Have you noticed a change in your teen’s behavior? Has he or she become withdrawn or started hanging out with a new group of friends? Is your teen struggling in school or neglecting home responsibilities?

You may see these signs and know there is a problem. You suspect it is drugs, but you don’t know what to do next.

Many worried parents have gone through the same type of situation. They tried talking to their kids. They gave ultimatums and threatened with punishments. Still, nothing seemed to change.

Our teen drug helpline is a resource for anyone who knows a teen struggling with substance use and related problems, and wants help navigating this difficult situation.

What is Teen Drug Addiction?

There are a range of reasons why a teenager uses an illegal drug for the first time, such as curiosity or to fit in with peers. However, with repeated use, the drug can causes changes in the teenager’s brain. These changes can drive the teen to repeatedly use the drug, despite the harm it causes.1

Drug addiction in teenagers can lead to a variety of problems, such as poor performance in school, losing friends, problems within the family, trouble with the law, teenage pregnancy, and mental health issues like depression. When a teenager continues using drugs despite these or other negative effects, it may signal an addiction or “substance use disorder”.

Adolescents who misuse drugs have a higher chance of struggling with drug problems as adults. Additionally, in 2018, over 4,500 U.S. teens died from drug overdose. 2 Therefore, preventing drug misuse and addiction among adolescents can be a proactive measure to reduce serious problems, including death and drug addiction in the adult population.

Difference Between Tolerance, Dependence, and Addiction

Recognizing drug use in adolescents when it is an emerging problem can help prevent some of the most dangerous consequences of teen drug addiction. The terms drug tolerance, withdrawal, and addiction are important terms for parents and guardians to understand, because they indicate the effect of drugs on a teenager’s brain and body. 3

Tolerance: When a teenager needs a higher dose of drugs to get the same effects, it is called drug tolerance. This happens because the brain and body no longer respond to the drug as they did before. Tolerance may drive an adolescent to use more and more of the drug over time to get the “high” they are seeking.

Withdrawal: If an adolescent has been abusing drugs for a while, their body can go through withdrawal if they stop using the drug. Withdrawal usually consists of a range of physical and psychological symptoms, some of which can be life-threatening. For this reason, teens who have become dependent on a drug to the point that its absence produces withdrawal should go through a gradual, medically-supervised withdrawal to safely come off the drug.

Addiction: When an adolescent repeatedly uses drugs or alcohol despite negative consequences, it is called drug addiction, or a severe substance use disorder. Many teenagers experiment with drugs, but they do not have an addiction. It is also possible for a teenager to display tolerance or withdrawal to a drug without being addicted to it.

Teenage Drug Addiction: Facts and Figures

The Monitoring the Future Survey in 2019 collected data from 42,500 high school students across 400 public and private schools in the United States to study drug use patterns among 8th, 10th, and 12th graders. The following statistics on teen drug use and addiction emerged from the survey: 4

Trends in Drug Use Among Teens

  • Cigarette smoking has shown a downward trend and has decreased significantly compared to past years. In 2019, less than 6% of 12th graders reported past month use of nicotine and tobacco. 
  • However, nearly 12% of high school seniors reported vaping nicotine daily, and rates of past month vaping among 12th graders increased from about 10% to 25% between 2017 and 2019.
  • Just over 6% of 12th graders reported daily use of marijuana, roughly 22% reported past-month use, and about 36% reported past-year use of marijuana.
  • Nearly 30% of  reported past-month use of alcohol. This represents a notable decline from 37% in 2014.
  • About 3% of 12th graders reported past-year prescription opioid (pain pill) misuse. Similar figures were reported for past-year use of cocaine (2.2% in 12th graders).

Drug Overdose Deaths in Adolescents

  • The death rate due to drug overdoses among teenagers aged 15-19 more than doubled from 1999 to 2007, declined between 2007 and 2014, then increased again in 2015. 5
  • In 2018, there were 4,633 overdose deaths in the 15-24 age group. The majority of these overdose deaths were caused by heroin and other illicit opioids (3,177), followed by prescription drugs (899), cocaine (859), and alcohol (85). 6

Why Do Teens Use Drugs?

