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Teenage Drug Abuse

Many parents fear nothing more than losing a child to drug abuse.

The public service organization SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions) reports that approximately 28 million Americans over the age of 11 used illegal drugs in 2008. In 2009, the number of teens between the ages of 12 and 17 who had used illicit drugs in the past month rose from 9.3 percent to 10 percent.  With so many teens trying drugs on an occasional or regular basis, a lot of parents feel that they’ve lost control over their children’s futures.

Which Drugs Are Commonly Abused by Teens?

Illegal drugs may seem like the biggest threat to teens, but in fact, teenagers abuse both legal and illegal substances. According to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, the most commonly abused illegal drugs include:

  • Marijuana
  • Stimulants like meth and cocaine
  • Hallucinogenic drugs like LSD, PCP and Ecstasy
  • Heroin and other opiates

The most widely abused legal drugs among adolescents include:

  • Alcohol
  • Prescription drugs
  • Over-the-counter medications, like cough syrup, anti-allergy medications, caffeine pills or laxatives
  • Inhalants like solvent, glue or paint fumes

Some of these drugs, like alcohol, heroin, cocaine, marijuana and prescription painkillers, have a higher potential for abuse and addiction than others, but all of these substances are dangerous to developing teens and may lead to destructive, addictive behavior.

What Makes Teens Vulnerable to Drug Abuse?

Adolescence is a time to try new experiences, take risks and explore new identities. While all of these developmental changes can lead teens in a positive direction, they can also lead to drug abuse if a teenager falls in with the wrong crowd, has a difficult home life or is a victim of trauma. Today many teenagers have easy access to drugs and alcohol, and experimenting with chemical substances doesn’t necessarily mean that a teenager will turn into an addict. However, parents should be alert to the possibility that if a teen’s behavior or personality suddenly changes, drugs may be involved.

How Do You Know if Your Teen Is Using?

The Partnership at Drugfree.org encourages parents to get to know the red flags of drug use in teenagers. Early intervention may keep recreational drug use from turning into dependence and addiction.

  • Changes in behavior. Teens who are abusing drugs may become uncharacteristically angry, secretive, sullen or isolated. They may have dramatic mood swings and laugh for no reason.
  • Changes in physical health. Drug abuse or drug withdrawal can cause weight fluctuations, sores on the skin, nausea and vomiting, sweating, headaches and seizures.
  • Changes in appearance. Reddened eyes, poor grooming, unusual odors, new skin problems and bad breath may be signs of drug or alcohol abuse.
  • Changes around the home. Your teenager may be abusing drugs if you notice that cash is frequently missing from your wallet or prescription drugs are missing from your medicine cabinet. You may notice unusual wrappers, containers or tools in your teenager’s room.

There are a lot of risk factors that can make a teenager vulnerable to the influence of drugs. Understanding these risk factors may help you create an environment that encourages healthy, self-affirming behaviors and discourages drug abuse:

  • Mental disorders. Teenagers who suffer from anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia may use drugs to control their symptoms.
  • Low self-esteem. If a teenager feels a strong need to fit in with peers in order to reinforce a low sense of self-worth, he’s more likely to take drugs.
  • Lack of education about drugs. Because there’s so much anti-drug publicity in the media, parents may assume that teenagers understand the consequences of substance abuse. In fact, teens need to be educated by parents and teachers about the specific risks of drugs.
  • Problems at school. Kids who have learning disabilities, poor impulse control or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) may have a higher risk of drug abuse.
  • Problems at home. Abuse of any kind — sexual, physical, verbal — and substance abuse by parents are huge risk factors for drug abuse among teens. Teenagers whose parents provide minimal supervision, fail to set rules and don’t express concern for a teenager’s welfare are more likely to experiment with drugs.

Why Is Drug Abuse So Risky for Adolescents?

Recent clinical research indicates that drug abuse may be more harmful to the brain in adolescents than in adults.

