Substance Abuse in Adolescence

Adolescent substance abuse can negatively affect school performance, cognitive and social development, and it can have a lasting effect on the rest of one’s life if the abuse becomes habitual. It is important for parents and caretakers to catch substance abuse early in order to avoid these negative outcomes. The most common substances abused by teens are alcohol, tobacco and marijuana.


Alcohol is the most commonly abused substance reported by teens. In a recent survey almost 40% of adolescents report drinking alcohol, and about 20% report engaging in binge drinking. Binge drinking, which is having five or more drinks in two hours for males and four or more drinks in two hours for females, has a higher incidence rate among young people than adults. Teens tend to drink less often, but they consume more when they do drink. Each year about 5,000 people under the age of 21 die from alcohol-related causes including car accidents, alcohol poisoning, and acohol-related accidents such as falls and drownings.


Marijuana is the most widely used illicit drug among adolescents, and its use among teens has increased over the last decade. In a Monitoring the Future survey, 45% of American high school seniors said that they have smoked marijuana in the past, and about 22% said they had used it within the last month. Surveys show that fewer teens view marijuana as a dangerous drug. The primary danger of marijuana use is that it can lead to a neuropsychological decline with persistent use. Adolescent-onset cannabis use has been shown to lead to irrecoverable decreases in IQ later in life.


Tobacco use among teens has decreased over the last decade and a half. However, about 20% of teens report that they have smoked within the last month. Also, the use of smokeless tobacco has increased slightly in the last ten years. Long-term tobacco use primarily begins before age 18 and almost always begins before 25. It’s projected that if the current smoking trends persist, roughly 5.6 million Americans that are currently under the age of 18 will eventually die from a smoking-related illness. Smoking can have a short-term effect on a teen’s physical fitness and lung functioning. Also it can further exacerbate preexisting conditions such as asthma. However, tobacco’s most detrimental effect on health is the likelihood that the individual will continue to use it throughout their life.

Risk factors for substance abuse can include:

  • a family history of addiction,
  • depression or other mental/emotional health issues,
  • traumatic events in early life,
  • poor social coping skills,
  • history of impulsive behavior,
  • and lack of parental involvement and nurturing.

Some warning signs that a teen may be abusing alcohol or other drugs are:

  • sudden changes in behavior such as eating or sleeping habits,
  • sudden change in their social circle,
  • poor academic performance,
  • smell of smoke, alcohol, or chemicals on their clothes or in their room,
  • aggression and hostility,
  • drug paraphernalia,
  • lost of interest in hobbies,
  • secrecy about their actions,
  • and stealing money.

Substance Abuse Treatment

Important neural-circuitry development occurs during one’s teen years, and that development could be affected by habitual substance abuse. Therefore, it is critical to intervene, and possibly seek professional treatment as early as possible. If you suspect your child may have a substance abuse problem, then the first line of action should be to communicate with them. Parental engagement and communication are important in developing mental and emotional health in adolescence. Staying involved in your teen’s life can help stave off negative behavioral patterns involving drugs and alcohol before they become habitual.

Leave a Reply