Pointing out that teenagers use drugs isn’t exactly groundbreaking news. For generations, teens have turned to drugs or alcohol to experiment, cope with emotions, or to simply fit in.
These modern times, however, are filled with pressures and innovations unlike anything other generations have faced. The internet changed the game for how teens learn about and obtain drugs. And, let’s face it, some of these drugs are much more potent and dangerous than anything you may have encountered as a teen.
In this article, we will take a closer look at the current teen drug use trends and how you can help your teen make positive choices as they go through their journey of maturity.
Drug effects on an adolescent's developing brain
The adolescent brain goes through rapid changes and development. As it adapts to the world around them, it learns complex life skills like social skills, coping with negative emotions, and taking steps towards independence.
The brain structures go through several changes during the adolescent years. For example, the prefrontal cortex goes through extensive neuromaturation during this time. This structure of the brain assists with emotion regulation, planning, inhibition, and integration of novel stimuli. Drugs can stunt the growth of the prefrontal cortex, which can affect memory and may lead to psychiatric disorders. Substance abuse also decreases the brain’s white matter quality, which helps the neuronal transmissions among brain regions. These are just a couple of the many changes drugs can have on a teen’s brain.
In addition, the younger a person starts using drugs or alcohol, the more likely they are to have significant substance use disorders in adulthood. This can lead to many personal, health, legal, and social issues.
Why teens use drugs
Adolescence can undoubtedly be a hard time to navigate. Finding an identity, fitting in with peers, dealing with a changing body, and the pressures of school and family life present unique challenges.
A regular part of teen development is testing boundaries. The desire to act against established norms and try something risky or new is an alluring part of growing up. Unfortunately, this can include experimenting with drugs or alcohol.
Curiosity and trying to fit in with peers is a significant contributor to experimenting with drugs. After all, teens want to feel like they belong, even though belonging doesn’t have to involve drug use. Getting your child involved in positive activities like sports or community activities can help fulfill the need to feel a part of something.
Teens may also use drugs to:
- Relieve stress or anxiety
- Feel good/pleasure
- Be more social
- Feel less inhibited
- Make sex more enjoyable
- Cope with difficult emotions
- Forget their troubles
- Relieve boredom
- Help them sleep
- Escape or avoid obligations
- Feel more creative
- Fulfill their curiosity about different experiences
Each teen is different. While some use drugs merely for pleasure, others may be trying to self-medicate very complicated emotions that they can’t seem to handle on their own. Taking the time to talk to your teen (discussed later in this article) may help shed some light on why they choose to use drugs or alcohol.
Popular drugs among teens
Just like every other popular trend, the drug scene has changed since you were growing up. Thanks to the internet, it’s easier than ever to discover, access, and acquire drugs. Also, information about using legally purchased substance(s) to get high is available with just a few keystrokes. There’s also a wealth of information easily accessible to a teen about covering up drug use and even passing drug tests.
According to the Centers for Disease Control marijuana, alcohol, and tobacco products remain popular drugs for teens to try and abuse. About half of high schoolers reported using marijuana at some point in their lives.
Other popular drugs include:
- Prescription Opioids
- Bath Salts
- Ecstasy (MDMA)
- Dextromethorphan (DXM)
- Benzodiazepines like Xanax
Where teens get drugs
The most accessible place for teens to get drugs and alcohol tends to be at home. If you must keep any alcohol or drugs at home, prescription or otherwise, always have the substances closely monitored. Lock them up if necessary. Even some cold medications or decongestants, when taken above the recommended dosage levels can produce a high.
Of course, your teen doesn’t have to go to a shady street corner to find drugs. The internet connects us with virtually anything, including drugs. Social media, online pharmacies, and the dark web make it easy for teens to get just about any drug. Even if you try to monitor your teen's web usage, you may still be fighting a losing battle. Chances are your teen knows at least one person who could easily access drugs via the internet.
Speaking of friends, most teens know at least a couple of people who sell drugs at their school. A trip to a grocery or drug store could also be an opportunity for a teen to get his or her hands on some mind-altering substances.
Given the fact that drugs are so easy to obtain, it is crucial that you become a role model and create a support network for your child. Your actions can help shape their attitudes towards drugs and alcohol.
Parents can be a positive or negative influence
Like it or not, your child is heavily influenced by your actions as a parent. After all, you are his or her first and most common example of being an adult. As a role model, you can help shape your child’s attitude towards drug and alcohol use.
If your child sees you using drugs, alcohol, or tobacco, they may see it as a permissible behavior despite anything you say. After all, actions speak louder than words. Seeing you use may make them think it is a typical behavior for “grown-ups.”
Your guidance and behaviors can help shape your child’s attitudes towards substance abuse. Here are some ways you can influence your child and decrease the risk of potential substance abuse:
- Have a strong bond with your child
- Cultivate your child’s self-esteem
- Get your child active in sports, hobbies, faith-based organizations, or community activities
- Maintain an open dialog about drugs and their dangers
- Avoid permissive parenting and acting more like a friend than a parental figure
- Make sure positive role models surround your child
- Have your child engage in activities where drugs are not tolerated
- Limit or eliminate your use of drugs or alcohol, especially around your child
Signs your teen is using drugs
Just about any teenager can experience bouts of moodiness, sleeping too much, and challenging their parents. It’s a part of growing up. So how can you tell if their behaviors are abnormal or linked to drug or alcohol abuse? It’s not always easy.