The medical community used to believe that brain development ended at childhood, but new studies indicate that the brain continues to develop into your 20s, according to the Mentor Foundation. During the teenage years, the brain’s prefrontal cortex — which controls learning, memory, reasoning, planning and decision-making — is not fully developed. The lack of impulse control and decision-making skills makes adolescents more prone to risk-taking behavior, like substance abuse, smoking and unprotected sex. It also makes the adolescent brain more vulnerable to the damage caused by alcohol and other drugs.

The effects of alcohol and drugs on the teenage brain may be long-lasting. While it’s clear that marijuana, liquor, opioid pain relievers and meth can affect the way you act, think and remember things in the short term, drug abuse may affect adolescents over the long term, as well. The U.S. Department of Justice reports that teenagers who abuse drugs may have long-term problems with learning and memory, as well as a higher risk of developing mental disorders like depression, anxiety and personality disorders.

Drugs can increase a teenager’s risk of disease and injury. Teens who are intoxicated are more likely to share needles and have unprotected sex, which can lead to diseases like hepatitis, HIV/AIDS, chlamydia and gonorrhea. Teenagers who are using drugs also have a high risk of accidental injuries, altercations, car crashes and suicides. When you combine a teenager’s tendency to take risks with the dangers of drug and alcohol abuse, you have a very dangerous cocktail.

Can I Protect My Teen From Drugs and Alcohol?

The influences of society, the media and teenage peers are so strong that many parents wonder if there’s any way to keep their teens off drugs. Maintaining a strong, nurturing family environment may be one of the most effective ways to prevent teenage drug abuse, according to the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA Columbia). CASA Columbia reports that:

  • Young adults who turn 21 without having abused drugs or alcohol are less likely to engage in this behavior in the future.
  • Teenagers who have frequent dinners with their families may be twice as likely to reject drugs.
  • Teens who have never seen their parents under the influence of alcohol or drugs are more than twice as likely not to have been intoxicated within the same month.
  • Seventy percent of kids and teens who are abused have parents who abuse drugs or alcohol.

How do you keep your teenagers from abusing drugs and alcohol without locking them in their bedrooms until the age of 21? Parents can reduce the risk of teenage drug abuse by:

  • Setting a good example by staying clean and sober
  • Establishing rules for your teen and communicating your expectations clearly
  • Having at least one meal a day with the entire family present
  • Making time to talk with teenagers regularly to check in with their feelings, activities and behaviors
  • Getting to know a teenager’s friends and their parents
  • Communicating with teachers and school counselors on an ongoing basis
  • Participating in community activities that keep schools and neighborhoods safe for teenagers
  • Attending your teen’s school activities and showing support for her interests
  • Letting your teenager know every day that you love him and care about his future

What Kind of Addiction Treatment Is Available for Teens?

Addiction treatment for teens should address the developmental, psychosocial and mental health issues that affect this age group.

Teenagers who have a problem with drug abuse should have a complete evaluation by a doctor and a mental health professional. It’s not unusual for teenagers who have the first signs of depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder or obsessive-compulsive disorder to self-medicate with drugs or alcohol because they don’t understand their symptoms. Teenagers who have a dual diagnosis of mental illness and a substance use disorder may need psychotherapeutic medication as well as addiction treatment in the best inpatient addiction treatment facility.

Family education and counseling are crucial components of a treatment program for teenagers, especially in homes where one or more adults have a problem with drugs or alcohol. In some households, the adults may not be aware of the dangers of drugs to teenagers or to themselves. In some families, there’s a lot of concern for a teenager’s welfare, but the adults lack the parenting skills to set limits, establish rules or monitor behavior effectively.

Group therapy and behavioral modification are essential for teens in rehabilitation. For teenagers, the opinions and advice of peers are extremely important. Working in a group with other teens who are struggling with the same issues may help teens learn how to handle the stresses of daily life and build new coping skills.