Teen Substance Abuse:
A Guide for Parents

This comprehensive parent’s guide to teen substance abuse and treatment will help you understand why your teen may need expert help to overcome these challenges.

Get Help Now

Understanding Teen Substance Abuse

Young people who try substances like tobacco, alcohol, or drugs may not always become addicted, or start to abuse these substances. But due to the way a teenager’s brain develops, teen substance abuse is all too common.

When teen drug use leads to cravings, withdrawal, or an inability to stop despite obvious negative consequences, it can rightfully be classified as addiction. Teen addictions can have long-term consequences to intellectual and social development, as well as physical and mental health.

depressed man

Why Do Teens Use Alcohol and Drugs?

The reasons given for the use of alcohol and drugs among teens include:

  • A desire to fit in with friends or a social group
  • A belief that substance use makes them more like grown-ups
  • They like the physical and mental effects, and do not recognize the dangers
  • Because it is exciting, a sign of the natural risk-taking tendencies of teenagers

Family members who also suffer from substance use disorders can make teens more likely to become addicted, through environmental influence and ease of access. Many teens who suffer from mental health challenges like depression or anxiety also turn to substances in a misguided attempt at self-medication.

Substance abuse treatment for teens is available and effective. Despite the availability of treatment programs for teens, many young people do not get the professional help they need to break free from this cycle.

How Do Substance Abuse Disorders Affect Teens?

Experimenting with illicit substances and abusing prescription drugs also increases a teenager’s risk of contracting certain diseases and puts them at risk for unsafe sex, impaired memory, mental health problems, and accidental death or suicide. Teen treatment programs focus on the unique challenges teenagers face because their brains are still developing.

Drug and alcohol abuse by adolescents and teenagers increases their risk of being dependent on these substances. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, teenagers are more vulnerable to addiction because the part of their brains that is responsible for decision making is still developing, while the part of the brain that processes feelings of reward and pain is fully developed.

Substance use disorder is a mental illness that arises from repeated drug or alcohol use. It causes a young person to have difficulty recognizing the negative consequences of their drug use. When a treatment center or support group helps them see those negative effects of addiction in their lives, they may still struggle to resist using drugs because they have become mentally and physically dependent on them.

teen in forest at sundown

Teen Substance Abuse Statistics

According to teen substance abuse stats, many parents may discover that their teenager is abusing substances. If you or a loved one is facing this challenge, you are not alone, but there are substance abuse programs for teens that can provide resources and support.

  • According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, 90% of people who have substance problems and addiction started using drugs and alcohol before they were 18. Abuse of substances such as alcohol, tobacco, and illicit drugs by teenagers may be the most expensive and most serious health issue in the United States of America.
  • Alcohol and drugs cause the most preventable deaths among teenagers and are a risk factor for up to 70 other illnesses. Teens become aware of drugs around the age of 13, when they become three times more likely to know someone who uses drugs and alcohol than a 12-year-old would be.
  • Young adults account for 50% of the new users of addictive substances. According to the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse[1], up to 10 million (75%) of high school students have used addictive substances like alcohol, marijuana, and tobacco. Of these, approximately 20% become addicted and may need substance abuse treatment for teens.
  • By grade 12, two-thirds of teenagers have tried alcohol, half report using marijuana, and 20% say they have used prescription meds not prescribed to them. Studies suggest that young people below the legal drinking age of 21 consume 10% of the alcohol sold in the United States.
  • Research estimates that at least 10 million young people may be in need of substance abuse treatment for teens, but only 1 in 10 gets the professional help they need to overcome a serious addiction.
Get Help Now

What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Teen Substance Abuse?

