develop dependence than those who wait until adulthood. For example, data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health indicate that among adults who first tried marijuana at the age of 14 or younger, 13% were classified as having illicit drug dependence or misuse—six times higher than that for adults who first used marijuana at the age of 18 or older. (1)

What Are the Risk Factors That Contribute to Substance Use in Adolescents?

Just like individuals of any age, adolescents can be exposed to many risk factors that can contribute to their motivation to engage in substance use. Many of these are associated with experiences in childhood and family environments, but some are social, including peer pressure and media influence.

One of the most common reasons teens and adolescents first use drugs and alcohol is peer pressure. They may feel the need to fit in with their social group and may experiment with substances to be accepted or avoid rejection. Coupled with this, media, including movies, music, and social media, can normalize or romanticize substance use.

Teens may turn to substances as a method of self-medication or to cope with underlying mental health conditions, such as anxiety, depression, or childhood trauma. It also appears that some individuals may have a genetic predisposition to addiction. Furthermore, a propensity for impulsivity and risk- and sensation-seeking behavior seen in teens may lead them to use drugs and alcohol as a result of their desire for new and exhilarating experiences.

One final factor is the ease of availability of substances, which can increase the likelihood of engaging in substance use. For example, teens who have access to drugs or alcohol within their community, schools, or at home may be more likely to take advantage of the situation and experiment than those who do not.

Can Family Dynamics & the Environment in the Home Lead to Adolescent Drug Use?

Family dynamics are often intertwined with psychological issues and can play a significant role in the likelihood that an adolescent will engage in substance misuse. Familial factors such as parental substance use, internal conflicts, poor communication, or child maltreatment or neglect can all contribute to a teen’s susceptibility. (2) Moreover, it’s important for parents to promote a supportive, nurturing home environment and to communicate with their adolescents about the risks associated with substance use.

Warning Signs & Symptoms of Substance Use by Adolescents

It is important for parents and caregivers to be aware of the warning signs and symptoms of substance use in adolescents, as early intervention and support can help prevent further substance use and address underlying issues.

Signs & Symptoms of Teen Substance Use Include:

  • Behavioral changes, such as becoming secretive, withdrawn, or irritable.
  • Poor academic performance and school absenteeism.
  • Changes in social circles, such as other teens who appear to be using substances.
  • Neglecting responsibilities at home or school, such as chores or homework.
  • Physical symptoms, such as bloodshot eyes, dilated pupils, slurred speech, or coordination problems.
  • Changes in eating or sleeping habits, such as loss of appetite or insomnia.

Drug paraphernalia, such as pipes, rolling papers, or syringes. (3)

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The Most Common Substances Used By Teens & Young Adults

Teens use substances largely based on the culture they live in, what they see their parents and peers using, and what’s accessible to them. It should not be surprising that alcohol and marijuana are the most popular, but there are many others.

List of Commonly Used Teen Substances:

  • Alcohol.
  • Marijuana.
  • Tobacco.
  • Over-the-counter highs, such as DXM, and inhalants.
  • Prescription drugs, such as oxycodone (opioids), Xanax (anti-anxiety medication), and amphetamines (ADHD medications).
  • Heroin.
  • Cocaine and crack cocaine.
  • Methamphetamine.
  • Ecstasy or MDMA.
  • Hallucinogens, such as psilocybin and LSD.

What Impact Does Substance Use Have on Adolescent Brain Development?

Substance use can have a significant impact on the brain development of teenagers. During adolescence, the brain is still developing and is particularly vulnerable to the effects of drugs and alcohol.

Ways in Which Substance Use Can Affect the Teenage Brain Include:

  • Impaired cognitive function related to decision-making, judgment, attention, memory, and impulse control.
  • Changes in brain structure, including a decrease in the volume of the hippocampus, which is important for learning and memory.
  • Increased risk of addiction, because the brain’s reward system is still developing during adolescence and substance use can disrupt this system.
  • Long-term mental health problems, including depression, anxiety, and psychosis.
  • Impaired social development, leading to problems with relationships, communication, and social skills.

Strategies & Methods for Prevention & Early Intervention

Prevention and early intervention strategies should focus on educating adolescents and teens about the adverse consequences of substance use, developing healthy coping mechanisms, and providing access to mental health resources. Additionally, involving parents and caregivers in prevention efforts can also be effective in reducing substance use.

The Role of Schools, Education, & Community Programs

Schools and community programs can play an important role in preventing substance use among adolescents by providing education on the risks and dangers of drug use. (4) They can also offer additional activities that promote healthy behaviors, and create a supportive environment that encourages sound decision-making. By working together, parents, educators, and communities can help young people develop the skills and resilience they need to withstand peer pressure and make healthy choices.

Family & Parental Support in Prevention & Treatment of Substance Abuse

Family and parental support can play a vital role in the prevention and treatment of substance misuse in teens and adolescents, and there are many ways families can support these efforts, including the following:

  • Engaging in open communication, including discussing family rules around substance use and setting expectations for behavior.
  • Positive reinforcement and rewards for healthy behaviors, such as staying away from drugs and alcohol.
  • Monitoring teens’ whereabouts, social activities, and changes in behavior that may indicate substance use.
  • If drug or alcohol use is suspected, parents should seek professional help by talking to a school counselor, a medical professional, or a substance misuse treatment provider.
  • Supporting recovery if the adolescent has completed substance misuse treatment, including attending family therapy sessions and providing a supportive home environment.
  • Modeling healthy behaviors, including a personal avoidance of substance use and making healthy choices around diet, exercise, and activities.

Substance Use & Addiction Treatment Programs for Teens & Young Adults

There are several types of substance use treatment options available for teens and young adults. (5)

Substance Use Treatment Options for Teens Include:

  • Early intervention services.
  • Outpatient treatment.
  • Inpatient/residential treatment.
  • Individual, family, and group therapy.
  • Peer support groups.
  • Sober living homes.
  • Dual diagnosis treatment for co-occurring health disorders.
  • Aftercare planning.

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(1)https://www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/WebFiles_TEDS_SR142_AgeatInit_07-10-14/TEDS-SR142-AgeatInit-2014.pdf (2)https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4008086/ (3)https://www.justice.gov/archive/ndic/pubs6/6445/6445p.pdf (4)https://publications.aap.org/pediatrics/article/120/6/1379/70530/The-Role-of-Schools-in-Combating-Illicit-Substance?autologincheck=redirected (5)https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3166985/

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Reviewed professionally for accuracy by:

Ryan Soave


Ryan Soave brings deep experience as a Licensed Mental Health Counselor, certified trauma therapist, program developer, and research consultant for Huberman Lab at Stanford University Department of Neurobiology. Post-graduation from Wake Forest University, Ryan quickly discovered his acumen for the business world. After almost a decade of successful entrepreneurship and world traveling, he encountered a wave of personal and spiritual challenges; he felt a calling for something more. Ryan returned to school and completed his Master’s Degree in Mental Health Counseling. When he started working with those suffering from addiction and PTSD, he found his passion. He has never looked back.

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Cayla Clark

Cayla Clark grew up in Santa Barbara, CA and graduated from UCLA with a degree in playwriting. Since then she has been writing on addiction recovery and psychology full-time, and has found a home as part of the Guardian Recovery team.

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