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Addressing Drug Use in Teens: What Parents Need to Know

Posted March 09, 2023 by Julie Sich, MS ATC, Director of Quality Improvement and Provider Engagement

Julie Sich

By the time they reach their senior year, nearly 70 percent of high schoolers will have tried alcohol, 50 percent will have taken an illegal drug and more than 20 percent will have used a prescription drug inappropriately, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

These statistics are especially alarming because a child’s brain continues to develop and grow until about age 25. Substance use can affect brain growth and development. Kids who begin substance use in their early to mid-teens are more likely to develop a substance use disorder than those who start drinking at age 21 or older.

When kids are under the influence of drugs (including alcohol) their risk for poor decision making, serious injury or even death increases.

But, kids don’t always have all the facts when it comes to drugs. In fact, a recent survey by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found:

  • 57 percent of individuals ages 12 to 17 reported they did not think there was great harm in having five or more drinks once or twice a week.
  • Nearly 63 percent of those in that age group also reported they did not think it was very harmful to smoke marijuana once or twice a week.

SummaCare hopes to inspire the prevention of youth drug use and addiction through proper dialogue. If parents don’t discuss the risks of drug use, kids might not see any harm in experimenting. Having a conversation allows parents to set clear rules about expected behaviors regarding alcohol and other drugs.

Get the Facts on Drug Use in Young Adults

More findings from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s recent survey found:

  • Nearly 20 percent of 12 to 20 year olds reported drinking alcohol in the past month, and almost 40 percent reported they have had at least 1 drink in their lives.
  • Approximately 11 percent in this age group reported binge drinking in the past month.
  • An estimated 500,000 individuals in this age group have alcohol use disorder, with more females affected than males.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse’s recent survey found that in the last year:

  • Cannabis use was reported by:
    • Eight percent of eighth graders
    • 20 percent of 10th graders
    • 31 percent of 12th graders.
  • Illicit drugs use other than marijuana (e.g., cocaine, heroin and amphetamines) was reported by:
    • About five percent of eighth graders
    • Six percent of 10th graders
    • Eight percent of 12th graders
  • Narcotics usage was reported by
    • About two percent of 12th graders

Signs Your Teen May Be Using Drugs or Alcohol

If you notice abrupt changes in your teen’s behavior, it could be a sign of drug or alcohol use. Look for these warning signs:

  • Alcohol, smoke or other chemical odors on your child’s or their friends’ breath or clothing
  • Red eyes or frequent sick days
  • Worsening depression and anxiety over time
  • A change in healthy peer groups to questionable ones
  • Changes or carelessness in dress or grooming
  • Changes in eating or sleeping patterns including sudden weight gain or loss
  • School problems, including declining grades, skipping school or recent disciplinary problems
  • Loss of interest in favorite activities or hobbies
  • Sudden mood changes, frequent arguments, secretiveness and lying

Making Prevention a Priority: How Parents Can Help

While there is no surefire way to prevent substance use in teens, an open, honest and trusting relationship is essential to minimizing the risk. Parents are the most influential individuals in a child’s life. The key is to start the conversation early and never stop.

Here are ways to encourage a conversation without lecturing:

  • Ask open-ended questions and listen without interruption.
  • Control your emotions and don’t respond with anger.
  • Watch your tone of voice and body language.
  • Show respect for your child’s point of view.
  • If you have a family history of substance abuse, be honest about it.
  • Focus on teaching your teen on what “to do,” instead of what “not to do.”

Parents have a significant influence in teens’ decisions to experiment with alcohol and other drugs. When parents create supportive and nurturing environments, kids make better decisions. 

In addition, a yearly physical with a trusted healthcare provider is an important opportunity to discuss substance use and identify any concerns.