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Substance Abuse in Adolescence

Substance Abuse in Adolescence

person smoking weed
by Jennifer Aslin

There is no question that drug and alcohol abuse is a problem in most high schools and now in junior high schools. Teens have access to illegal substances at parties, can obtain it from older friends, or may simply raid their parents’ liquor cabinets or medicine cabinets.

Substance abuse is a major public health problem that puts millions of adolescents at increased risk for alcohol-related and drug-related traffic accidents, risky sexual practices, poor academic performance, juvenile delinquency, and developmental problems. Although several national surveys indicate that teen use of most illicit drugs has held steady during the past few years, adolescent drug abuse remains alarmingly high.

Among 12th graders, less than two-thirds disapprove or strongly disapprove of smoking marijuana occasionally. Among adolescents age 12 to 17, less than half perceive a great risk in having one or more drinks once or twice a week; two-thirds perceive such risk in having four or five drinks nearly every day. About 40 percent of teens age 13 to 18 strongly agree that “really cool” teens do not use drugs. Nearly one in four teens age 12 to 17 cite drugs as the most important problem facing people their age.

Unfortunately, experimentation with alcohol and other drugs in adolescence is common. Adolescence is a time when young people begin to separate from their parents and search for their own identity and this leads to trying new things. Teens use drugs for many reasons, including curiosity, because it feels good, to reduce stress, to feel grown up, or to fit in.

Other factors that contribute to substance abuse are peer pressure, poor support system, emotional problems, and lack of positive coping skills for stress. Adolescents may also self medicate if they are having chronic mood swings or anxiety.

Unfortunately, teenagers often don’t see the link between their actions today and the consequences of tomorrow. They also have a tendency to feel indestructible and immune to the problems that others experience.

Some teens will experiment and stop, or continue to use occasionally, without significant problems. Others will develop a dependency, moving on to more dangerous drugs and causing significant harm to themselves and possibly others. Teenagers at risk for developing serious alcohol and drug problems include those with a family history of substance abuse, those who are depressed, who have low self esteem, and who feel that they don’t fit in.

For the past several years, two different organizations, Partnership for a Drug Free America and Monitoring the Future have conducted “Attitude Tracking” studies in an effort to discover what influences teen drug use and what makes one drug more or less popular than another. What they have found is that the perceptions young people have of different drugs vary widely, and often vary from generation to generation. Those perceptions have a direct effect on a drug’s popularity and frequency of use.

The primary factors that seem to affect increased or decreased drug use among teens are perceived risk, perceived social approval, and perceived availability. The more risky and or less accepted a drug is thought to be, the less likely it will be used by teens. Perceived availability is often associated with overall social approval, and so a drug that is readily available is considered socially acceptable and will likely increase in use.

While these seem like common sense factors, how these perceptions are created is harder to understand. In the mind of a young person, the “risk” of using drugs has many dimensions. Not only do teens consider physical risk, but also emotional (acting inappropriately, or getting depressed), social, relational and aspirational risks. Physical risks include addiction, while social risks include disappointing friends or family, and losing friends. Aspirational risks include losing a job, or getting in trouble with the law. All of these perceived risks–physical, emotional, social and aspirational, are different with each drug.

Parents can help prevent their children from using drugs by talking to them about drugs, engaging in open communication, role modeling, responsible behavior, and recognizing when problems are developing.

Parents need to refrain from being quick to give advice and attempting to correct the situation when their teen talks to them, but instead listen fully to them. This makes the adolescent feel heard and accepted by his parents. Once you have heard your teen out, teens are more receptive to guidance from parents.

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It is also important for parents to talk to adolescents about their value systems and morals. Talk to kids about what is right and wrong and about appropriate and inappropriate behavior.

We live in a very busy culture, but it is important to spend time with your adolescent, participating in family activities and outings. Know your child’s friends and invite them along on family activities. Make sure that home is a safe place emotionally for your child and be aware of changes in behavior.

Keep lines of communication open to your child and let them know that they can always talk to you about things that are bothering them or things that interest them. If home is a safe place and parents teach and model good coping skills, adolescents are less likely to look to drugs and alcohol to solve their problems.

Jennifer received a Bachelor of Arts degree from East Texas Baptist University and a Master of Science in Counseling degree from Texas A & M University Texarkana. She provides therapy to children and adults for depression, anxiety, and numerous other emotional issues. She also provides behavior management for children and parents to build their children’s strengths and equip the parents for addressing emotional and behavioral issues.


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