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Is Experimenting with Drugs Normal, or Should I Be Concerned?

teen experimenting with drugs

Many young people believe that trying drugs once or twice, at a young age, is not a “big deal.” Everyone is doing, right? As a parent, you may not know what to think or how to react when you find out your teen has tried an illicit drug or drank alcohol underage. You may remember back to when you were a teen yourself, and experimented with drinking and smoking. You may see other parents not making a stink about their child’s experimentation – But does this make it okay? Is experimenting with drugs normal, and even a rite of passage, in adolescence?

While your son or daughter might tell you that it’s normal to try drugs at their age, this does not make it any less of a concern. Even the occasional binge drinking at a party, or the smoking weed with friends, can come with great risk. Experimentation is always the first stage of a substance abuse problem. It can also lead to other dangerous behaviors and health risks.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, “Most teens do not escalate from trying drugs to developing an addiction or other substance use disorder; however, even experimenting with drugs is a problem. Drug use can be part of a pattern of risky behavior including unsafe sex, driving while intoxicated, or other hazardous, unsupervised activities. And in cases when a teen does develop a pattern of repeated use, it can pose serious social and health risks.”

If your teen is experimenting with drugs, it’s important not to overlook it and accept it as the norm. While it’s true that most teenagers will try drugs in high school, this does not make it okay. Below, we detail the topic of drug experimentation – what it is, when it happens, and the risks involved.

What is Drug Experimentation?

Experimentation implies that a person has chosen to try drugs or alcohol, usually for the first time. They may be curious about the effects of substance use, or try drugs to fit in with a group of peers. In the stage of experimentation, drug use is infrequent. For teens, drugs and alcohol are less accessible at this age, or due to parental supervision, there is less time to use. Teens usually obtain substances from friends or close connections, and are used (i.e. experimented with) in a social setting.

Experimentation with drugs is voluntary and, in many cases, teens are able to stop using by themselves. Others, however, progress into regular drug use. Those who enter this next stage are typically those people who tried drugs to feel better or to resolve their problems. 

Why Do Teens Experiment with Drugs?

Some of the top reasons a teen may experiment with drugs include:

  • Boredom and seeking pleasurable experiences
  • Social pressure, either to fit in or bond with friends
  • A “fear of missing out,” a feeling that it’s “now or never,” and that they must try drugs while they’re still young
  • Curiosity, wondering about the positive effects of drugs
  • Issues with stress or mental health, such as depression and low self-esteem
  • Other potential enhancements, such as weight loss or more focus at school

As noted above, when teens use drugs to feel better, such as to relieve stress, lose weight, or deal with mental health issues, that is when substance addiction becomes a greater risk down the line.

When Do Teens Experiment with Drugs?

Research shows that drug use often starts in the teenage years. According to a 2019 survey, almost 50 percent of teens have already tried an illicit drug by their high school graduation. The typical age of experimentation varies by drug, with alcohol and marijuana use being the most common in these early years. One study reports that the average age of alcohol initiation is around 15 years old, while the average age of first marijuana experimentation is about 16 years old. 

For teenagers, the first time using drugs usually happens in the summertime, when there is less responsibility and less parental supervision. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, teens and full-time college students are most likely to try substances for the first time during June or July, when school lets out and vacation begins.

Why is Experimenting with Drugs Risky?

Despite the frequency of drug use during the teen years, there are still great risks involved. Science shows that the younger you are when you start experimenting with drugs, the more likely you are to get addicted later in life. This is due to the make-up of the adolescent brain.

During the teen and early young adult years, the brain is not fully developed. It is still undergoing dynamic changes – learning new experiences and pruning back old, less important ones – which will ultimately shape the person’s cognition as they age. When drugs and alcohol are introduced before age 25, they can interrupt the brain’s development, change its chemical make-up, and leave long-lasting consequences such as memory impairment. During this time, the brain is also more likely to “learn” and “rely on” the pleasurable effects of drugs, which makes addiction more likely. 

Expert resources show that almost 70 percent of adolescents who misuse drugs before age 13 will develop a substance use disorder (i.e. addiction) within seven years. 1 in 4 people who begin using drugs or alcohol before the age of 18 will also develop an addiction later in life. 

Drug addiction is a major risk, but it is not the only one. Other risks of early drug abuse include:

  • Academic failure, or school drop-outs
  • Problems with family and friendships
  • Loss of interest in normal, healthy activities
  • Impaired memory
  • Increased risk of contracting an infectious disease (like HIV or hepatitis C)
  • Mental health problems—including depression, anxiety, psychosis, and substance use disorders of varying severity
  • The very real risk of a fatal overdose

What Should I Do If My Son or Daughter is Experimenting with Drugs?

If your son or daughter is experimenting with drugs, it is important to first have a conversation. Teenagers and even young adults do not always recognize the risks of substance abuse. Due to their stage of brain development, they often act on impulse and are not always able to see the long-term consequences that can result from drug abuse. Talk to your teen about the dangers of drugs and alcohol at this age. Encourage your teen to be open and honest with you about his/her experiences with drugs. Let your child know that you’ll always be a call away, and available to pick them up safely, no questions asked. Maintain understanding and empathy towards your child’s drug experimentation, yet also be sure to set boundaries and consequences. You may also consider talking to your child’s friends and their parents, to develop consistent expectations. 

We also recommend visiting the following articles for advice about addressing teen drug use:

Turnbridge is a drug treatment center for adolescents and young adults battling addiction and other co-occurring disorders. If your loved one has progressed from experimentation to drug abuse or addiction, know that it is never too early to seek help. You can protect your child from a long and windy road ahead, by getting professional advice now. Call 877-581-1793 to learn about our programs.