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Teenage Drug Abuse and Addiction

Updated: Feb 15, 2023

Teens who abuse drugs may have a greater risk of developing an addiction when they are adults. It’s important to know the difference between drug abuse and addiction. Many teens experiment with drugs but aren’t addicted.

"Teen drug abuse can have long-term cognitive and behavioral effects since the teenage brain is still developing."

Recognition and prevention of drug use can end an emerging problem before it starts. Setting a good example and having talks about drug use are strong tools for teenage substance abuse prevention.

Teen Drug Experimentation

Half of all new drug users are under the age of 18. Experimentation plays the biggest role in teenage drug use. However, experimentation is a fact of life and just because a teen has tried drugs or alcohol doesn’t mean they will become an addict. It’s more important to understand why some teens are tempted to experiment.

Common reasons teens abuse drugs include:

  • Curiosity.

  • Peer pressure.

  • Stress.

  • Emotional struggles.

  • A desire to escape.

The majority of adults with addiction first experimented with drugs before they turned 21. The good news is that the rates of teenage drug abuse have been declining. If you think your teen is using drugs, there are teen addiction treatment options available.

Signs of Teen Drug Abuse

There are many signs that a teen is using drugs. It can be difficult to tell the difference between the pangs of adolescence and actual drug use, but parents can be proactive in talking to their teens to find out what’s going on.

Some common signs of teen drug abuse include:

  • Bad grades

  • Bloodshot eyes

  • Laughing for no reason

  • Loss of interest in activities

  • Poor hygiene

  • Diminished personal appearance

  • Avoiding eye contact

  • Frequent hunger or “munchies”

  • The smell of smoke on breath or clothes

  • Secretive behavior

  • Unusual tiredness

  • Missing curfew

It’s up to parents to initiate a conversation with their children if they suspect drug use. One in five parents who suspect their teen is using drugs does not intervene to prevent further drug use.

"The best way to get a teen to communicate about their drug use is by asking compassionate and understanding questions."

Parents can ask straightforward questions when said in the right tone. Simply asking, “Have you been using drugs or alcohol?” or “Has anyone offered you drugs recently?” can be enough to get the conversation started.

Responding to a teen’s admittance or denial of drug use right away is just as important as asking the right questions.

If a teen admits to taking drugs:

Parents shouldn’t overreact if their teen comes clean about using drugs. Overreacting or lashing out can prevent a teen from opening up about their experience. Getting teens to talk is important to determine if their drug use was a one-time thing or if it’s becoming a problem.

Parents should explain how they care about their child and the child’s future. Teens who feel supported and loved are also more likely to stop experimenting with drugs or seek help if they have an addiction.

If a teen denies drug use:

Naturally, there is a possibility that teens may lie about their drug use. Parents should reassure their children that they are concerned and want to help.

If a teen continues denying using drugs but the parent still suspects untruthfulness, a home drug test or professional help can uncover a teen's drug problem. Therapists, pediatricians, and addiction specialists can help diagnose a teen's drug problem.

Call a recovery professional for more information on treating teen addiction.

Common Drugs that Teens Abuse

The most common drugs abused by teens aren’t much different from those of adults. But the reasons for abuse may be different as teens often abuse a substance based on its accessibility. Teens are also more likely to take excessive amounts of drugs and alcohol because of how they perceive the risks and dangers.


Alcohol is the substance most commonly abused by teens. The social acceptance of drinking among people of legal drinking age can lead many teens to view alcohol as relatively harmless. Research suggests teens are more likely to binge drink because their impulse control hasn’t fully developed.

"Approximately 20 percent of 12th graders reported binge drinking in 2014. Nearly 40 percent had used alcohol in the last month."

Binge drinking increases the risk of addiction in people of any age, and the teenage brain is more susceptible to addiction. Talking to teens about these risks can curb underage drinking.


Regular marijuana users most often started during their adolescence. The perceptions of marijuana use among teens are changing; most high school seniors do not think smoking marijuana occasionally carries any risk. More than 20 percent of teens report having used marijuana at least once in the past month.

Prescriptions and Over-the-counter Medications

Many prescription drugs have intoxicating effects, and this is no secret to most teens. Narcotic painkillers like OxyContin and benzodiazepines like Xanax produce pleasurable effects that teens may seek out. These substances have a high addictive potential and risk of overdose.

"Nearly 40 percent of teens who abused prescription medication obtained the drugs from their parent’s medicine cabinet."

Teens may also abuse over-the-counter medications. The substance dextromethorphan (DXM), a cough-suppressing substance, is found in many common cold and flu medicines. DXM can cause intoxicating effects in high doses, and an overdose is a real possibility.

Teen Drug Abuse Statistics

  • 1 in 5 teens has abused prescription medications, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

  • Approximately 21 percent of high school seniors have reported using marijuana in the past month, according to the National Institute of Drug Abuse.

  • 1 in 3 parents believes there is little they can do to prevent teen drug use despite evidence that shows parental involvement is the strongest factor in prevention.

Addiction Treatment for Teens

Many teens have a tough time dealing with sadness or other stresses common during adolescence. It is understandable that they may think having a drink or a little marijuana can offer relief. The best way to deal with stress, however, is to seek emotional support or find someone to talk to.

If a teen has already tried quitting or reducing use and failed, then it’s important to receive treatment as soon as possible.

"There are treatment centers designated for teens that target the emotional and social issues that led to their drug use."

Most teen treatment centers also offer educational support so teens in recovery don’t get behind in school. The earlier an addiction is recognized, the easier it is to treat.

Courtesy of Addiction Center


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