There are warning signs when children, teenagers, and young adults are using drugs or alcohol.  Some of these signs of teen drug abuse can also indicate mental illnesses. Parents and caregivers should be on the lookout for these symptoms in their child or loved one:

  • Intoxication, abnormal or irrational behavior are often signs of teen drug use
  • Sudden changes in eating habits, weight, or personal grooming
  • Bad grades, truancy, and behavioral problems are often related to teens and drug abuse
  • Alcoholic breath, strange odors on clothes, stains on teeth or hands
  • Avoiding eye contact, having bloodshot eyes, using eye drops
  • Unusually awake or tired, changes in sleeping patterns
  • Secretive behaviors, ignoring household rules, missing money
  • Frequent anger, violent outbursts, and defensiveness are common with teens and drug use
  • Socially withdrawn, depression, or suicidal language
  • A new group of friends who might be pressuring your child or providing drugs or alcohol
  • Drug paraphernalia or empty medicine containers, either over-the-counter or prescription packaging that you did not purchase for your child

What Are the Causes of Teen Substance Abuse?

Why is substance abuse common among teenagers? There are several reasons why adolescents and teenagers may become addicted to drugs and need teen rehab. Understanding what causes teens to use drugs is essential to designing a treatment program that directly addresses the causes of teen drug use.

Some of the causes of drug addiction among youth include:

  • Drugs and alcohol cause feelings of pleasure and euphoria, which at first may seem to feel good without negative consequences
  • Teenagers also use drugs in order to fit in, because of peer pressure from friends, or drug use in their home environment
  • Some young people use drugs to enhance performance in sports or academics, to stay up later to study, or in a misguided attempt to boost their physical performance
  • Self-medicating the symptoms of physical or mental health issues is often what causes teens to do drugs
  • A history of traumatic events or dealing with unresolved childhood trauma can be a reason why teens use drugs
  • Impulsive or risk-taking behaviors can also be what causes teens to do drugs
  • Feelings of social rejection and low self-esteem can also contribute to teenage drug problems
The most easily accessible substances are the most likely drugs making teenage problems worse. One simple answer to why teens start using drugs is having the opportunity to do so. While it is natural for teenagers to experiment and explore, the easy availability of drugs and alcohol is one of the factors that causes drug abuse among our youth.


Types of Substance Use Among Teenagers

Most of the common drugs used by teens will leave behind clues based on the method of use. The drugs high schoolers use will most likely be introduced to the body by one of these methods:
  • Smoking. Common teen drugs which are smoked include marijuana, heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamines. Parents might find ashes, “roaches,” glass pipes, tin foil, or other drug smoking paraphernalia.
  • Consuming or swallowing. Teenagers might take pills, drink alcohol or liquid medications, and may eat “edibles” which are candies or baked goods containing cannabis or other drugs. Wrappers, bottles, and containers may be left behind.
  • Inhaling or snorting. Teenagers might use inhalants or snort powdered substances, which involves the use of paper or plastic bags, grinding tools, razor blades, straws, rolled paper bills, or vapor soaked rags.
  • Injecting. Teenagers who are injecting drugs into their body might have red needle marks or injection points on their skin, usually on the arms but also often hidden on the legs or even between toes. Spoons, candles, tin foil, elastic/rubber, and hypodermic needles may be used in this process.

Common Substances Abused by Teenagers

Substance abuse among teenagers can take many forms, but in general, teens tend to abuse drugs which are relatively easy to obtain and conceal. For this reason, alcohol, cigarettes, and marijuana are the most common drugs used by teenagers.

Illicit Drugs High Schoolers Use

  • Alcohol, including beer, wine, and hard liquor
  • Marijuana, also called cannabis, weed, pot, and mary jane
  • Synthetic cannabis, commonly called K2 or spice
  • Cocaine, or crack which is made from cocaine
  • Hallucinogenic mushrooms containing psilocybin
  • MDMA, which is sometimes called ecstasy or molly
  • Methamphetamine, commonly called meth or crystal meth
  • Heroin, which may go by many names including horse, smack, or black tar
  • LSD, which can be called acid, doses, or lucy

Prescription Drugs Teenagers Might Abuse

  • Barbiturates, including Seconal and Nembutal
  • Sleep medications like Ambien or Lunesta
  • Benzodiazepines, like Xanax and Valium
  • Prescription stimulants or ADHD medications like Ritalin, Adderall XR, and Mydayis
  • Opiates and opioids, including fentanyl and oxycodone (“oxy”)
  • Medications labeled for narcotic addiction treatment, like Suboxone and methadone

Tips for Dealing with Teen Substance Abuse

As a parent or family member of a young person, there are steps you can take to help guide healthy development and empower a teenager to avoid drug and alcohol use or find the substance abuse treatment for teens that they need to overcome addiction. As a child transitions to an adult, this natural life cycle can be challenging, but it also provides many opportunities for personal growth and achievement.  

