Teen Drug And Alcohol Abuse: A Guide For Caring Parents

Over 138,000 teens and young adults were treated for drug and alcohol abuse at a specialized facility in 2010 according to statistics of the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Over 1.5 million underage persons are introduced to drugs in the United States every year, which corresponds to over 4,000 new drug users per day. Costs of emergency and non-emergency medical treatment reach billions in taxpayers’ money every year. It is easy for adolescents to access many kinds of drugs, and they are more likely to become addicted than adults because their brains aren’t fully formed. Sometimes, trying a certain drug just once is enough.

Substances Commonly Abused By Teens

Teens are often more prone to experimenting than adults. They are frequently willing to try substances they know their friends are using, making dependency on marijuana, cocaine, heroin, alcohol, or another substance more likely to occur.

Lifetime Drug Use For Grades 8, 10 And 12 Combined 2016​

Substance name​Percent of teens that have tried it at least once in their lifetime​
Alcohol 41.9%
Marijuana/Hashish ​28.6%​
E-Vaporizers ​26.6%​
Cigarettes 18.2%
Smokeless Tobacco ​10.3%
Tranquilizers 5.5%​
Hallucinogens other than LSD ​3.0%
Cocaine 2.3%
Steroids 1.3%​


Alcohol has the dubious distinction of being the substance most widely abused by teens. It decreases inhibitions and feelings of anxiety and increases comfort in social situations. It also minimizes physical tension. Contributing factors to its popularity include its wide availability in homes, its perception as low-risk because it is sold legally, and the facts teens associate it with partying.

Data of the Monitoring the Future survey in 2015 show over half of 12th graders admitted abusing alcohol that year – more specifically 58.2%. The statistics were 41.9% for 10th graders and 21.0% for 8th graders.​


Marijuana’s psychoactive chemical, delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), causes the brain to release higher amounts of a neurotransmitter called dopamine, which is linked to sensations of reward and pleasure. It’s so appealing because most teens don’t believe it is harmful. Marijuana can have the effects of a euphoric high, peace, well-being, and reduced stress.

Marijuana is the second most popular substance among teens. Its use has been increasing steadily over the past few years according to data of the Monitoring the Future survey, with 21.3% of high school seniors reporting having smoked in the past month. 6% of them smoke every day according to the same study.

Synthetic Weed

Synthetic marijuana, also known as K2 or spice, is made of shredded parts of the marijuana plant mixed with other psychotropic substances. These substances are frequently similar to THC, only more dangerous because the illegal manufacturers change their chemical composition to avoid being caught by government agencies. Due to their marketing methods and widespread availability on line, use of these substances is becoming more and more common. Teens smoking synthetic cannabis or drinking it as a tea report experiencing increased relaxation, a distorted sense of time, and changed sensory perceptions. It can, however, have negative effects, such as intense worry and anxiety, paranoia, and horrid hallucinations.

According to the MTF survey, 5.2% of high school seniors and 4.3% of high school sophomores used fake weed in the past year. ​

Prescription Drugs

Teens abuse prescription drugs very often because they are quite common, readily available at home, and seen (erroneously) as less risky than drugs like cocaine and heroin because they are sold legally.


This strong, highly addictive substance, a potent painkiller, is favored by teens because it is very widespread and offers deeply relaxing, soothing effects even for someone who is pain-free. It is the brand name for oxycodone, and has been abused by 3.7% of high school seniors in the year prior to the MTF survey. It is far from the only abused painkiller, however – 4.4% of seniors admit having used Vicodin for non-medical reasons the year before the survey.


Adderall is comprised of amphetamine and dextroamphetamine, both of which stimulate physiological functions, reduce hyperactivity, and improve concentration. This is why it is mainly prescribed for attention deficit disorder. It acts on the brain by increasing the levels of the neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine. It is generally effective and safe if taken as prescribed, and dangerous and addictive otherwise, particularly for teens. 7.5% of 12th graders took Adderall in 2015, up from 6.6% in 2014 according to results of the MTF survey. The data for 10th graders is 5.2% and 4.6% respectively, and for 8th graders – 1.0% and 1.3%. As a stimulant, this drug appeals to teens greatly. Additional factors are the perception that it is safe and the easy access to it – teens most commonly obtain this drug from friends with prescriptions for free. Moreover, Adderall is used as a study aid and to improve athletic performance because it increases energy and reduces weariness. It also reduces appetite, leading young girls to use it as a means of losing weight, and gives a euphoric high.

