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Why Do Adolescents Begin Abusing Drugs?

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There’s no easy answer as to why teens start using drugs in the first place. Drug use may start for a number of reasons, including:

  • Peer pressure
  • Anxiety and stress
  • Exerting independence
  • Exposure
  • Pleasure
  • Curiosity
  • Lack of education

Whatever the reason, it’s important to know the warning signs and understand the risks your teen faces from an early introduction to dangerous substances.

Peer and Social Pressure

“Everyone is doing it”—how often have you heard your teen try to use that phrase? Especially as they navigate their adolescent years, it becomes incredibly important for many teens to “fit in” with their peers. Sometimes this influence leads to poor but eventually laughable fashion choices, and sometimes it results in far more damaging consequences.

Whether your teen falls into a crowd that uses drugs, or they merely think that it’s something the “cool kids” do, social pressure can lead them to disregard the risks of their actions and instead focus on the rewards—in this case, being liked, fitting in, or otherwise gaining social status.

Anxiety and Stress

It may feel like a lifetime ago, but no doubt you still remember the uncertainty of being a teen who’s figuring out their place in the world. From performing well in school to navigating the aforementioned social circles, to facing down an unknown future and adulthood—it’s a lot to manage.

While some teens find healthy outlets for that anxiety, others turn to outside substances to make themselves feel better. They may try stimulants to give them a mood or confidence boost, or depressants to calm their feelings of fear and stress. If your teen already has a prescription for a diagnosed condition, like ADHD, they may begin misusing their prescription that was originally intended as authorized medical treatment.

Exerting Independence

While some teens simply want to fit in, others want to stand out and live by their own standards or distinguish themselves from their peers. Turning to drugs is sometimes a way to rebel against a norm or stand out from the crowd.

Those with siblings may feel pressure to be just like their brothers or sisters; drugs might provide an outlet for a negative form of self-expression. Some teens may want to set themselves apart from drug use because they think it’s edgy. Teen drug use can even manifest as a form of rebellion against you, their parent—tired of following rules and bowing to adult authority, drugs may offer a high-stakes opportunity to push your buttons and show what little “power” you actually have over their behavior.

Whatever the root cause, teen drug use can be interpreted as a statement of independence from those who feel pushed into a specific “box” or want to otherwise differentiate themselves.

Community or Environmental Exposure

Perhaps your family is fortunate to live in an area without an obvious drug use or trafficking problem. Some communities aren’t so lucky. Where there’s wider access to readily available drugs, there’s a higher chance that teens will have either accidental or purposeful exposure. Whether it’s through lax enforcement at school of substance policies, or friends of friends who themselves misuse drugs, teens exposed to drug use can be more likely to use drugs themselves.

While you’re keeping a close eye on your teen when they’re at home, they might have little supervision outside of your influence. It’s important to solicit help and establish partnerships with other parents, neighbors, and community members to keep an eye out for each other’s children. It often takes a village to protect your teen from factors beyond your immediate control.

Performance

Academics aren’t the only area where teens feel the need to succeed—student-athletes are often under just as must pressure to perform under high stakes. Just as some adult athletes turn to performance-enhancing drugs to give them a boost, teens may feel the pressure to find outside influences that give them a leg up on their competition.

Depending on what they have access to, teens may turn to seemingly innocent over-the-counter supplements or even their parents’ prescriptions they find around the house. It’s important to be aware of the amount and locations of any prescriptions you have in your home, as well as keep an eye on changes in your teen’s behavior—both on the field or court and off of it.

Pleasure

Let’s be real—often, teens take drugs simply because it makes them feel good. The interaction between the drug and your teen’s brain creates a feeling that they enjoy and want to replicate as often as possible.

While their drug use may even begin initially as a response to some kind of emotional or physical pain, it may continue because the pleasurable effect is too powerful to give up. Indeed, this is often how many addictions begin, no matter the user’s age.

Curiosity

Sometimes, teen drug use isn’t spurred by deeper emotional causes. Instead, it’s a simple matter of wanting to test the waters. Teens might try a drug just to see what it feels like. Unfortunately, a small taste of the drug’s effects can often be enough to encourage further use. And as teens test their boundaries, they often lack the judgment and impulse control that would otherwise raise alarm bells.

Lack of Education

Seeing the prevalence of drugs and alcohol in society—on television, in movies, in songs, and in the constant commercials for every ailment under the sun—may lead teens to think that drugs simply aren’t a big deal. If everyone is talking about them, and if they’re advertised at all hours of the day, how can they be that bad?

Additionally, some teens may believe the falsity that there are “better” or less dangerous drugs that they can get away with. Marijuana, for example, is often looked at as a “harmless” substance that, at worst, will make the sleepy or hungry. The problem, though, is that drugs they think are “safer” not only have dangerous side effects that teens often overlook but can also create a false sense of confidence that leads to experimentation with more dangerous or addictive substances.

This overwhelming potential for misunderstanding highlights the importance of starting conversations with your teen early about the detrimental consequences of misusing drugs.

Is My Teen at Risk?

Drug addiction doesn’t discriminate—anyone can fall victim to a drug abuse disorder, no matter your color, creed, or economic situation. That said, there are a few factors that are more likely to influence teenage drug use. Some of the most vulnerable teens include:1

  • Those with a family history of drug abuse disorder
  • Kids with poor behavioral impulse control
  • Teens with certain mental health concerns
  • Those who have been exposed to trauma, especially violence or abuse
  • Teens who suffered prenatal exposure to drugs

Consequences of Teen Drug Use

There are a number of physical and emotional risks that your teen faces if they begin using drugs.2

  • Teen drug abuse can contribute to further health issues as an adult, including sleep disorders, abnormal blood pressure, or heart disease.
  • Because the adolescent brain is still developing, introducing drugs interferes with both physical and cognitive growth.
  • Often, teens that engage in drug use are more likely to engage in other high-risk or impulsive acts like dangerous driving or sexual behavior.
  • Drug use early in life tends to increase the chances that your teen will continue to misuse illicit substances throughout their lifetime, and potentially develop a substance use disorder.

Helping Your Teen Recover from Drug Use

You are often your child’s first line of defense against a downward spiral into drug addiction. Having honest conversations with your teen about their mental and emotional state, their pressures at school and with friends, and their understanding of the risks and consequences of drug abuse can go a long way toward preventing a lifetime of pain and damage.

It’s critical, though, that your teen feels comfortable sharing information with you without fear of punishment or reprisal, so consider offering these conversations as “consequence-free zones.” It’s more important to address current situations and mitigate future spirals than to punish your child for past transgressions.

If you end up needing help or treatment options for your teen, know that you’re not alone. Calling 800-926-9037 Who Answers? will connect you with a treatment support specialist who can explore all appropriate options to guide your teen in their recovery, including rehab and detox centers. No matter your situation, you’ll have support to get your child into the care they need.

References

  1. (2020, May 24). How do adolescents become addicted to drugs, and which factors increase risk? Retrieved January 20, 2021.
  2. Centers for Disease Control. (2020, February 10). Teen Substance Use & Risks. Retrieved January 20, 2021.

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