Dealing with teenage drug use challenges parents to recognize the changes that are happening and explaining addiction to our youth. Each individual is different, with a unique genetic makeup and environmental factors that shape their mental development. The characteristics of individuals who are more likely to become addicted to substances may include:
  1. Impulsive
  2. Risk-taking
  3. Adventure-seeking
  4. Socially isolated
  5. Emotionally traumatized
  6. Experiencing chronic pain
  7. Having other mental illnesses
  8. Lacking essential coping skills

This list of traits could describe many teenagers and young adults. If you suspect or know for a fact that a young person is using substances you might wonder how to handle teenage drug use. These tips can help you provide meaningful support while taking steps to prevent or treat a developing addiction:

  1. Talk to your teenager early and often, making clear you expect them to steer clear of drugs and alcohol, but that you know they face daily challenges in doing so.
  2. Be interested and involved with their friends, social and educational clubs, and support their participation in supervised and sober events or activities.
  3. Establish clear household rules and reasonable consequences for failing to follow those expectations.
  4. Set a good example, by moderating or eliminating your own use of intoxicants, controlling access to alcohol and prescription drugs, and talking about your own experiences honestly.
  5. Check in regularly, know where your teenager is and who they are with, and ask questions about how things went when they return home.
  6. Make sure your teenager knows that you or a family member will always respond to help them leave a dangerous or pressured situation, and talk openly about how to deal with peer pressure.
  7. If the teen shares that they are involved in substance use, keep the lines of communication open. Try to remain calm and seek professional guidance and resources to help them stop using.


Teen Substance Abuse Resources: Self-Assessment

There are many worksheets, tests, and questionnaires about teens and drug abuse. We provide two here and more youth drugs and alcohol advice throughout the Teensavers website. Our drug abuse among teenagers articles and blog posts address many of these topics in detail.

Teen Drug Abuse Quiz for Parents

If you are wondering whether your teenager is showing the signs of a potential drug or alcohol problem, this quiz can help you determine if you should take action:

In the past month, have you noticed:

  • A significant change in the teenager’s personality and behavior, which might include aggression or violence?
  • A noticeable decline in grades and interest in school or organized activities?
  • Your teen seems withdrawn from friends and family and disengaged from life?
  • Physical symptoms like shakiness, bloodshot or dilated eyes, or nosebleeds?
  • Possible drug paraphernalia, strange odors in rooms or on clothing, or other physical evidence of drug use?

If you answered “yes” to 2 or 3 of these questions, you should consider talking to your teen, your pediatrician, or a teen addiction counselor to find out why these changes are happening. Keep in mind that some of these markers might also be signs of depression or an anxiety disorder.

Substance Use Questionnaire for Teens

The self-assessment for teenagers can help them recognize their own potential for developing addiction. If you are questioning what to do if your teenager is using drugs, this quiz can help you or a professional know whether the substance use is a one-time experiment or if a professional teen addiction treatment program should be considered.

This test is intended as a guide and a starting point for discussion. It is not intended to diagnose the mental disorder of addiction, but instead to provide an honest assessment of where your young person might be struggling.