Other prescription medicines

Other prescription drugs widely abused by teens include morphine, tramadol, codeine and opana. They are taken orally, snorted, crushed, or injected. Adolescents commonly abuse them in combination with alcohol to intensify the effect — a combination that may prove fatal due to the combined depressant effects on the central nervous system. Like heroin and other illegal depressants, prescription drugs trigger the release of large amounts of the neurotransmitter dopamine, leading to pleasurable sensations teens (and not only) are drawn to like a magnet. Teens lack the awareness adults have with regard to the risky side effects of these substances, which makes their use quite dangerous. Many teenagers’ first contact with drugs is with pills found at home, prescribed to a relative for a severe health condition. These substances are strong and a single incidence of use can lead to addiction.

Statistics of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) show a teen who abuses prescription drugs is 40 times as likely to end up abusing heroin.​

pill on party

The Attraction to Alcohol and Drugs

There are many reasons teens can have an interest in trying drugs or alcohol. Human beings have an innate desire to experiment, and young people are very prone to this. Boredom is a common reason. Many young people find it hard to keep themselves occupied doing something constructive or can’t stand being alone, making them prime candidates for drug addiction. Addictive substances like alcohol and marijuana fill the emptiness they can feel. They give the teens something to do and help them interact with like-minded peers, forming what is perceived as a bond with a social group.

Social Influence

Some adolescents see their parents drinking, smoking, and sometimes doing drugs. Sometimes they are urged by friends to have a drink or smoke cannabis. Gradually, they start to see drug use as something normal. The media also plays a very powerful role in this. Drug and alcohol use is glorified in film and music. A young person is led to believe this is something that is not only acceptable, but indeed prestigious to do, and act accordingly.

Low Self-Esteem

Shy youths who lack confidence admit that they behave a certain way under the influence of mind-altering substances that is not “typical” of them. This includes mustering the courage to talk to a person they are sexually interested in. This is part of the appeal of alcohol and drugs even for relatively self-confident adolescents. These substances reduce inhibitions and social anxiety. Not only does the person feel like they have something in common with other people, but also finds solace in the belief that if they say or do something stupid, it will be attributed to them having drunk or smoked too much.

Where Do Teens Get Drugs And Alcohol

Teens can obtain psychotropic substances from a number of places and in a variety of ways. Some are costlier than others, but it is never hard to access alcohol and drugs. One major source is the so-called “dark web”, an encrypted subsection of the internet that cannot be accessed without specific software, but this can be obtained too. It is used for illegal drug sales among other activities.

Teens can obtain psychotropic substances from a number of places and in a variety of ways. Some are costlier than others, but it is never hard to access alcohol and drugs. One major source is the so-called “dark web”, an encrypted subsection of the internet that cannot be accessed without specific software, but this can be obtained too. It is used for illegal drug sales among other activities.

Online Pharmacies

Some online pharmacies claim to be legitimate, but they’re actually selling drugs illicitly. These are publicly accessible without special software. A lot of them are based abroad, outside the scope of US regulations. Teens order prescription drugs and get them shipped in inconspicuous packages. It’s not possible to know whether what one ordered is what they intended to order, as studies show up to 50% of these pharmacies are not selling what they claim to be. There’s also no guarantee that the dosage listed is the actual one. If the pharmacy is located abroad, does not require prescriptions, charges very low prices, and there is no doctor on staff, it is probably illegitimate.

Up to 50% of online pharmacies are not selling what they claim to be.

