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Teen Substance Use: When Should Parents Worry?

teen substance use treatment in ct

Research shows that approximately half of teenagers will use drugs by the end of 12th grade. Even more, about two-thirds of teens, will drink alcohol. Because these numbers are so high, it’s easy to believe that teen substance use is normal. It’s easy to shrug off our teen’s rebellion as “just a phase.” However, is it really as normal as we want to think? Deep down, parents may wonder if they should be concerned.

If you recently discovered your teenager is drinking, vaping, or using other drugs, you may be unsure what to do. On one hand, you are worried about your child’s health. At the same time, however, you know that substance use at this age is very common. (You may have done it yourself!) But does this make it okay – or can teen substance use lead to bigger problems down the road?

Should Parents Worry About Teen Drug Use?

Substance use during the teen years can lead to more severe drug problems down the road. 90 percent of people with addiction start using substances as teenagers. This means the vast majority of addictions can be attributed to early drug use. If your teen starts using drugs now, he or she may be far more vulnerable to developing an addiction (formally known as a substance use disorder) in the future.

The reason teens are more susceptible to the effects of drug abuse, is because of their stage of development. The brain is undergoing massive changes during adolescence. The brain is pruning information, developing impulse control, and still learning how to problem-solve and anticipate consequences fully. 

As Dr. Frances Jensen of Children’s Hospital Boston explains, “Brain development is actively transpiring even in the teen brain, and [if] you throw in a drug on top of that, you could change the trajectory of brain development.”

When substances – such as alcohol and marijuana – are introduced during these teen years, it actually “primes” the brain to be more susceptible to mental health and addiction/substance use disorders. Some teens are more vulnerable to addiction than others.

How to Know if Your Teen is Vulnerable to Substance Addiction

As the National Institute on Drug Abuse points out, “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.” Experimenting with drugs creates a gateway for risky behaviors, such as driving under the influence, and can lead to dangerous side effects, like overdose.

For many teens, addiction is a risk. Risk factors that make a teen more vulnerable to addiction include:

  • Genetics (e.g. addiction in the family history)
  • Behavior issues and problems with impulse control
  • High stress or pressure to achieve 
  • Peer pressure and substance-using peers
  • History of trauma
  • Environmental factors, such as poverty, lack of parental supervision, or drug exposure at home
  • Mental health disorders, such as depression and anxiety

If your teen has experienced any of the above, it is important to be aware of the risk of substance addiction. Talk to your teen about these risk factors to help him/her stay on a healthy path. 

At What Point Should Parents Intervene?

As a parent, you may feel as though you should not intervene – your child is just having fun, this is what kids do, right? You may feel as though there is not much you can do, beyond giving the normal lecture and sending your child to his/her room. It is important to know that you can have a major influence in whether your teen uses drugs—with the right steps taken.

According to a national survey from the Center on Addiction, parents have the greatest influence on their teen’s likelihood to use drugs. Specifically, high levels of parental monitoring translate to lesser chances of a child having drug-using friends, and reduced intentions of teens to use drugs in the future.

You can influence your teen’s choices around substance use, simply by having a conversation (note: not a lecture). You can start by telling your teen how much you love them, and how much you want them to be safe. You can let your child you know that you are always there for them, no matter what, and will not judge them for telling you the truth. This can bring about an open, honest conversation around drinking, drug use, and the reasons your teen is using at all.

To learn how to talk to your teen about drugs, check out our article here.

It is never too early to start these conversations with your teenager. Some teens are using drugs as early as 12-13 years old. A large percentage will try substances by the end of high school. 

Delaying this conversation, however, can be a mistake. Left unaddressed, teen substance use can escalate into risky behaviors and outcomes, such as drunk driving, unsafe sex, violence and fighting, dangerous drug-seeking situations, and potentially overdose. If you are concerned your teen is already using drugs and you would like to find professional help, we are here for you.Turnbridge is a recognized young adult and teen drug rehab facility in Connecticut. We have dedicated programs for 14 to 17 year old teens struggling with drug problems. We also have long-term treatment programs for young men and women battling addiction. Call 877-581-1793 to learn more.