Experimentation with alcohol and drugs is often considered a “normal” part of growing up, almost a rite of passage. Yet for some, teen drug addiction can have disastrous, even fatal, consequences. Some adolescents are introduced to drugs by friends as an experiment or out of curiosity. Sometimes, references to drug use in pop songs or the media pique the interest of the youth. Teens might also begin misusing prescription medications obtained from the medicine cabinet at home. First-time use of cigarettes, alcohol, and marijuana is often in social situations where these substances are readily available. Some of the common contributors to recreational drug use in teens include:

  • Under peer pressure (to fit in), need for social acceptance
  • Out of curiosity
  • Feeling indestructible and not understanding the consequences of drug use
  • To “self-medicate” and relieve anxiety, stress, or depression
  • To escape from difficult situations in life
  • To improve school performance (prescription stimulant misuse)
  • Easy availability of drugs (typically alcohol, tobacco, and marijuana)
  • On an impulse

Regardless of how and why it starts, drug addiction in teenagers is highly risky with extremely harmful health and social consequences.

What Factors Increase the Risk of Drug Addiction in Teens?

Not all adolescents struggle with drug misuse and addiction. It is impossible to predict which teenager will experiment with drugs and how many times they must use the drug before becoming addicted to it.

However, there are certain genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors that increase the risk of teen drug addiction. What makes some teenagers more likely to experiment with drugs and potentially become addicted to them?

Drug use at home: Children of parents who have drug or alcohol use disorders are more likely to also develop a drug problem. Lack of parental supervision is also a risk factor for drug use and addiction in teens. 7

Friends and peers: Friends and acquaintances are often the first people to introduce a teenager to drugs. Adolescents who hang out with people who use illegal substances are more likely to also experiment with drugs.

Academic performance: Teenagers with poor academic performance or academic failure are at higher risk of being drawn to drugs, perhaps as a means of coping or improving performance (with stimulants).

Mental health: Teenagers with behavioral or mental health problems, such as anxiety, depression, or ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) are at higher risk of drug use and addiction.  8

Personality: Adolescents with a risk-taking or impulsive personality are more likely to experiment with drugs and potentially become addicted to them. Also, teens with poor social skills, low self-esteem, or feelings of social rejection may use drugs to try and fit in.

Traumatic events: Teens who have suffered traumatic events, such as sexual abuse, or those who have PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) following other traumatic events (e.g., a car accident, physical assault), are at higher risk of using drugs, perhaps to deal with difficult emotions. 9 10

Early drug use. Studies show that the earlier a person starts drug use, the more likely they are to progress to serious substance use disorders/addiction. 11

Method of drug use. Injecting drugs are associated with a higher risk of addiction because the drug enters the brain almost immediately, producing a powerful high. However, the intense high fades quickly and this can drive the teen to repeat drug use in an attempt to experience the same rush again. Therefore, this method of drug use is associated with a higher risk of addiction. 12

Commonly Used Drugs Among Teens

Alcohol: The minimum legal age for drinking in the United States is 21, yet alcohol is the most commonly used intoxicating substance among teenagers. Nearly 60% of 12th graders report using alcohol at least once in their lifetime. Alcohol intoxication puts youth at risk of DUI (driving under the influence), motor vehicle accidents, unsafe sexual behavior, and violence/assault. Long-term use of alcohol can lead to various health complications in teenagers in whom the brain and body are still developing.

Marijuana: About 44% of 12th graders report using marijuana/hashish in their lifetime. Aside from alcohol, marijuana (“weed”, “pot”) is the most common drug used by teens. Many teens do not realize that marijuana can be addictive and lead to long-term health effects like increased heart rate, breathing problems, and psychological illness. 13

Tobacco, Nicotine, and Vaping: In 2019, the minimum legal age for sale of tobacco products in the US was raised from 18 to 21 years. Yet, even as teen use of regular cigarettes has shown a decline, vaping nicotine and marijuana have been rising. Every day, nearly 3,200 Americans under the age of 18 smoke their first cigarette. 14 Nicotine provides a pleasurable “kick” but has various harmful health effects, such as faster breathing, increased heart rate, and increased blood pressure. Long-term tobacco use puts teens at risk of cancer, lung problems, heart disease, and stroke.  15

