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Teen Drug Abuse

Two teen students walking away

Why do teens use alcohol or take drugs? Adolescents use substances for many of the same reasons as adults, but are often more susceptible to using due to factors such as peer pressure. They may start using to escape or as a solution, but substance use tends to lead to bigger problems for the teen, including academic troubles and legal difficulties. Some of the reasons teens take substances are:

  • To keep up with friends who use or to fit into a new social group (peer pressure)
  • Curiosity and/or experimentation
  • Seeing drinking or drug use portrayed as normal or cool in film, TV, music or online media
  • To relieve boredom, as a thrill, or to self-medicate
  • To escape, relax, or forget about problems
  • To rebel against or distance oneself from parents or other authority figures

Impact of Early Use

Teenage drug use impacts the impulse control part of the developing, not-yet-mature brain. Due to the immaturity of the adolescent brain, individuals who begin using substances as teenagers are at greater risk of becoming addicted compared to those who begin substance use as adults.

Risk Factors of Teen Substance Abuse

Risk factors for teen substance use include low levels of parental supervision and/or communication, family conflicts, inconsistent or severe parental discipline, and a family history of substance use disorder (SUD). Individual risk factors include difficulties handling impulses, emotional instability, thrill-seeking behaviors, and underestimating the consequences of using. Risk of SUD also increases during times of transition, such as changing schools, moving, or parent divorce. Societal risk factors for teenagers include peer pressure and the portrayal of teenage drinking in the media, including social media and advertising which promotes drinking behaviors in teenagers.

Warning Signs of Teen Substance Use Disorders

Sometimes detecting warning signs in teens may be easy, but it's often difficult since users try to hide their symptoms and downplay their problem. The challenge for parents is to distinguish between the normal ups and downs of adolescence and the red flags of SUD. If you are worried that a friend or family member may be abusing substances, look for the following warning signs:

  • Acting uncharacteristically isolated, withdrawn, angry, or depressed
  • Change in friends; being secretive about the new peer group
  • Change in favorite hangouts and hobbies; lying about new interests and activities
  • Demanding more privacy; locking doors; avoiding eye contact; sneaking around or not willing to share where they have been or what they were doing
  • Having bloodshot eyes or dilated pupils; using eye drops to try to mask these signs
  • Money, valuables, or prescriptions missing from the household
  • Skipping class; lower grades; suddenly getting into trouble at school

Drug Abuse Facts

  • Symptoms of SUD include tolerance to a substance, increased need to use more of the substance for a longer period of time, withdrawal episodes, and difficulties handling life issues due to the substance use.
  • SUD is a disease that varies based on the individual, one's family, one's genetics, and social factors.
  • SUD treatment is based on the stage of the addiction, including onset of the abuse, managing risk factors, and type of treatment needed.

Types of Substances Abused by Teenagers

Teens use the same substances as adults, though they use some at higher or lower rates due to having increased access to some substances and limited access to others. Common categories of substances abused by teenagers include the following:

  • Alcohol
  • Anabolic steroids, known as "juice or roids"
  • Bath salts, known as "bloom, cloud nine, scarface, vanilla sky, white lightning"
  • Club drugs, such as MDMA, short for 3, 4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine is most commonly known as "Ecstasy" and "Molly," and sometimes called "Adam, beans, clarity, E, hug, love drug, X, XTC"
  • Cold medications, such as chlorpheniramine and pseudoephedrine (Sudafed), diphenhydramine (Benadryl) and is known as "candy, dex, robotripping, robo, skittles, triple c, tussin, velvet"
  • Dissociative anesthetics, such as phencyclidine/PCP and ketamine, known "angel dust, boat, cat, K lovely, love boat, vitamin K"
  • Hallucinogens such as LSD (mushrooms), known as "acid, buttons, shrooms, yellow sunshines"
  • Inhalants, such as gasoline, ammonia, or nitrous oxide for huffing and known as "laughing gas, snappers, poppers, whippets"
  • Marijuana, sometimes called "grass, herb, Mary Jane, pot, skunk, and weed" and is smoked in a joint, blunt, bong, or pipe
  • Prescription drug abuse is when someone takes a medication in a way not intended by prescribed for a different reason (like getting high) or when someone takes a medication that was prescribed for someone else.
    • Depressants are called "A-minus, barbs, candy, downers, phennies, red birds, reds, sleeping pills, tooies, tranks, yellows, yellow jackets, zombie pills"
    • Opioids are called "happy pills, hillbilly heroin, OC, oxy, oxycotton, percs, vikes"
    • Stimulants are called "bennies, black beauties, hearts, roses, skippy, speed, the smart drug, uppers, vitamin R"
  • Spice, known as "black mamba, bliss, Bombay blue, fake weed, Genie, K2, moon rocks, skunk, Yucatan fire, zohai"
  • Tobacco products, including cigarettes, cigars, chewing tobacco

Additional information on common substance use can be found at NIDA for Teens Exit Disclaimer: You Are Leaving 

Five steps parents and/or guardians can take:

  • Lay down rules and consequences. Your teenager should understand that using substances comes with specific consequences. Be careful not to make hollow threats or set rules that you can't enforce. Ensure all parental adults agree with the rules and are prepared to enforce them.
  • Monitor your teen's activity. Know where your teen goes and who they hang out with. Routinely check for substances in potential hiding places such as in backpacks, between books on a shelf, and in DVD or make-up cases. Explain to your teenager that this lack of privacy is a consequence of their substance use.
  • Encourage other positive interests and social activities. Expose your teenager to healthful hobbies and activities, such as team sports and afterschool clubs.
  • Talk to your teen about underlying issues. SUD can be the result of other problems that cause stress, such as having trouble fitting in, or a recent major change in their lives, like a family move or divorce.
  • Get help. Teenagers often rebel against their parents, but if they hear the same information from a different authority figure, they may be more likely to listen. Other authority figures include sports coaches, family doctors, therapists, or drug counselors.


NIDA for Teens Exit Disclaimer: You Are Leaving  - National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA)

Tips for Teens Exit Disclaimer: You Are Leaving  - Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)