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Recognizing Drug Use By Teenagers

The prospect of your child abusing drugs or alcohol is one of every parent’s worst fears. There is so much of their life that you can’t control, and even the busiest kid will encounter opportunities to make bad decisions. Teen drinking and drug use must be identified as early as possible to reduce the potential for lifelong consequences.

Learning what influences substance use in teens is the first step to providing your child with the tools necessary to grow up healthy and free of addiction. If you worry that your child is already abusing one or more substances, learning more about the causes and effects of teen drug abuse is the first step in taking action.

Why Do Teens Use Drugs?

Even though we were all teens at one point, it can often be incredibly hard to figure out why they do the things they do. From your perspective, drug use is obviously and objectively an awful decision. From your teen’s perspective, trying new and different experiences is just par for the course ⁠— and unfortunately, that spirit of adventure can result in an adolescent trying an addictive substance for the first time.

A new five-year study on adolescence in the animal kingdom sheds some light on why teenagers engage in risky behavior. Just like adolescent animals, teens face multiple instances of danger as they’re growing up, without the expertise to handle each new situation. Your child might not be facing a bloodthirsty predator every time they go out, but they do have to figure out what to do when faced with situations that endanger them.

The study talks about the term “predator inspection.” The term was coined to describe a strange behavior seen in adolescent animals, in which they approach predator animals to learn more about them rather than just fleeing as their adult counterparts do. This counterintuitive behavior serves to give animals more experience that helps them survive in the long run, but it can result in serious consequences for teens. Here are three additional reasons youth decide to use drugs.

1. Peer Pressure

Although most teens will roll their eyes at any mention of peer pressure, it is a significant factor in the onset of drug abuse. When a kid sees the people around them engaging in a particular type of behavior, that behavior automatically becomes more normal in their eyes. In this way, peers can have a huge influence on a teen’s behavior without even having to pressure them.

When a teen does feel pressured, however, it can overwhelm their better judgment. Curiosity and the need to fit in can easily sway even the most responsible teen into making a bad decision regarding drugs.

2. Stress

Stress is a well-known factor in the development of addiction, and today’s teens are feeling it more than ever. You may feel like your teen doesn’t have that much to worry about since you provide financial support and they go to school rather than having to hold down a job, but a study by the American Psychological Association found that teenagers experience stress in similar patterns to adults.

In fact, during the school year, teens self-reported stress at higher levels than reported by adults. It affects them deeply — 31% feel overwhelmed and 30% feel depressed or sad because of their stress. Drugs like marijuana, opioids or benzodiazepines may appeal to teens who are stressed as a means of relaxing, but they don’t realize how easily they can become addicted to these substances.

3. Boredom

On the other end of the spectrum from stress lies boredom. Developing teen brains seek out ways to stay entertained, and drug use may seem like a convenient way to manufacture fun. If a teen starts using drugs as a way to alleviate boredom, they run the risk of becoming so dependent on substances that regular activities lose their luster. A teen using drugs is far more likely to drop extra-curricular activities and hobbies than their sober counterparts.

Drugs Commonly Abused by Teens

You know drugs are an issue, but you’re probably also aware that the threats facing teens have changed a bit since you were a kid. These are five of the most common drugs for teens to try during their high school years.

1. Alcohol

Alcohol is the number one substance used by teens in the United States. By age 18, almost 60% of young people have had at least one drink, and they’re more likely to binge drink than adults. One reason teens gravitate toward alcohol is that it’s very easily obtained. Whether they get it from an older kid or sneak it out of a parent’s liquor cabinet, alcohol is not hard to find.

The other problem with alcohol is that it’s legal and there’s marketing for it everywhere. More than half of adolescents encounter some form of alcohol marketing on the internet, and more exposure to marketing increases the risk of teens engaging in binge drinking.

2. Marijuana

With growing legalization efforts, teens’ perception of marijuana has changed. Many don’t believe it to be dangerous at all, leading to the highest rates of teen marijuana use in three decades. Adolescents are more likely to use marijuana than cigarettes, with more than 43% of 12th graders having used marijuana at least once in their lifetime.

Despite perceptions of marijuana as a “safe” drug, it results in physical effects like chronic coughing from the smoke, and psychological effects such as addiction.

3. Nicotine

Although teens are using less tobacco than they did several years ago, they’re still consuming nicotine in concerning quantities. Due to the increasing popularity of vaping, teens are displaying worrying signs of nicotine addiction in record numbers. In 2017, 11% of high school seniors reported vaping nicotine in the month before the Monitoring the Future survey. By 2019, that percentage almost doubled to 20.9%.

The most common method of nicotine delivery is the use of vaping devices like Juul. These flash drive-like devices use disposable cartridges that can contain as much nicotine as a full pack of cigarettes, making it far too easy for a teen to get addicted.

4. Stimulants

Stimulants are some of the most commonly prescribed drugs. They are given to manage the symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), but illegitimate use is usually meant to improve academic performance. For teens in rigorous academic programs, the stress of keeping grades up and performing well on standardized tests can be enough to make them seek out ways to be more productive.

Teens illicitly take prescription stimulants with the intention of increasing their focus and ability to study for long periods of time. However, the side effects include dangerous changes in blood pressure and heartbeat as well as paranoia, among other things.