Cough and Cold Medicines: Teenagers sometimes misuse cough and cold medicines because when taken at high doses, they produce a “buzz” or “high.” Roughly 2-3% of American teenagers report non-prescription use of cough and cold medicines in the past year. 16 Some of these medicines contain psychoactive (mind-altering) ingredients that can be addictive. Misuse of these medications can lead to various health complications, including fast heartbeat, increased blood pressure, vision changes, slurred speech, and loss of coordination. Mixing certain cough syrups with alcohol puts teenagers at very high risk of slowed breathing and heart problems. 17

Inhalants: Some teens inhale chemicals in household products like paint thinner, hair spray, deodorants, and whipped cream dispensers to get high. The fumes in these inhalants are harmful to the brain and body and can cause many short- and long-term health effects, including confusion, hallucinations, and even death from suffocation, coma, and seizures. In the United States, younger teens use inhalants more than older ones. In 2019, about 5% of 12th graders and nearly 10% of 8th graders reported using an inhalant at least once in their lifetime. 18

Prescription Drugs: Prescription drugs are medications that have legitimate medical uses but are misused for their ability to produce euphoria or relieve pain. Some teens may mistakenly believe these drugs are safe because they are prescribed by doctors. Teenagers have access to mainly three types of prescription medications, usually from friends and family members. These include stimulants, opioids, and depressants, as described next.

Stimulants like Adderall and Ritalin are prescribed to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Prescription stimulants are addictive and teenagers can die from a stimulant overdose. Teens often misuse stimulants to improve alertness, increase confidence, or suppress appetite. In the United States, about 7 in 100 teenagers report misusing a prescription stimulant in their lifetime. 19

Opioids like OxyContin and Vicodin are prescribed to relieve pain. Many people who are addicted to the illegal drug heroin started by abusing prescription pain pills. Fortunately, prescription opioid misuse by teens in the United States has been declining. For example, in 2019, Vicodin misuse was reported by 1.1% of 12th graders, down from nearly 10% in 2002.

Depressants like Valium and Xanax are prescribed to treat anxiety and insomnia. When misused, short-term effects can include slurred speech, confusion, and lack of coordination. Further, these drugs can become addictive, as someone develops tolerance and withdrawal. Lifetime misuse of prescription depressants (tranquilizers) is reported by 6% of 12th graders. 20

Spice: In 2011, roughly 11% of 12th graders reported using spice, a dangerous mix of herbs which is sometimes called “fake weed” because it produces effects similar to marijuana. Negative reactions to spice can include fast heart rate, vomiting, and extreme anxiety. Fortunately, spice/K2 use in teens has been declining. In 2019, roughly 3% of teenagers reported using spice in the past year. 21

Other illegal drugs: A comparatively smaller number of teenagers use illicit drugs like cocaine, ecstasy, heroin, and meth. Each of these illegal substances puts teens at risk of serious health complications, including heart attack, heart failure, stroke, seizures, liver failure, respiratory distress, and psychotic behaviors. 

Signs of Drug Use or Addiction in Adolescents

How can a parent, guardian, or friend of a teenager know that they might have a drug problem? Here are some common signs that a teen may be using drugs:

  • Sudden or extreme changes in friends (hanging out with a completely different crowd)
  • Unkempt appearance, poor hygiene
  • Physical signs, such as bloodshot eyes, unusual tiredness, frequent hunger (munchies)
  • Inappropriate behavior, for example, laughing without reason
  • Irresponsible behavior, poor judgment
  • Secretive behavior, avoiding eye contact
  • Worsening grades in school
  • Skipping classes, breaking rules, getting in trouble at school
  • Loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities and hobbies
  • Withdrawal from friends and family, increased conflict with parents
  • Getting in trouble with the law
  • Changed eating and/or sleeping habits
  • Missing curfew
  • Stealing money to pay for drugs
  • Drug paraphernalia (containers, pipes, needles) hidden around the home

The presence of any of these signs does not, of course, by itself indicate teen drug addiction, but if several of these signs and symptoms are present, then adults should be vigilant for possible drug use by their teenager. A trained professional can assess for a formal diagnosis of a substance use disorder. Criteria for a substance use disorder include: 22

