Substance use among teens

Alcohol, marijuana, and tobacco are the most commonly used and abused substances by teens. In 2018, more than 60% of youth ages 12 and older in the U.S. reported using at least one type of substance in the past month and 1 in 26 adolescents had a substance use disorder in the past year.

The average age of first alcohol use is 12 and marijuana is 14. The likelihood of developing a substance use disorder is greatest for those who start using in their early teens.

The problem with teenage substance use

Many parents and teens consider experimenting with drugs and alcohol a part of growing up, despite the many risk factors and consequences involved. The fact is teens who use drugs and alcohol put their health, safety, and futures at risk. 

Most teens don’t go from trying drugs to developing an addiction. However, drug experimentation is still a problem. Teen substance use can lead to difficulties at school, cause or exacerbate physical or mental health-related issues, and negatively impact peer and family relationships.

Youth substance use has also been linked to changes in brain structure and function, increasing the risk of substance use disorders and addiction later on in life. Using drugs during this critical development period has lifelong implications. Particularly as it relates to brain function including memory, motor skills, and coordination. Teens who experiment with substances are compromising the full potential of their brains to learn, conceptualize, and prepare for college and the workplace.

Risk factors that can lead to use

There are many reasons why teens may use drugs, including the desire for new experiences, an attempt to deal with problems or perform better in school, and peer pressure. Teens are biologically programmed to seek adventure and take risks as a way to establish their own identity. 

Teens may try alcohol because they saw their parents drinking, or they may experiment with marijuana because their friends offered it to them. No matter how or why an adolescent begins using substances, addiction is a real risk. 

As adolescents transition into adulthood, risk factors for substance use and addiction change. With each stage of life, new and different circumstances can create stress and added pressure, putting your teen in jeopardy of substance use and addiction. It’s important to take the time to familiarize yourself with the risks that may push your teen toward using drugs and the risks for addiction including family history, exposure to trauma, and age of first use.

Warning signs of SUBSTANCE USE

It’s important as a parent that you remain aware of the warning signs of drug use so you can get your teen the help they need. If you’re concerned that your teen might be using drugs, below are some common warning signs to look for. It’s important to note that some of these signs on their own may be indicators of other, unrelated problems.

Behavioral changes

Changes in behavior is usually one of the first visible signs of drug use. These signs might include acting secretive, unexplained disappearances for significant periods of time, and newfound demand for privacy.

Health problems

There are many health issues that occur as a result of drug use including sudden weight loss or gain, sleep disturbances, frequent illnesses, nosebleeds, coordination problems, seizures, and shakes or tremors.

Missing items

If you're worried your teen is using drugs, you should be on the lookout for missing medications, alcohol, cash, or other valuables. These can be signs that your teen is using substances, or selling/trading items for drugs.

Psychological changes

Because many abused drugs often affect a person's mental state, personality changes are also common signs of drug use. These might include extreme highs or lows, slurred or rapid-fire speech, periods of drowsiness or being unusually loud or obnoxious.

Personal appearance

If your teen is abusing drugs, you may notice sudden or increased changes in appearance like poor hygiene, bloodshot eyes, pinpoint or dilated pupils, and unusual marks on skin or bruising.

Other signs

The more obvious signs of drug use may include smelling of alcohol, smoke or strong perfume/cologne, and finding hidden stashes of drugs or alcohol, paraphernalia or drug residue.

If you discover your teen has been drinking alcohol or using drugs, the most important thing you can do is to remain calm. Take time to learn about substance use disorders and the specific drug your teen is using. Then, have an open and direct conversation about substance abuse with your teen, making sure to keep the conversation focused on their health and safety. 

If you or your teen are struggling with mental health or substance use issues, FirstLink’s 2-1-1 helpline is available 24/7 to connect you to the services you need. Also, be sure to check out our Crisis Roadmap to learn about other community resources available to support you and your family.