Substance use disorder, the clinical diagnosis for drug addiction, is a serious condition that can affect not only adults, but also teenagers and young adults as well.
While drug experimentation in adolescence is common, in some cases, this can develop into a dangerous problem with lasting effects on development, physical health, and cognition.
Knowing the signs of teen addiction, as well as available treatment options, can help family members of addicted teens find treatment sooner, to help avoid a lifelong problem.
Understanding Teen Substance Abuse
Teen substance abuse is a complex health condition that is different from drug experimentation, although the two may not always be mutually exclusive.
Substance abuse, also known as misuse, is a pattern of misusing drugs or alcohol that can often have negative consequences on health, ability to function, and happiness.
Examples of this include:
- underage drinking
- binge drinking
- excessive prescription drug use
- crushing and snorting pills
- illicit drug use
- taking pills from a family member’s prescription
Addiction is a chronic disorder that develops over time. This is characterized by a compulsive need to use substances, or engage in substance use behaviors, despite negative consequences.
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Common Drugs Of Abuse Among Teens
According to research from the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), there are certain types of drugs that are more commonly abused by teenagers in the U.S. than others.
Common drugs of abuse among teens include:
- prescription stimulants (e.g. amphetamine)
- prescription painkillers (e.g. opioids)
In some cases, the type of drug abused by a teen may depend on their drug access. For instance, if they have access to a drug because of a family member’s prescription.
Ease of access to drugs is a common risk factor for addiction among teens, who are more susceptible to drug experimentation and risky behaviors involving drugs and alcohol.
What Help Is Available For Teen Substance Abuse?
Your teen child or loved one has a substance abuse problem. What next?
While many drug and alcohol treatment options in the U.S. are designed specifically for adults, there do exist a number of treatment options for teenagers who abuse drugs or alcohol.
Addiction treatment options for teen drug abuse include:
Teen Drug And Alcohol Rehab
Some treatment centers in the United States offer teen-specific rehab programs for adolescents under 18 who are struggling with a drug or alcohol use disorder.
Rehab programs for teens can offer treatment services specifically designed and proven to be most effective for teens who have developed a drug problem.
Treatment services might include:
- medical detox
- behavioral therapy
- group therapy
- family counseling
- medication management
- skills learning groups
- expressive therapies (e.g. art, music, dance)
- adventure therapy
- aftercare planning
Substance Abuse Prevention Programs
Drug abuse prevention programs can sometimes be helpful for teenagers who are at risk for substance abuse, but who may not necessarily have a problem just yet.
Prevention programs may offer:
- drug education
- youth activities
- self-help groups
- skills learning
- family counseling
- behavioral therapy
Substance abuse prevention programs are often offered on a community level, and may be available through schools, community centers, or a county health department.
Mild substance abuse issues can sometimes be addressed on an outpatient level through individual or group counseling, particularly if the problem is caught early on.
Outpatient counseling can offer teens a chance to talk through their substance use, as well as a venue to process emotions, and identify more supportive strategies for dealing with life stressors.
A family-based approach to drug and alcohol abuse can be particularly helpful for families of teens who are abusing drugs or alcohol. For instance, with family therapy.
Family therapy, also known as family counseling, can help families improve communication, set clear boundaries in the home, and come together to find a holistic path towards healing.
Signs And Symptoms Of Teen Drug Abuse
Teens who are abusing drugs may exhibit certain signs and symptoms that family members of teens can look out for to detect potential drug abuse.
Physical signs of teen drug abuse might include:
- bloodshot eyes
- unusual changes in weight
- disheveled appearance
- frequent tiredness
- changes in diet or sleep habits
- poor personal hygiene
- troubles with balance or coordination
Behavioral signs of teen drug abuse include:
- missing school
- worsened academic performance
- hanging out with a new friend group
- acting hostile or defensive
- spending more time alone
- avoiding eye contact
- breaking rules
- relationship problems with friends or family
Emotional and cognitive effects of teen drug abuse:
- difficulty concentrating
- memory problems
- loss of interest in activities
- anger or aggression
- unusual mood swings
- low self-esteem
For parents, it’s important to note that some signs of drug abuse can also be indicative of other problems. For example, bullying, or a mental health disorder such as depression.
The best way to determine whether a teen has a drug or alcohol problem is to consult a healthcare professional, such as a family doctor, addiction specialist, or psychiatrist.
How To Confront A Teen Suspected Of Drug Abuse
Confronting a teen about suspected drug or alcohol abuse can be a sensitive matter, particularly for parents or other guardians.
While you want to ensure you can get them help, if needed, you also don’t want to make the mistake of accidentally pushing them away or making them feel cornered.
Tips for confronting a teen about their substance use include:
- Find a quiet, private place to talk.
- Voice your suspicions without making accusations.
- Be specific and honest about your concerns.
- Prepare for denial or defensiveness.
- Ask them how they are feeling.
- Allow them to have their say.
- Offer a game plan for moving forward (e.g. talking to a doctor).
What to avoid when confronting a teen:
- accusing them of drug abuse
- getting angry
- making threats
- talking to them when they’re upset
- setting unrealistic goals
- cutting them off from positive support
For many parents, it can be helpful to seek out guidance from a professional. For instance, a family doctor, or a counselor who’s specialized in treating teen addiction.
Is My Teen At Risk For Drug Abuse?
Families can help prevent and identify drug addiction by understanding common risk factors for teen substance use disorders. That is, factors that are commonly associated with teen drug abuse.
Risk factors for teen drug abuse include:
- family history of addiction
- using drugs or alcohol at a young age
- access to drugs
- struggles with mental health
- history of trauma
- domestic violence
- low self-esteem
- social rejection
What Causes Teen Substance Abuse?
Adolescents can be at a heightened risk for drug and alcohol abuse in part because their brains are still developing. This can make them more likely to engage in risky or impulsive behavior.
In addition, drugs can also become a way for a teen to manage difficulties they’re experiencing in their daily life.
- stress at school
- problems in the home
- body image issues
- past abuse
- sexuality/gender identity issues
- relationship problems
Frequent drug experimentation, as well as social pressure, a lack of positive coping skills, or difficulty with emotional regulation can also influence substance use habits.
What causes a teen to abuse drugs is personal and can be different from one teen to the next.
Find Addiction Treatment For Teens Today
Getting help for a drug problem early on can help prevent a cycle of addiction later in a teen’s life.
If you’re ready to find addiction treatment options for a teen you know, one of our addiction treatment specialists may be able to help.
Call our free and confidential helpline today to learn more about teen drug abuse and how to find the best treatment program for yourself, a friend, or a family member.
Published on November 3, 2021
Addiction Resource aims to provide only the most current, accurate information in regards to addiction and addiction treatment, which means we only reference the most credible sources available.
These include peer-reviewed journals, government entities and academic institutions, and leaders in addiction healthcare and advocacy. Learn more about how we safeguard our content by viewing our editorial policy.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) — Teen Substance Use & Risks
- Partnership to End Addiction — Prepare to Take Action if You Suspect Teen or Young Adult Drug Use
- U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA): Get Smart About Drugs — Talking to Your Child When You Suspect Drug Use
- U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) — Principles of Adolescent Substance Use Disorder Treatment: A Research Guide
- U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) — Step by Step Guides to Finding Treatment for Drug Use Disorders