  1. Using more of a substance than desired or using a substance for a longer time period than desired
  2. Not being able to reduce usage despite wanting to do so
  3. Lots of the user’s time is taken up sourcing, consuming and/or recuperating from substance use
  4. User experiencing cravings and/or urges to consume the substance
  5. Missing social and/or professional obligations with substance use at least partially to blame
  6. Usage continues despite user noticing professional, social or family issues arising as a result
  7. Professional, social and/or family activities are stopped or reduced to accommodate substance use
  8. Using the substance in environments that are physically threatening, or usage leading to mental or physical harm
  9. The user continues with persistent use despite knowing it is contributing to or causing a mental or physical problem
  10. Tolerance means that increasing amounts are required to produce the user’s desired effect
  11. Physical effects and symptoms of withdrawal experienced as the amount of the substance in the body diminishes

Long-Term Effects of Teen Drug Addiction

Substance use can affect a teenager’s reasoning and encourage rash decisions. Unfortunately, the consequences of teen drug addiction can haunt a person well into adulthood. Some of the effects of drug use during adolescence that can last well beyond the teen years include:

  • Injuries sustained in accidents that occurred while using drugs.
  • Trauma as a result of drug-related assaults.
  • Unplanned teen pregnancies.
  • Sexually transmitted diseases from unsafe sex.
  • Infectious diseases like HIV/AIDS and hepatitis from injection drug use.
  • Criminal records that cannot be expunged.
  • Wasted academic and career opportunities.
  • Damaged relationships with family and friends.

There is also some evidence that impacts of alcohol and other drugs on the teenage brain result in problems with verbal learning and memory, and that these effects can persist into adulthood. 23

Substance Use and Psychological Disorders in Teens

Research shows that many people with substance use disorders also have other psychological disorders and vice versa. 24 25

Mirroring the adult population, some adolescents have co-occurring substance use disorder and another psychological disorder. Sometimes, this is the result of self-medication. For example, a teenager with depression or anxiety might use drugs or alcohol to cope with the symptoms of their psychological disorder. The direction of association may also be the other way around – regular use of drugs may change the way the teenager’s brain works, which can contribute to mental health issues. Substance use and mental illness, therefore, can become intertwined, so much so that it becomes difficult to say which one appeared first.

Teens can benefit from talking to someone they trust about their feelings, emotions, and concerns. They should be encouraged to discuss their problems and ask for help. Treating mental health issues by providing healthy coping methods and/or medications might prevent teenagers from turning to drugs as a coping method.

Drug Overdoses in Adolescents

Each year, nearly 5,000 young people die from drug overdoses in the United States. Teenagers can overdose on drugs intentionally (suicidal), but most drug overdoses are unintentional (accidental). Accidental drug overdoses can happen when a large amount of drug is used in a short period or when two or more drugs are mixed together.

Teenagers with intentional or deliberate drug overdoses often have underlying family problems, for example, parents who are separated or divorced. Many teens with deliberate drug overdoses are already on the social services radar and need psychiatric treatment. Adolescents who survive an intentional drug overdose are at risk of repeat drug overdoses in the future. For this reason, psychiatric assessment and drug addiction treatment in teens is extremely important. 26

Preventing Teen Drug Addiction

Teen drug addiction has a major impact on a child’s life. There are several things parents and guardians can do to help teenagers make healthy choices and avoid drug use.

Talk frankly about teen drug use. Parents should avoid lecturing. Instead, they should listen to their teen’s views and allow them to ask questions. It’s important to discuss the reasons not to use drugs and healthy ways to resist peer pressure. Parents should also talk about media messages that wrongfully trivialize (or even glorify) alcohol and drug use.

Form strong family bonds. It’s important to support adolescents by offering encouragement and praise for their accomplishments. Strong family bonds might help prevent teenagers from using and becoming addicted to drugs. In contrast, family conflict places adolescents at greater risk of misusing alcohol or other drugs.

Set a good example. Parents should set a good example by drinking in moderation, using prescription drugs only as directed, and never using illegal drugs. Children of parents with a history of substance use disorders are at higher risk for substance use and related problems themselves.