At Home And School

There is a good chance teens can find a number of substances in their very homes. Parents who take prescription drugs are advised to lock the cabinets they keep them in and hide the keys. The same applies to alcohol. Children over age 12 are more likely to abuse alcohol and prescription drugs than any other kind of substance. Of course, a lot of drug deals occur on school grounds, where students or young adults sell drugs to their peers. Dealers hover around schools, at parties, and at concerts, always ready for a trade and coming into contact with students regularly. Are drugs expensive? It depends on the area. If the school is in an elite, upscale area, dealers will set prices accordingly. The good news is that according to the MTF study, teens report the most-abused drugs, including marijuana, are harder to get than ever before.

Selling drugs in school

Drugs That Can Be Found At Home

Prescription Pills

Sometimes a parent will find out their teen has been stealing their medication just because more is missing than they themselves took – the teen’s behavior doesn’t reveal anything. All prescription pills available at home can be abused, including benzodiazepines like Xanax, Valium, and Klonopin, stimulant medications such as Adderall and Ritalin, barbiturates, drugs to treat insomnia, like Ambien and Lunesta, and painkillers. All of these drugs produce mind-altering effects and are highly addictive. Parents should make sure to discard or recycle any prescription pills they are no longer taking to prevent abuse, especially strong opioids like hydrocodone or oxycodone, which have been prescribed for a serious and painful, but short-term injury.


Teens can inhale household cleaning products in aerosol cans, among others. The risk is not to be underestimated because inhalants are toxic and explosive, and this type of chemical ingestion may necessitate urgent medical care and/or prove fatal. Inhalants give a quick, enjoyable high, making them quite addictive, and this type of addiction can take a relatively long time to treat because the chemicals stay in the body for extensive periods.

OTC Medication

Types of over-the-counter medication that can be abused include cough syrup, sinus decongestants, and laxatives. These products are frequently found in homes. Drinking large volumes of cough syrup can lead to feelings of euphoria and relaxation because it contains codeine. Nasal decongestants, used to relieve symptoms of seasonal allergies or flu, can act as depressants when taken in large amounts. They can also cause heart arrhythmia and paranoia. What is more, methamphetamine is made using these medications as an ingredient, which is why a teen might find them interesting.

Young girls trying to lose weight desperately are likely to abuse laxatives. Usually, laxative abuse is accompanied by bulimia, compulsive eating disorder, or anorexia. It causes dehydration to a dangerous point and loss of vital salts and minerals.


Alcohol is the most common drug found at home. Access to it is very easy as most people keep it in the fridge instead of a locked closet, as they should if there are children or teens in the house. It can also be hard to find out if a teen has been abusing it, as they won’t drink very much at first, and parents usually don’t notice. By the time they realize half the bottle somehow disappeared, it might be too late. Alcohol is addictive and its abuse potential is very high.

young woman drinking beer and smoking a cigarette

Signs Of Drug Abuse

Sometimes abuse is obvious, like in the case of the half-empty bottle. In other cases, it may be more difficult to detect. Signs of abuse include a sudden change in physical appearance, a new circle of friends, inexplicably altered eating and sleeping patterns, and a sudden, unwarranted need for money. The last sign may not necessarily be present – if the teen is buying drugs around school and lives in an impoverished area, the prices won’t be high. This is relative. The best way to know for sure is by subjecting him or her to a drug test. If they test positive, a parent might want to consider getting help.

  • Poor academic performance.
    Missing school and extracurricular activities.
    Disappearances for significant periods of time without any explanation.
    Conflicts and troubles at school.
    Participation in illegal or deviant activities.
    Rapid change of social circles or isolation.

  • Emotional instability or mood swings.
    Problems with memory and concentration.
    Periods of high and low energy
    Unexplained paranoid or anxious behavior
    Periods of drowsiness followed by periods of high energy.
    Rapid changes in personality without any reason.

  • Poor academic performance.
    Missing school and extracurricular activities.
    Disappearances for significant periods of time without any explanation.
    Conflicts and troubles at school.
    Participation in illegal or deviant activities.
    Rapid change of social circles or isolation.

  • Changes in appetite.
    Dry mouth and excessive drinking.
    Nausea, vomiting, constipation, and other stomach problems.
    Troubled sleep.
    Sudden unexplained weight loss or gain.

