Adolescent Substance Abuse

The teen years can be among life’s most confusing and frustrating times, and the conflicting emotions of this transitional period often put young people at increased risk of falling prey to pressures to use alcohol and other drugs.
Adding to the factors that can make teen substance abuse more likely is the sense of invulnerability that many young people feel, and the belief that the recreational misuse of illicit substances is little more than a harmless “rite of passage.” Statistics provided by the advocacy organization Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD) indicate that drugs remain a prevalent presence in the lives of many U.S. teenagers:

  • Seventy-five percent of U.S. teenagers report having consumed alcohol before graduating from high school.
  • Fifty-eight percent of high school seniors and 20 percent of eighth graders report having been drunk at least once in their lives.
  • Fifty percent of U.S. teens report having tried an illicit drug other than alcohol at least once before graduating from high school.
  • Forty-one percent of eighth graders, 73 percent of 10th graders and 86 percent of 12th graders say that marijuana is easily accessible where they live or attend school.
  • Slightly more than 25 percent of U.S. students say they were offered, sold, or given an illegal drug during the previous 12 months.

Unfortunately, even one-time use of the wrong substance can result in irreversible damage – and for many teens, first use leads to a pattern of abuse and ultimately addiction.

Adolescent substance abuse has been associated with a wide range of physical, emotional, social, developmental, and academic problems among teens. Sometimes this behavior leads to continued struggles with substance abuse as the teens become adults, while those who are fortunate enough to receive effective treatment are able to make a healthier, drug-free transition into adulthood.

Identifying Teen Substance Abuse

Regardless of the reasons that a teen has turned to alcohol or other drugs, teenage substance abuse demands prompt attention and effective treatment in order to minimize the threat that it poses to the teen’s health, well-being, and continued positive development.

In most cases involving teens and substance abuse, the motivation to get help usually originates with a parent or other caregiver who notices and acts upon signs that the teen is engaging in a particularly dangerous pattern of behaviors.

Parents, teachers, and other caregivers are advised to be on the lookout for the following signs, which may indicate that a teenager is engaged in substance abuse:

  • The presence of drugs or drug-related paraphernalia (such as rolling papers, pipes, or syringes).
  • Mood swings or significant changes in overall attitude.
  • Excessive fatigue or unusual levels of energy.
  • Loss of interest in hobbies, sports, or other activities that were formerly important to the teen.
  • Abandonment of old friends, and association with a new peer group (to whom you may not be given the opportunity to be introduced).
  • Decreased interest in personal appearance and hygiene.
  • Excessive secretiveness, including lies and other evasive behaviors

Parents who retain an ongoing active presence in their teens’ lives will be best positioned to notice and act upon symptoms that may signal an involvement with drugs. If the teen is, indeed, engaging in substance abuse, he is likely to become withdrawn and express resentment at the attention that is being paid to his behavior – but parents should not let their fear of being called a “nag” or worse preclude them from acting in their teens’ best interests.
Parents and other caregivers who notice symptoms such as the ones described above should be prepared to take action with minimal delay. Meeting with school counselors, consulting with a family physician, or speaking with a drug abuse counselor are appropriate measures to ascertain the true nature of a teen’s behavior and ensure that she receives whatever help she needs.


Regardless of the nature and severity of a teenager’s substance abuse or addiction, treatment can help almost every teen return to a healthy and productive life – but the earlier the intervention, the more likely that it will be successful. Effective treatment depends upon a number of factors – including the teen’s age, the drug(s) he has been abusing, the length of time he has been involved in this behavior, and the presence other co-occurring conditions.
The following are common components of an effective treatment program for a teenager who has been abusing – or who has become addicted to – an illicit substance:

  • Detoxification – Some teens need to undergo a safe, medically supervised period of being weaned from the drug(s) they were abusing. An effective detox program will help minimize withdrawal symptoms and ensure that the teen’s health is not put at risk during the withdrawal period.
  • Residential Rehabilitation – Some teens are able to overcome their substance abuse problem with intensive outpatient therapy, but many require round-the-clock care and the comprehensive supervision that can only be provided at a residential rehabilitation facility. In addition to providing a high level of structure and control, residential rehab also offers access to an intensive program of therapy and education designed to prepare a teen for long-term sobriety. Many residential rehabilitation and recovery programs feature cognitive-behavioral therapy; individual and group counseling; educational opportunities; 12-step or similar support programs; and relapse prevention instruction.
  • Intensive Outpatient Program – Teens who have committed to remaining drug-free, and who do not require 24-hour supervision, may find success through participation in an intensive outpatient programs. These types of programs – often conducted after school and on weekends – are effective for young people who have already begun to make progress toward their recovery, such as teens who have completed a stay in a residential rehabilitation facility but who are in need of continued care.
  • Aftercare – Regardless of the type of program that a teen completed in order to overcome an addiction or pattern of substance abuse, participation in an effective aftercare program can be an essential factor in determining whether the teen will be able to achieve long-term sobriety. Aftercare programs address a variety of issues, including relapse prevention and the challenges of maintaining a drug-free lifestyle, and often offer services for family members and other caregivers.

If you or someone you know is struggling with an issue related to teenage substance abuse, call 866-323-5608 to learn more about available treatment options.