  1. Do you use drugs or alcohol more than once per week?
  2. Do you use prescription drugs for reasons that are not medical?
  3. Do you ever use more than one drug at a time, or combine drugs and alcohol?
  4. Have you ever had a blackout or lost time while using drugs or alcohol?
  5. Do you feel guilty, depressed, or ashamed after using substances?
  6. Have you decided to stop using substances but found yourself using again?
  7. Have you lost friends or argued with family members about your drug or alcohol use?
  8. Have you gotten into a fight or been the victim of violence while under the influence?
  9. Are drugs or alcohol causing you to get into trouble at school or work?
  10. Do you participate in illegal actions to obtain drugs or alcohol?
  11. If you stop using the substance, do you feel physically sick or restless?
  12. Do you use drugs or alcohol alone?
  13. Do you use substances to try to raise your self-confidence or be more outgoing in social situations?
  14. Have you changed your circle of friends to a group that drinks or uses drugs more often than your old friends did?
  15. Do you drink or use drugs to the point that you pass out or are incapable of functioning?
  16. Do you feel you need to use the substance to feel “normal?”
  17. Do you make sure to always have a supply of this substance on hand, or know where the next dose is coming from at all times?
  18. Do you take risks while using drugs or alcohol, for example by driving, operating machinery, or going to remote places alone?
  19. Have you done anything you deeply regret while under the influence of drugs and alcohol?
  20. Do you believe you might have a drug or alcohol addiction?

Answering 3 of these questions “yes” might indicate a developing problem, while answering 5 or more as “yes” is a more clear sign that a professional assessment might be needed to determine the severity of the substance use.

How to Treat Teen Substance Abuse

Once a problem is identified, the question becomes how to get help for teenage drug abuse. The best type of addiction treatment and recovery might be different for each individual—but when it comes to substance abuse treatment for teens designed to meet their unique needs, Teensavers has the answers.

Our treatment facilities offer a comprehensive set of resources that can help your young person overcome the challenges they face. During a professional intervention and assessment, our specialists will determine the level of physical symptoms present, the individual’s ability to make rational decisions about their substance use, and identify any co-occurring medical conditions that might be contributing to an active substance use disorder.

After evaluation and intervention, which is highly successful at getting teens to participate in treatment voluntarily, a combination of addiction treatment approaches may become part of their personal plan for teen substance abuse help. Treatment may include:

  • Supervised detoxification is done to help your teen stop using the addictive substance and manage active withdrawal symptoms. The detox may take a few days to weeks, and it may be done in a residential or outpatient program. Detoxification is also known as withdrawal therapy and is designed to keep your teen safe during this essential physical process.
  • Psychotherapy, also known as talk therapy or counseling, is another essential part of treatment. Using dialectical or cognitive behavioral therapy, a licensed alcohol or drug counselor talks the teen through challenges, and they find ways to cope without substance abuse. They also learn ways to avoid relapse. Peer group therapy and family therapy are also important to building the life skills needed to overcome addiction.
  • In the case of concurrent disorders, the treatment plan will cover both mental disorders and substance abuse simultaneously. Common examples of co-occurring conditions are PTSD, anxiety disorders, OCD, and depression.

Substance abuse disorder in teenagers puts strain on their relationships with family members. However, during this period of substance abuse treatment for teens, your family’s support is essential to the healing process. Our teen substance abuse counseling program will help your family to reestablish meaningful and open communication and help restore your teenager’s trust in your love and support for their sobriety.

Addiction Treatment and Recovery Focused on the Needs of Teens

For more than 40 years, Teensavers has focused on the best evidence-based treatments for young people who are struggling with substance abuse, addiction, or mental health issues. Our therapy programs address not only the physical and mental changes that occur with substance use but also the emotional or behavioral issues that develop simultaneously. Following residential and outpatient treatment, we offer continuing help to your young person to help them develop leadership skills and reduce their risk of relapse. Here are just some of the reasons to contact Teensavers today:

  • Professional help with a necessary intervention
  • One-on-one counseling, with family and group therapy
  • Our focus on empowering and restoring your child’s self-confidence and life skills
  • Repairing and restoring family bonds and relationships
  • A home-like, safe, and supportive residential environment
  • Incredibly low 3:1 patient-to-staff ratio ensures personal attention and supervision for your teenager in all of our programs
  • A wide variety of aftercare and relapse prevention programs

If you are concerned about your child or a young person you care about, reach out to our compassionate team of experts for more guidance on the next steps you can take to help them break free of mental illness, addiction, or alcoholism.

Get Help Now

We get back to emails, typically, within one business day.
Please call us to speak with an on-site staff member immediately.

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.