Not all of the signs listed above mean a teen is abusing drugs. Some of them could indicate other issues. For instance, as a child becomes a teenager, he or she often changes friends. They become interested in new things. Their way of dressing might change to match trends. This is especially true for girls. All this notwithstanding, the more signs that are present, the more likely it is that a teen is using drugs.

Possible Consequences Of Drug Abuse

As mentioned, teens and young adults are more likely to get addicted to drugs than adults because their brains aren’t fully formed. Drug abuse at a young age raises many medical and mental health concerns and impacts school performance adversely. It can also exacerbate underlying mental health issues. Teens suffering from depression are more likely to attempt suicide after beginning to abuse drugs. Drug abuse can lead to severe weight loss and health risks stemming from inadequate nutrition. When under the influence, a teen might engage in risky sexual behavior, such as casual unprotected sex.

Data of the National Survey on Drug Use and Health showed three times as many adults who abused marijuana before age 14 had a substance abuse issue or were addicted to it than those who had turned 18 before trying it​.

Crimes And Accidents

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, car crashes are the leading cause of death among young people aged 16 to 19 years. Teenagers are less experienced and are more likely to underestimate dangerous situations than adults. They are also more likely to speed. When these factors and drug use are combined, the outcome can be tragic, and often is.

A 2011 survey of junior high and high school students showed that 12 percent of high school seniors had driven after using marijuana and 9 percent had driven after drinking alcohol in the 14 days before the survey. ​

Legal Problems

According to a report of the Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality, almost half a million young adults signed up at a publicly funded treatment facility for alcohol or drug addiction or abuse in 2011. Most of them were referred by the criminal justice system – several hundred a day. The crime most commonly committed by teens abusing drugs is theft, but violent crimes are frequent too. Drug abuse can lead to truancy or even being expelled or dropping out of school because the teen has lost interest in studying.  


Opioid painkillers can be found at home, as mentioned, and more people die in the United States from opioid painkiller overdoses than from heroin and cocaine combined, including many teens. If a teen is buying drugs from an illegitimate online pharmacy, they have no way of knowing the actual dosage they have obtained, and this makes overdose a horrifyingly real possibility. Drugs sold online may be stolen, diluted, handled improperly, or contaminated. Overdose is a risk even if the online pharmacy is legal, but located abroad. Among the factors contributing to this risk are lax drug regulations in the foreign country, language barriers, and different formulas of drugs.

hands of a young woman holding pills

How To Prevent Substance Abuse In Teens?

All parents want to prevent drug abuse in their children, and it is crucial to intervene before abuse has spiraled into addiction. Here are some ways to achieve this.

  • Communicate daily
    Know the child’s plans, hopes and fears
    Get to know the teen’s friends and their parents
    Have family together activities on a regular basis

  • Talk to the child about illicit substances
    Tell them about the abuse legal consequences
    Discuss the harmful effects on health

  • Set a good example
    Show how to have fun without alcohol
    Promote healthy activities

  • Set up the clear and distinct rules for all the family members
    Enforce these rules
    Violation must not be left without adequate consequences

  • Praise children
    Help them build a self-esteem and confidence
    Appreciate their honesty
    Become the first person a child shares emotions with

  • Learn about signs of abuse, new types of drugs and drug paraphernalia
    Be aware of potentially abusive substances in the house
    Learn the street names for drugs

  • Teach the kid how to say “no” to peers
    Work out some “excuses” when someone offers a drug
    Make up an “emergency code” to know they need parent's help

  • Intelligent does not mean conscious
    Keep track of changes in behavior and mood

If a child is between 9 and 12, it is time to start teaching them how to say “no” to drugs and empower them to make a good decision. One should also preach the importance of rules, and keep conversations about drugs and alcohol fact-based. Older children will benefit from knowing about the effects of drug use on physical appearance. Don’t rely on the school to prevent drug abuse. If a teen is 16 or older, using realistic messages and emphasizing the consequences of drug abuse is recommended, such as not getting into college and not being able to obtain employment and money. One can use news reports or stories about people they both know to start a conversation related to drugs. If a child made a positive choice, make sure to praise them for it.

How To Talk To The Child About Drug Abuse​?


