October 1, 2021

Is Substance Use “Normal” Teen Behavior?

Many parents ask themselves this question because they suspect that their child is using drugs or alcohol. They want to understand common teen risk behaviors and their consequences. Why do young adults experiment, and what are the dangers of experimenting with drugs and alcohol while the brain is still developing?

Substance Use and Your Teen’s Brain

teen girl's head near a blackboard with a colorful brain sketch drawn on top of formulae.

High school students can be moody, crave independence, and want to spend more time with their friends than their family. By themselves, all of these can be part of normal development. Under the influence of peer pressure, boredom, stress, or simple curiosity, many teenagers experiment with drugs and alcohol.

Teenagers are considered to be biologically wired to try new things and engage in risky behavior, and these are normal developmental drives intended to help them establish their own identity and learn about actions and consequences. During adolescence the brain is still developing, and some areas are more mature than others.

During the teen years the prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain that is used to make decisions and control impulses, is still immature. However, the reward centers of the brain are already fully functional, leaving teens with motivation to pursue pleasurable or exciting sensations but with difficulty predicting the consequences and dangers of those behaviors.1

Why Do Teens Use Drugs and Alcohol?

Young people dancing on summer time vacation - Music, fun, entertainment concept

Teenagers in the United States often have easy access to substances, and they may perceive some substances to be essentially harmless or non-addictive. It is true that some teens use substances for recreational purposes, only, and do not develop an addiction from limited social use.

It is difficult, however, for teenagers to foresee that their substance use can contribute to unintentional injuries, diseases or mental health issues. The intoxicating effects of substances can further reduce their ability to make good decisions, leading to a series of risky behaviors that can contribute to serious and even life-threatening consequences for young people.

Young people most often report that they use substances for these reasons:

● Fitting in or being accepted
● Socializing and feeling uninhibited
● Relieving the stress of life transitions
● Dealing with emotional pain or trauma

The Risks of Experimenting Can be Serious

teenager girl in depression drinking alcohol.

Casual or limited use of substances is not harmless for young people. Not only will some of these young people develop an addiction that drives them to use larger quantities more often, but they are also at increased risk for accidents, memory or learning issues, sleep disorders, lessened physical activity, depression, and later health problems including stroke, cancer, or heart disease.2

Those are some reasons not to consider experimenting with substance use as part of normal teen development. While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that as many as half of high school students report having tried or used an addictive substance, this also means that half or more teenagers navigate this stage of life without using drugs, cigarettes, smokeless tobacco, or drinking alcohol.3

How to Help a Teen Avoid Substance Abuse

Multi generation family hands together on a heap

So what can parents do to determine if their teenager needs help with a substance use disorder? If talking to your teenager about the risks isn’t working, risky behaviors are increasing, or a young person says they want to quit but cannot, you may want to seek professional help.

At Teensavers, our program is specifically designed with the needs of teenagers in mind. With our four-phase approach, you can help your teen get access to the resources and treatment that is most appropriate to their level of substance use.

● Assessment and intervention. This phase determines the type and severity of the problem, and it can involve a non-threatening intervention led by one of our specialists. Approximately 96% of the time, these empowering interventions convince the young person to participate in treatment.
● Detoxification and stabilization. This phase allows for residential treatment and medical supervision during detox. Medications are available by prescription to help reduce cravings and make it easier to avoid substance use.
● Residential or day treatment. Commonly called inpatient or outpatient treatment, these programs focus on individual and group therapy, as well as community involvement, exercise, and supplemental therapy for any complicating medical or mental health issues.
● Continuing care. In this phase, the solid foundation built for recovery is supported by outpatient treatment for another 30-90 days or as long as the adolescent needs continuing therapy and community support.

The Best Treatments for Teen Substance Abuse

Troubled teen girl at therapy session

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) states that the best treatment programs for substance use disorders, as well as emotional and behavioral issues, are tailored to the needs of each individual. At Teensavers, we embrace this vision and provide a comprehensive and individualized approach to addiction treatment for teenagers. To find out more about how Teensavers can help young people heal from the causes and impacts of substance use, contact us today.


1. https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/principles-adolescent-substance-use-disorder-treatment-research-based-guide/introduction
2. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/where-science-meets-the-steps/201310/teen-drug-use-phase-or-growing-addict
3. https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/fasd/features/teen-substance-use.html

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