Establish rules and enforce discipline. Teenagers need direction. Parents should establish clear rules, such as leaving a party where drug use is taking place or not riding in a car driven by someone who has been drinking. If an adolescent breaks the rules, it’s important to follow through with the consequences and to do so consistently.

Keep track of prescription drugs. Teens sometimes obtain prescription drugs from the medicine cabinet in their homes. Parents should take an inventory of all prescription and over-the-counter medications. Highly-addictive prescription medications, such as opioid pain pills and stimulants, should be kept under lock.

Community and school programs: Besides family interventions, communities and schools can take steps that are beneficial in reducing drug addiction among teenagers. For example, some community programs identify high-risk youth with multiple behavioral problems, such as depression, aggression, or suicidal tendencies. These students are enrolled in programs that help them improve school performance and manage their mood and emotions. Such types of early interventions are effective in preventing or reducing teen drug use.

Role of healthcare providers. Unfortunately, it is not always routine for healthcare providers to screen for drug use among teenagers or offer any type of counseling. This is a missed opportunity to prevent drug addiction among the youth. Pediatricians and primary care providers should be proactive about screening, testing, and counseling for substance use disorders.

Getting Help for Teenage Drug Addiction

Drug use during the teenage years can set the tone for a lifetime of problems with addiction. That’s why it is important to recognize and treat teen drug addiction as early as possible. The sooner treatment is instituted, the more successful it is likely to be. Teen-friendly drug rehab facilities can help adolescents quit or reduce drug use. Addiction treatment centers for teens have programs that ensure safe withdrawal from illicit substances as well as assisting with emotional and social issues related to drug use.

When Do I Call a Teen Drug Use Hotline?

When deciding to call a teen drug use hotline, many questions go through a parent’s head. Is my child just going through a phase? Am I overreacting? Will they question my parenting and make me feel bad if I call?

These are all valid questions brought on by the anxiety and worry about your teen’s well-being. Luckily, simply calling a teen drug use hotline can answer these questions and more. Someone can listen to your story, concerns, and fears in a supportive, non-judgmental way. The person on the other end of the line is ready to provide you with the support and resources most appropriate for your child.

So when is it best to call a hotline? Honestly, the sooner you call, the sooner you will get the information you need. Early intervention could prevent some very difficult situations down the line. After all, teens who misuse drugs or alcohol are more likely to develop other mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression. They also are more likely to drop out of school or enter the juvenile justice system. Teens that experiment with more dangerous drugs like heroin or prescription pills could risk irreversible health problems and even death by overdosing.

Consider calling even if you just need some one-on-one advice on how to talk to your teen about drugs and alcohol. In many cases, hotlines don’t cost money to call and you could request to remain anonymous if desired.

If you suspect your teen needs more help than you are capable of giving, the hotline can connect you with programs specifically designed for teen substance use problems. Those who answer our hotline will answer any questions you have about these types of programs. In addition, you will get insights as to which program is right for your child or loved one.

What Should I Expect When Calling a Teen Drug Hotline?

Chances are, when you decide to make the call, it can be a pivotal moment for the well-being of your family. Even though you promised yourself you wouldn’t get emotional, all the built-up worry and fear may be overwhelming when you finally get a chance to talk someone that really understands what you are going through. Have a pen and paper handy to jot down notes, other questions that arise, or important phone numbers.

The main goals of a teen drug hotline are to provide information and give you support. During the call, you are likely to discuss at least some of the following things:

  • Typical signs and symptoms related to teen drug use.
  • How to discuss drug or alcohol use with your child.
  • How your teen’s use and behaviors are affecting the family.
  • Information about addiction and how treatments can help.
  • Types of treatment options available and when they are appropriate.
  • A list of specific services you can contact as soon as possible to get your teen treatment if necessary.

Some hotlines will ask if they could follow up with you in a couple weeks to see how things are going. This is entirely up to you, but it could be helpful.

As a parent, you’ve experienced great joy watching your child grow up. Sure, there were some bumps along the road. Some difficult times. And maybe this seems to be one of the hardest. With the proper support, your teen and family will get the help necessary to triumph over this difficult time.

Last updated: September 16, 2020

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