  • regularly explain to a child the dangers and possible side effects of substance abuse

  • answer the questions a child asks; listen to their ideas and stories.

  • point out real-life examples if they have a moral outcome and teach not to abuse drugs and alcohol

  • be there for a children when they want to talk to you

  • help a children to realize that parents are on their side and they can count on them if teens have drug or alcohol issues


  • assume a child already knows about dangers of substance abuse from school, books or mass media.

  • talk without listening or criticize the thoughts of a child without argumentation.

  • lie or hide the information on the drug and alcohol abuse, including the family stories.

  • accuse a child of using illicit substances without a proof and reason.

  • punish the children. find a qualified treatment provider instead.

Is Teen Abusing Drugs Or Alcohol?

Assuming a teen is abusing drugs is not a sufficient reason to accuse them of this. Gathering evidence first is a better idea. Common hiding places for drugs are dresser and desk drawers, small jewelry or pencil boxes, fake lipstick containers or makeup cases, backpacks, between books on a bookshelf, and even in plant pots, buried in the dirt. When one confronts them, don’t be angry or violent.
How will they react?
Expect them to be angry or accuse a parent of being hypocritical, like calling a parent out for smoking or drinking. Respond that one is an adult and they do these things responsibly. If they’ve been abusing parent’s prescription medication, make sure they understand their mom or dad have a medically legitimate reason to take it, and they don’t. Alternatively, if found to be holding drugs, they might play the innocent. No matter what they say, remain calm. If the atmosphere gets heated anyway, put it off or contact a specialist to find de-escalation techniques that work.

mother, daughter and therapist

Attainig A Desired Outcome

Things will go more smoothly where realistic expectations are present. A teen will not just admit using and promise to stop, and if they do, they may not follow through on this. Decide on a more reasonable goal, like simply expressing that one is against their use of drugs, and make sure they understand why. Reiterate the risks and dangers and give examples. If the desired outcome is not reached for whatever reason, getting professional help would be a good idea. Experts are able to diagnose the extent of abuse and whether it has spiraled into addiction. Treatment will then depend on the severity of substance abuse, and will vary in terms of duration and the methods used.

Parents’ Role During Treatment

If one chooses inpatient rehab for a teen, they will not be able to leave the facility without permission. This type of rehab offers a safe environment with a set structure. On the downside, the teen will not be able to go to school for at least a month. The best treatment facilities are licensed and accredited. It’s also important to know how often one will be communicating with the staff. Some facilities require that staff call a parent once a week. Others make contact twice a week or more often. Communicating regularly and effectively can be a great way to alleviate concern and confusion.

Group Session Participation

Parents can help during treatment by attending group sessions at teen drug rehab centers. The purpose of these is to get participants to be as honest as possible about their feelings and concerns in general, not just those related to alcohol and drugs. A parent’s inability to express him- or herself openly makes a child more vulnerable to drug abuse. If one chooses an outpatient facility for the teen, they will continue to live at home and attend therapy for a few hours a day or less depending on the center’s requirements. During therapy, the teen will be expected to share short-term plans, i.e. what they are going to do when they go home that day. As a parent, one needs to make sure they have a firm plan in place and stick to it.

Boredom is a common relapse trigger!​

After Therapy

After they complete the program successfully, it might be a good idea to enroll them in a school or community outreach program that teaches drug use prevention strategies. One could also arrange medical appointments, including drug testing at various intervals, to make sure a teen hasn’t started using again.

The Right Facility

Teen drug rehab facilities are aware of the importance of family relationships and their role in drug use prevention and recovery. A professional rehab center involves parents in the therapeutic process and will make every effort to answer their questions and alleviate their concerns, such as how rehab could affect the teen’s work at school and their academic progress in general.

The Future: Life Without Drugs?

Some teen rehab facilities provide aftercare options for former patients, which can be helpful because a child can then go back to his or her everyday life without neglecting recovery. It can take a lot of time and effort to find the right treatment center. Frequently, the first one a person may come across is not the right one. It is recommended to ask the facility to attend several treatment sessions to see how they work without making a long-term commitment, financial or otherwise. This will help save not only time and money, but also ensure the best possible results.