5. Inhalants

Among younger teens, inhalants are a popular way to get high. The category includes volatile solvents, aerosols, and gases, and younger teens use them because they are relatively easy to obtain. Eighth graders are twice as likely to use inhalants as 12th graders. Inhalants are particularly dangerous because they can cause death by overdose after just one use. The side effects depend on the substance being inhaled, but they frequently include seizures and asphyxiation.

Signs of Teen Drug Use

Teens will always attempt to hide their drug use, and it’s up to you to uncover it. Identifying teen drug use can be challenging due to the naturally inconsistent behavior of adolescents, but these symptoms are strong indicators that your teen is using drugs:

  • Marked change in academic performance
  • Frequent bloodshot eyes
  • Laughing for no apparent reason
  • Decline in personal hygiene
  • Loss of interest in hobbies or activities
  • Increase or decrease in appetite
  • Frequent tiredness
  • Secretive behavior

Drug use can drastically change a teen’s demeanor and behavior. One of the first changes to look out for is your teen frequently hanging out with new friends they don’t want you to meet. They might start skipping family dinners and stay in their rooms whenever possible. When they do go out, they may begin ignoring curfew.

A lack of motivation is another big sign of drug abuse. If your teen suddenly seems more apathetic and doesn’t get much done, it may be because they’re preoccupied with getting and using an illicit substance. They may seem tired and fatigued all the time due to the toll use of any drug takes on the body.

Drugs generally cause intoxication that changes how your teen communicates. Alcohol and marijuana may result in slurred speech, while stimulants and inhalants may result in speech becoming rapid-fire. Additionally, drug use often results in a shutdown in communication. While your teen might not have been champing at the bit to have long conversations with you under normal circumstances, you’ll likely notice a reduction in willingness to communicate if they start abusing a substance.

The Impact of Drug Use on Teenagers

Anyone who uses drugs is likely to deny that there are any real or lasting consequences. Teens are especially poorly equipped to fully understand the consequences of their decision to abuse drugs or alcohol, making it crucial to explain exactly what can happen when drug use continues unchecked.

1. Addiction

Any substance used for recreational purposes can become addictive. Even marijuana, which in the past was characterized as non-addictive, can result in dependence and withdrawal when a teen tries to stop smoking it. Once a young adult develops an addiction, there are only two paths to take. They will have to spend their life managing drug cravings, or they can continue using the drug and deal with the consequences throughout their adult life.

2. Brain Damage

Young people are working with brains that aren’t completely developed until about age 25. During this period of development, the brain is particularly susceptible to the effects of drugs. Alcohol is particularly destructive to the brain, affecting areas responsible for verbal and non-verbal memory and other regions tied to learning.

Marijuana can deeply affect the brain as well, with persistent users experiencing declines in IQ that last well into adulthood and possibly permanently. Inhalants, which are almost all highly toxic, can actually shrink the entire brain in addition to damaging individual regions. Brain damage is a very tangible result of drug use that can happen rapidly with any drug.

3. Academic Decline

Drugs change the brain in ways that make it harder to learn, but addiction also reduces the motivation necessary to do well in school. In a normally-functioning brain, the reward system releases small amounts of the feel-good chemical dopamine in response to achievements like doing well on a project or acing a test. Drug use triggers a huge release of this chemical with no effort involved, and over time the reward derived from normal activities is drastically reduced.

A teen abusing drugs will lose the rewarding feeling associated with academic performance and focus instead on the artificial positive feelings they get from substance abuse. As a result, their grades will slip and even formerly dedicated students will lose interest in school.

4. Health Problems

Drugs interact with the body on every level, wreaking havoc on all critical systems. The extent of issues caused by drug use depends on the substance and level of abuse, but teens who frequently use drugs and alcohol can expect to see these health effects:

  • Cardiovascular issues
  • Gastrointestinal issues
  • Respiratory system issues
  • Liver damage
  • Kidney damage
  • Impaired immune system function

One of the first signs of a health problem caused by substance abuse is fatigue. When a teen is extremely tired as a consequence of drug use, it’s often because the substance is affecting the function of the liver which impacts neurotransmission in the brain.

Teens are particularly likely to brush off the health effects of addiction. They have trouble thinking rationally about the future, and may feel like occasional use won’t have any real consequences.

5. Mental Illness

Substance abuse and mental health are closely linked. “Comorbidity” is the term used to describe having a substance use disorder along with a mental health disorder, and it requires special dual diagnosis treatment. About half of people with addiction also experience a mental illness at some point. If your teen is already struggling with something like anxiety or depression, drug abuse will worsen it.

Confronting Teen Drug Abuse

With access to the internet, teens can come up with more ways to conceal substance abuse. If you’re concerned that your child is using drugs or drinking but you can’t find evidence, the best course of action is to ask them about it directly. These conversations are difficult and stressful, but not intervening can have devastating consequences that follow your teen for the rest of their life.

Your first step should be to research the substance you think your child is using. Having a solid knowledge base about the drug will increase your authority and make it clear that you know what you’re talking about. If communicating with your child doesn’t stop the behavior, you’ll need to investigate options for addiction treatment. The earlier you take action, the more likely it is that therapy or a full treatment program will be successful in stopping your teenager’s drug use.

At Tranquil Shores, we provide individualized treatment for those 18 and older who struggle with substance use disorders. Learn more about the integrative recovery model and start helping your family recover from your teen’s drug use today.

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