Many people assume that experimentation with substances is just a normal part of the teenage years – a phase that most people go through on their way to adulthood. That can be true, but it isn’t always the case and can eventually lead to substance abuse.
For one thing, many teens never use substances at all in high school, which shows that drug use doesn’t have to be part of the average teen’s experience.
However, experimentation with drugs isn’t always a harmless phase.
For some teens, what starts as experimentation can put them on the path to a harmful and long-lasting substance abuse problem.
Take a look at what you need to know about teens and addiction, as well as how you can protect your teen.
The Teenage Brain
It’s important to realize that while your teenager may be starting to look and sound more like an adult, they are not yet fully developed.
And this is important when it comes to drug use because drugs don’t necessarily have the same effect on a fully developed brain as they have on a still-developing brain.
Scientists have understood for some time now that teenagers are more susceptible to addictive substances than adults are, though they haven’t always understood why.
Current research suggests that the adolescent hypersensitivity to addictive substances like cocaine and nicotine have to do with the way adolescent brains synthesize proteins.
Regardless of the reason why it’s a fact that teenagers who experiment with addictive drugs run a greater risk of becoming addicted than people who don’t experiment until they become adults.
In addition to the risk of becoming addicted, teenage drug use can also have long-term cognitive and behavioral effects. This means that it’s not necessarily safe for parents to dismiss teenage drug use as a harmless phase.
Why Do Teens Experiment?
There are many reasons that teens choose to experiment with drugs.
Understanding their reasons may give you insights that can help you prevent your teen from choosing to go down that road in the first place.
One reason that teens experiment is simple curiosity and one of the best ways to combat curiosity is with honest information.
Honesty is important because teens tend to have keen noses for exaggeration and fabrication. Trying to scare your teen with propaganda is likely to have the opposite effect. But if you give them real information both about why drugs might seem appealing and also why they’re dangerous, they will be more likely to listen.
Teens also experiment because it’s what their friends are doing.
You can call this peer pressure, but you should understand that peer pressure doesn’t necessarily look like adults sometimes think it does.
It’s often not that your teen’s friends are directly pushing them to try drugs – it may be more that your teen is being left out (or fears being left out) of social events because their friends know they don’t want to participate in drug use. Or your teen may be around friends using drugs and feel awkward or left out because they aren’t participating.
It’s important to talk to your teen about what they can do instead of using drugs and how to handle situations where people around them are using without giving in to the desire to join the crowd as well as advice on handling direct pressure.
Teens may also try drugs for some of the same reasons adults do – because they feel stressed or because they’re struggling emotionally and they need a way to escape.
Parents need to keep their eyes open for signs that their teen is struggling with things like stress, depression, and anxiety and offer ways to deal with those problems without resorting to substance use.
Teens who are struggling emotionally or experiencing a crisis may not have the language to express what they’re feeling or know what resources are available to them, so it’s up to parents to be aware.
Signs of Teen Substance Abuse
Because drug abuse can have such serious consequences for teens, it’s important for parents to be aware of the signs of teen drug use. The sooner you recognize the signs of drug use in your teen, the sooner you can intervene for your teen’s safety.
Teens who are using drugs may bring home lower grades, may lose interest in activities they previously enjoyed and may stop prioritizing their appearance and personal hygiene.
Even if your teen isn’t using drugs, these symptoms can be signs of other serious problems, like depression, so it’s important to take them seriously – a teenager who no longer seems to care about their grades, their appearance, or their usual hobbies probably needs some kind of help.
Teens who are using drugs may also:
- Behave secretively
- Flout both school and household rules
- Miss curfews
- Have bloodshot eyes
- Seem excessively tired, or
- Smell like smoke or chemicals
You may also come across drug paraphernalia in their room or among their possessions. Rolling papers, pipes, and lighters are commonly carried by teenagers who smoke marijuana, for example.
It’s not uncommon for parents to suspect drug use but fail to act.
Sometimes parents simply don’t know what to do, so they hope that the problem is temporary and goes away. But now that you know the potential risks of experimentation, you should understand why it’s important to take action.
Sometimes just asking your teen outright if they’ve tried drugs or been offered drugs recently can be enough to prompt an honest conversation.
Try to avoid becoming emotional or confrontational but make it clear to your teen that your expectation is that they will not use drugs. Ask your teen if they believe they have a substance abuse problem.
Depending on their level of drug use, they may be able to simply stop on their own, or they may require professional help.
If your teen does have a substance abuse problem, there are programs specifically for teens who are struggling with addiction disorders that can be helpful.
Taking the time to address the problem as early as possible can help prevent a lifelong struggle with addiction.
Dr. Nalin is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist, and Founder and Executive Director of Paradigm Treatment Centers, who has been a respected leader in the field of adolescent mental health for more than 20 years. He received his undergraduate degree from the University of Southern California, his Master’s degree from Loyola Marymount University, his Doctoral degree from Pacific University’s APA approved Clinical Psychology program, and completed his training at the University of California, San Diego’s APA approved psychology internship program.
Dr. Nalin has provided training and mentoring to students entering the field of psychology at institutions of learning including Pepperdine University’s Graduate School of Education and Psychology, UCSD, Pacific University, and Santa Monica College. He was also instrumental in the development of the treatment component of Los Angeles County’s first Juvenile Drug Court, which now serves as a national model.
Dr. Nalin has appeared as an expert on shows ranging from CBS News and Larry King, to CNN, The Today Show and MTV. He was also featured in an Anti-Drug Campaign for the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP).
Dr. Nalin is a Diplomate of the National Institute of Sports Professionals and a Certified Sports Psychologist as well as a Certified Chemical Dependency Intervention Specialist. He lectures and conducts workshops nationally on the issues of teen mental health, substance abuse prevention, and innovative adolescence treatment.
In 2017 Dr. Nalin was awarded The Sigmund Freud Foundation and Sigmund Freud University’s Distinguished Achievement Award in recognition of his work with youth in the field of mental health over the course of his career.