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Teen Addiction

Prolonged drug and alcohol abuse can cause chemical changes in your child's brain, allowing addiction to develop. If your teenager is struggling with addiction, it’s time to seek help.


12 min read

What Is Addiction?

Addiction is a disease that takes place in the brain. It occurs when the reward, motivation and memory circuitries are rewired, leading to insatiable cravings for a particular action or item. When someone suffers from addiction, their thought process revolves around the singular pursuit of that item — whether it’s alcohol, drugs, gambling or so on.

The most harrowing thing about addiction is that it does not discriminate. Even the most well-rounded individuals can succumb to lifelong addictions. Why should you be concerned about your teenager? Because often times, the long-term battle with substance use and addiction begins during adolescence.

Adding to the complexity of the issue is a prevailing indifference that’s associated with illicit drug use — despite the fact that the availability, variety and potency of these substances has grown tremendously. Over the last 10 years, teens have dramatically relaxed their opinions on how harmful illicit drug use can be. Among 8th graders in particular, in 2004, 31.9% said they felt smoking marijuana once or twice was risky. That percentage dropped to 23% a decade later. With regards to ecstasy, 42.5% of the same group felt it was risky to use it, the percentage dropping dramatically to 24.3% a decade later.

Considering all of the dangers of addiction, this absence of a sense of urgency — or at least, the decrease in one — demands your concern. The truth is, addiction can start with just one hit or one drink. But staying involved in your teen’s life and opening the lines of communication with them can make all the difference in the world.

You need to make your child’s business your business, and do your part to help them avoid drug abuse and addiction — for their future’s sake. The most commonly used addictive drug, marijuana, is used by 35% of high school seniors each year. Abuse of this drug alone is linked to lower grades, less likely graduation, less likely enrollment in college, lower satisfaction with life, less consistent employment and less likelihood that their jobs will have a good income.

Toss in the long-term (and short-term) risks of every other addictive substance and it’s not hard to see why teen addictions are no laughing matter. Among 12th graders, 25% report using at least one illicit drug and 39% report drinking alcohol. In the U.S., there may be as many as 2 million teens who qualify as needing help for substance addiction.

What Causes Teen Addiction?

teenage pot booze  at a house party

Teen addiction can hinge on several factors, but perhaps none is more influential than their school environments. Even if your teen doesn’t have a problem, they may know or come across peers that do. Among high school students, 97% report that their classmates drink, use drugs or smoke. Regarding dealers, 44% report that they know a peer selling drugs at school. By a wide margin, marijuana is the most widely distributed drug in high schools.

Social media also plays a major role in what Columbia University research has dubbed “digital peer pressure.” Teens who have merely seen pictures on Facebook and other social networks of kids drunk, passed out, or using drugs are:

  • 4 times more likely to have used marijuana than teens who haven’t seen those photos.
  • 3 times more likely to have used alcohol than teens who haven’t seen those photos.
  • 3 times more likely to have used tobacco than teens who haven’t seen those photos.

Why is this data especially important? In particular, the long-term impact early substance use and experimentation can have on the brain cannot be overstated.

“Addiction is a pediatric disease,”

says Dr. John Knight, founder and director of the Center for Adolescent Substance Abuse Research at Boston Children's Hospital.

When adults entering addiction treatment are asked when they first began drinking or using drugs, the answer is almost always the same: They started when they were young — teenagers.

“When people start using at younger ages, the changes in brain structure and function are very, very pronounced,” explains Dr. Knight. “If we could only get kids to postpone their first drink or their first use of drugs, we could greatly diminish the prevalence of addiction in the U.S.”

In other words, while a teen’s high school partying may seem justified considering their age, there are dangers you should be aware of that have far-reaching consequences.

How Can I Tell If My Teen Has a Problem?

Many dangerous substances are out there, fighting for your teen’s attention — each with its own set of side effects and signs. In the United States alone, there are an estimated 1 million drugs or teens who abuse alcohol — millions of others dabble with substance use in one way or another. Nobody likes to imagine it, but there’s a good chance your teen has already started experimenting; if he or she hasn’t, their friends probably have.

Patterns of abuse and addiction can begin as soon as the first use. And that’s really the biggest danger of addiction: a little can go a long way. The risks that go along with a teen’s substance abuse are incalculable. In general, when an addiction has developed, a number of common signs can be easy to spot. These will include:

  • A loss of control — making decisions to feed their problem, even though they know better.
  • Changing appearance — little or no concern for hygiene or style, along with a dramatic physical deterioration.
  • Health issues — going in and out of sickness, losing sleep, rapidly shifting weight, and exhibiting scars or bruises.
  • Neglecting responsibilities — skipping class, failing tests, constantly calling out of work, and forgetting plans with family or friends.
  • Acting suspicious — keeping more secrets, hanging out with a new crowd, and lying about their plans or whereabouts.
  • Tolerance and withdrawal — needing more and more of their substance to get high, and feeling ill or irritable when they can’t get it.

It’s important to note that these signs often manifest — and get worse — over time. While physical and behavioral changes in your teen could be due to the expected changes they go through during their adolescent years, if they go through dramatic alterations and replace trusted social circles with new circles that have bad habits, it may be a strong indication of a storm brewing.

Addicts will also have a hard time with job security, relationships, financial stability and law enforcement. Usually, the refrain is “It will never happen to me.” But the sobering truth is that it might. Because it does. One way or another, it pays to stay involved in your teen’s life.

