Substance Use and Abuse in Adolescents

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Harvard Medical School
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Substance Use and Abuse in Adolescents

Guiding Your Child Through The Adolescent Years
Injury and Illness Prevention
Substance Use and Abuse in Adolescents
Substance Use and Abuse in Adolescents
Learn about substance use and abuse to help keep your child safe.
InteliHealth Medical Content
Reviewed by the Faculty of Harvard Medical School

Substance Use and Abuse in Adolescents

Unfortunately, substances of abuse, particularly alcohol, are used and felt to be socially acceptable by many in our society. Teens are surrounded by images of alcohol and other drugs — in movies, TV shows and magazines; on billboards; in song lyrics; and on promotional items such as T-shirts, hats and backpacks. Advertisements try to sell these types of products by making it look like people who use them are popular, beautiful or wealthy. It is no surprise that what teens see and hear influences them, and many try alcohol or drugs during their adolescent years, if not before.

Teens may be willing to try anything, from alcohol or marijuana to more dangerous substances like ecstasy or cocaine, for any number of reasons. Some teens are very curious as they transition into adulthood; experimentation with drugs during the teen years is quite common. Some do it to feel good, to relax, to try to fit in with their peers, or just to make themselves feel older. It is best to talk with your teen before they try these substances and give them the facts, so that they can make the right decision and say no to drugs.

The most common substance that teens try is alcohol and the age at which they first try it may astonish you. Did you know that the average American girl has her first drink at age 13, while the average American boy has his first drink at age 11? Did you also know that 72% of high-school seniors have used alcohol? Although these numbers may not sound right to you, in fact, they are true.

So what can you do as a parent? You can help your teen learn the real truth about substance use and abuse. This is best accomplished if you talk with your child about drugs and alcohol as early and as often as possible, well before they are influenced by the images mentioned above. These images only give them a small part of a larger picture and you need to show them the rest of the picture. Give them the facts and teach them about the real dangers of alcohol and drug use.

Let your teen know that trying alcohol before age 21 or trying any illegal drug is just that, illegal. They are breaking the law, when they drink alcohol or take drugs. Remind them regularly about the consequences, if they do. Let them know that alcohol and drugs are really not "cool" and they usually will pay for their behavior the next day. Being hungover from alcohol or drugs is very unpleasant. They will feel like they have the flu, with a pounding headache, intense thirst, nausea, blurry vision, shakiness and more.

Make sure your teen understands that drinking or taking drugs can affect his plans for the future. Using alcohol or other drugs can make it difficult to do well in school and at sports. It could ruin his chances of making varsity sports or getting into college or getting a job after graduation.

Alcohol and drugs also can make teens do things they normally would not do, including high-risk behaviors. Teens who drink and do drugs are much more likely to run into problems with the law. They also are more likely to be sexually active and to have unsafe sex, leading to surprise pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases. Finally, clearly explain to your teen that alcohol and drugs definitely can lead to addiction and possibly even death.

Remind your teen that a friend who pressures him into drinking alcohol or doing drugs is not a "friend." True friends would never pressure someone into doing something they did not want to do. If your teen's friends are drinking alcohol or taking drugs, he should find other friends to hang out with. Tell your teen that you understand peer pressure is hard and that all teens want to "fit in" (be accepted by peers), but fitting in does not have to mean drinking alcohol or doing drugs. Role-play with your teen to prepare him to deal with this type of peer pressure. Pretend to be a classmate or friend offering your teen a drink and let him practice different responses. Tell him that if he feels pressured, it is OK to use you as an excuse. He can tell his friends "my parents would kill me if I drank" or "I already got in trouble for that before." This may make it easier for your teen to say NO.

Despite your best efforts, your teen still may try alcohol or drugs. Make sure you let him know that if he does experiment, he should only try one thing at a time, as it is even more dangerous to mix substances. Teens who mix alcohol and drugs are much more likely to get seriously ill or even die of the combination. If your teen is ever in a situation where he or a friend has had too much to drink, tell him to absolutely never, under any circumstances, get behind the wheel of a car. Let your teen know that you are always available to pick him up, if he cannot get home safely. Tell your teen that you would rather have him break curfew than take a ride home with someone who has been drinking.

Teens, like adults, can become addicted to drugs and alcohol, and you should learn the signs of a possible alcohol or drug problem. By identifying a problem early, you can help your teen get the proper support to overcome this problem. Ask yourself the following questions about your teen:

  • Has your teen lost interest in school, sports or hobbies that used to be important to him?
  • Has your teen’s grades slipped?
  • Has your teen been skipping school?
  • Does your teen hang out with kids that drink or take drugs?
  • Does your teen have terrible mood swings or symptoms of depression?
  • Has your teen lost weight or been having trouble sleeping?
  • Does your teen steal money from you?

If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then your teen may have an alcohol or drug problem. You need to deal with this immediately. Ask your teen directly if he is involved in any way with drugs or alcohol. Try to do this in a nonjudgmental way, without arguing. If your teen tells you he is not drinking alcohol or doing drugs, but you still are concerned, talk with his pediatrician or guidance counselor at school right away for advice.

Make sure that you are setting a good example for your teen. It is best if your teen is not exposed to alcohol or drugs at home. While this does not mean that you cannot have a glass of wine or beer with dinner, it does mean that you should not drink to excess at home or come home from a night out drunk. You should never allow drugs to be in your home. If you feel that you may have a problem with alcohol or drugs, you need to get help for yourself. You cannot expect your teen to not drink or not do drugs if you are engaging in this type of behavior. Kids learn by example.

It is most important that you talk with your child early and often about the dangers of alcohol and drug use! Talking with him once or twice is not enough. Use any and every opportunity to do so. Do not worry that you will "put ideas into his head." If you do not talk with your teen, he will learn about drugs and alcohol from the world around him. Keep the lines of communication open so that your teen feels comfortable coming to you. He would much rather learn from you, his favorite, most-trusted and best teacher. Let him know of other resources he can use for help, such as talking confidentially with his pediatrician, school guidance counselor, or older sibling Get to your teen first, before alcohol and drugs get to him.

alcohol,abuse,drug,drug use,pediatrician
Last updated June 10, 2014

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