There are some signs you should know that could indicate your teen is using substances:
- Going out every night and frequently breaking curfew
- Excessive need for privacy and being secretive
- Laughing at nothing or exhibiting uncharacteristically obnoxious or loud behavior
- Difficulty concentrating
- Changes in appearance or hygiene
- Extreme mood swings or emotional instability
- Associating with a new peer group
- Less motivation or interest in activities he or she used to enjoy
- Periods of lethargy or seeming “out of it”
- Poor balance, stumbling, or lack of coordination
- Difficulty controlling inhibitions or impulses
- Unusual odors on breath or clothes
- Slurred or very rapid speech
- Sudden changes in body weight
- Significantly higher nosebleeds or headaches
- Declining grades or school attendance
- Complaints from teachers or other school officials
- Losing interest in sports, social clubs, hobbies, or other extracurricular activities
In addition, if you notice some changes in your home, it may point to a teen using substances. These include:
- Money or valuables missing from the home
- Prescription or over-the-counter pills, alcohol, or cigarettes missing
- Strange odors in car or bedroom
- Drug paraphernalia or other unidentified objects found in their bedroom or around the house, including pipes, butane lighters, medicine bottles, and strange containers
If you notice even some of these signs, it may be time to have a conversation with your teen. This, of course, is not always easy. After all, even just trying to find out how their day went can be a challenge. Discussing tough issues like drug or alcohol abuse can be difficult for both the teen and the parent. However, it’s a conversation that needs to be addressed for your child’s mental, physical, and social well-being.
Having a conversation with your teen about drugs
If you suspect your teen is using drugs or alcohol, the chances are good that you feel a variety of strong emotions. Anger, disbelief, fear, frustration, and maybe even a little embarrassment. It’s essential to keep your emotions in check. It may be difficult, but you don’t want to turn the conversation into a shouting match.
Remember, your teen’s brain isn’t fully developed. Most human brains aren’t developed until the age of 25. This is one of the main reasons you need to have a conversation with your teen about drugs. As mentioned earlier, drug and alcohol abuse can negatively affect the teenage brain leading to problems well into their future.
Another reason you need to remember your teen's brain isn’t developed is how they communicate. Since his or her brain is still going through changes, the chances are high that their responses are more impulsive and lack emotional control. If you’re like most parents, some typical teenage behaviors can easily get under your skin. Once you feel your emotions becoming difficult to control or your heart starting to race, remember that you are talking with a teenager, not a grown adult. When cooler minds prevail, the conversation will be much more productive.
Starting the conversation
Try to start the conversation when it is not going to need to be rushed. Avoid doing it too early or too late in the day. Some parents have found going for a walk or taking a drive can be an excellent time to talk. Since eye contact is limited during these types of conversations, your teen may not feel so scrutinized.
Keep an open mind and try to see things from your child’s perspective. If a teen feels understood or validated, he or she will be more likely to open up and share. Ask open-ended questions that require more than a “yes” or “no” answer. Of course, even some of the best open-ended questions may be met with silence or a quick answer. It may take time to build trust and openness for this sensitive subject.
You can build openness by using active listening and what are referred to as “I” statements. These are common practices for psychotherapists and other counselors that, when done effectively, can help take your teen out of his or her defensiveness. Most importantly, fully listen to what your teen has to say. Don’t interrupt or try to get your point across. Simply listen.
Once your teen completed a thought, try to reflect back what you hear. This shows your teen that you are really listening to them. It’s important to speak with a calm, even tone and not sound condescending. Starting your sentences with phrases like:
- “It seems like you feel [particular emotion] when [an event] happens…”
- “I’ve noticed that you feel [particular emotion] when you…”
- “Let me make sure that I am understanding this correctly…”
- “I’m sorry you feel [emotion or thought]. Is there something I could do to help?”
To make active listening more effective, when it is time to talk, always use “I” statements, especially if things get tense. “You” statements are often blaming or judgemental. Some of the examples above are great examples of “I” statements. Also, let’s look at a couple of “you” statements that could easily be changed to indicate empathy and assertively (rather than aggressively) proving a point.
“You” Statement: “You don’t even care how we feel when you come home late all the time.”
Better “I” statement: “When it past your curfew, I start worrying if you are okay. I feel scared and upset when you don’t send me a text to tell me where you are.”
“You” Statement: “How can you be so disrespectful talking to me that way?”
Better “I” statement: “When you yell and swear at me, I feel like you’re having difficulty getting your point across. Can we find another way to discuss this?”
Make sure your teen knows how drugs affect their body and brain
Like it or not, the teenage years are often filled with vanity. If you have any doubt, just go anywhere that teens usually hang out and see the number of selfies taken in five minutes. One way to really drive the point home about the effects of drugs is by discussing how these drugs eventually affect their appearance and ability to think and act.
For example, you could mention something like, “Everyone says you have such a great smile, do you know smoking cigarettes can stain your teeth. Even worse, they cause bone loss in the mouth, which means you could lose your teeth.”
Or maybe: “You always talked about wanting to go to college. But marijuana can make it harder to stay motivated, remember things, and think clearly. You’re such a smart kid, and if you stay away from drugs, I know you can reach your goals.”
It’s important to open the conversation about drugs and alcohol early and often. You don’t have to wait until you’re checking off several of the warning signs of drug abuse to tackle the subject. Even simple statements, like the examples above, could plant seeds into your child’s mind about how substances can affect their bodies.
Understand that asking for help may be necessary
As parents, we would like to think we have all the answers. Unfortunately, as hard as we try, sometimes we need a little extra help. This is especially true when a teen is abusing drugs or alcohol. Sadly, seemingly harmless experimentation can quickly turn severe and even deadly.
If you can’t seem to get through to your teen, know there are several resources available for you and your child. Online resources and articles on this website can be helpful. There are also times when the assistance of a professional counselor or addiction specialist can help your child pull out of the downward spiral of substance abuse and once again take control of his or her life.
Early interventions can save a lot of pain and struggle down the road. Don’t wait until things get out of control. It may be one of the most important decisions you make as a parent.