What Are the Risks of Substance Addiction?

Teenage Couple Taking Drugs At Home

Teens wrapped up in substance issues jeopardize their potential success — in high school, college and future jobs — as well as their personal happiness. The risks of addiction only begin there. Addiction can put your teen in harm’s way, mentally, emotionally, and especially physically. Nearly 900,000 people under age 20 went to the ER for substance-related visits in 2009. Many never return home.

The risks of teen substance addiction can be divided into three categories:

How the Body Is Affected

A one-time experiment with substances can be enough to cause sickness, overdose — when there’s so much of the substance in the blood, the body can’t detoxify itself quick enough to function properly — or even death. With prolonged and heavy use, teens are putting their body through a gauntlet that can have severe ramifications. If your teen’s substance use evolves into an addiction, they can lose control of how much they use and how often.

Drugs and alcohol can break down the body in practically every way imaginable. The physical health risks of substance abuse include, but are not limited to:

  • Weakened immune system
  • Extreme sickness
  • Weight loss or weight gain
  • Damage to vital organs
  • Heart problems (stroke, heart attack, etc.)
  • Dehydration
  • Hypothermia or hyperthermia
  • Coma
  • Seizures
  • Cancer
  • STDs or pregnancy from risky sexual behavior

While these physical effects may not take their toll on your teen immediately, their long-term potential for damage cannot be understated.

How the Brain Is Affected

The toxic chemicals in drugs and alcohol shoot straight to the brain. Substance and drug abuse and addiction can alter the brain, affecting how it looks and functions. This damage can often be irreversible. Drugs and alcohol can be especially destructive during the teenage years, impacting the brain’s development.

During adolescence, the prefrontal cortex is still maturing. It’s the area in the brain that allows for situational awareness and decision-making. While the brain’s development during this period already means that teens are prone to making poor decisions, drugs and alcohol only do more damage. Teens who get hooked on substances early report lower memory capabilities, logic and reasoning, reaction time and attention span. Even later in life, if and when they are sober, these side effects will linger.

At a certain point, the brain can become dependent on substances, convincing an addicted teen to engage in otherwise reckless behaviors to feed their addiction — despite all the apparent harm and risks. Behaviorally, an addiction can also leave teens significantly depressed, anxious, irritable and restless.

Violence, Crime and Other Risks

A 2010 report showed that 65% of all U.S. prison inmates meet the criteria for substance abuse or addiction and 90% began in high school. That’s not to say that any teen who struggles with substances is destined for prison. But it’s hard to ignore that drugs and alcohol serve as catalysts for destructive behavior, which can snowball into serious issues with major legal ramifications if the underlying issues never get resolved. Of the 2.4 million juvenile arrests in 2014, 1.9 million dealt with substance problems.

The effects of drugs and alcohol, along with the lengths one will go to when addicted, can stir up violent and unpredictable behavior. Teens can lose their better judgment, and wind up in fights with friends, classmates, drug dealers, authority figures — even strangers. Addiction also drives many teens to lives of crime, including vandalism, theft, and driving while intoxicated.

Promiscuity and high-risk sexual behavior is another serious risk, as inhibitions and even coherence can go out the window while teens are high or drunk. Teens who mix substances and sex can walk away with sexually-transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies. Drugs and alcohol also increase the threat of date rape or sexual abuse.

An addiction can also ruin a teen’s reputation among peers and diminish their own social activity. Addicts in high school are often outcasts, introverts, and run the risk of dragging friends down with them. Teens can be especially cruel when reacting to a classmate battling addiction. This social dysfunction will only aggravate the situation, and can cause teens to respond by doing more and harder substances. That’s why as a parent, you need to maintain an active and loving relationship with your teen. If they develop a problem, you may be the only person ready and willing to help. Your value in their life is immeasurable.

Are Teen Addictions Treatable?

ecstasy being handed over at a house party

In many cases, addiction can be addressed with professional treatment. If your teen is battling some sort of addiction, there are thousands of specialists out there eager to help. The field of recovery and rehab is among the fastest-growing in the world. More than 14,000 treatment facilities exist in the United States and the number shows no sign of slowing down. Many of these clinics are uniquely equipped to address issues that young people face, with many prioritizing teen addiction cases. If you’re able to spot your teen’s problem early enough, rehab specialists can do their part to help them beat their addiction.

But not every addiction requires professional help or rehab facilities. With the right support system, some teens overcome substance problems with relative ease. If you suspect a problem, though, don’t gamble with your teen’s future. Learn whether or not intervention is the best approach to take to get them back on the path to a bright future.

Does My Teenager Need Professional Treatment?

If you notice signs of addiction in your child, make this situation your number one priority. Even if you’re not certain that your child is addicted, it’s still important to address this quickly. Better safe than sorry. We at have spoken with many parents who ignored the first signs of their child’s addiction, and later wished they had simply taken steps to mitigate the problem before it worsened.

If you do not know where to begin, you can speak with one of our addiction specialists at, free of cost. We exist to help parents just like you, who are concerned for their teenager’s wellbeing. Please feel free to get in touch with us or any other substance abuse hotline for free, confidential guidance. We can help you wade through the confusion of this situation and help define any next steps that you should take. Whether you’d like details on insurance coverage for treatment, you’re interested in learning about the different treatment options that may work for your child, or you just need someone to talk to, we’re here for you.

Don’t delay — take the first step toward bringing your child back to wellness. Call today. There’s no judgment, fee, or obligation — just care.


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