Teen Drug Abuse: How To Identify The Signs And Deal With The Problem

It all starts with a few ‘harmless puffs of weed’. Or a teeny-weeny bit of ‘ecstasy’ at some party. And from there it is usually downhill unless you intervene.

Teenagers like to experiment. And one of the things that they want to try when they are in high school is drugs. According to the UN, initiation to the world of illegal drug use happens during adolescence (1). MomJunction tells you how to prevent drug abuse in teenagers, and what you should do in the case of drug abuse.

Defining Drug Abuse

A drug can be a prescription medicine that you use for treating a medical condition. A drug can also be an illegal narcotic substance such as marijuana, cocaine, and heroin.

When a person becomes habituated to taking illegal drugs, it is called drug abuse. Drug abuse is a relapsing brain disease that leads to the compulsive use of drugs, regardless of the adverse consequences (2). Drug abuse is when someone:

  • continues to use prescription medication habitually, long after he or she was supposed to stop using them. Examples of abuse include using false prescriptions to procure painkillers or using the drugs meant for someone else.
    • purchases illegal drugs or narcotics such as marijuana, cocaine, ecstasy, and other synthetic drugs for personal use.
  • is dependent on prescription drugs for regular functioning.
  • shows withdrawal symptoms after stopping the use of the said drug.
  • consumes more than the prescribed dosage of drugs.
  • is almost always under the influence of an illegal drug.

Excessive use of drugs has negative consequences and leads to harmful behavior in the long-run.

The potential for developing cancer, blood pressure problems, and even stroke are higher when a person misuses drugs for a long period.

Teenage Drug Abuse Facts And Statistics

One out of every four people who uses drugs in Central and Eastern Europe is under the age of 20 (3). Here are some more alarming facts and statistics about teenage drug abuse around the world.

  • Cannabis or marijuana is the most commonly used illicit drug among teenagers in the US.
  • Drug use among adolescents aged between 15 and 19 is a growing concern globally (4).
  • Majority of drug overdose deaths in the US are due to abuse of prescription drug overdose and not illicit drug use. 60% of teenagers who misuse prescription drugs get them from friends and family who are meant to use them (5).
  • Teens, who performed poorly in academics, were four times more likely to have used marijuana (6).

In the US, high school students are likely to use marijuana at least once, and 64% of them say that they have used prescription drugs obtained from a friend or family member (7).

Drugs Commonly Abused By Teens

What kind of drugs do teens usually take?

In this section, we give you an overview of the typical drugs that teenagers are likely to get their hands on.

1. Cannabinoids

Cannabinoids such as marijuana and hashish are the most commonly used drugs, owing to their widespread availability. Cannabis is grown in almost all countries around the world and is also used medically to treat muscle spasms caused due to multiple sclerosis, chemotherapy-induced nausea, Crohn’s disease, and seizure disorders. Teenagers can even get access to marijuana legally, using a friend’s or relative’s medical marijuana card (in the US where medical marijuana is legal).

2. Narcotics

Narcotics are powerful psychoactive compounds with sleep-inducing properties. Common narcotics that teenagers can get their hands on include heroin, morphine, codeine, oxycodone (Oxycontin), and hydrocodone (Vicodin) (8).

3. Prescription medicines

Prescription painkillers are perhaps the most easily accessible drugs for a teenager with a friend or a relative who has a prescription for them. Adderall, Ritalin, amphetamines, cold and cough medicines, tranquilizers, and prescription painkillers such as Vicodin and oxycodone are the drugs that teens are likely to look for (8).

While a teenager addicted to the feeling of ‘high’ may deliberately take an excess of these prescription medicines, some teens may end up taking too many due to lack of information about their side-effects.

4. Sedatives

Sedative drugs are often used to treat anxiety disorder and have a sleep-inducing property. The commonly used sedative drugs include barbiturates such as Amytal and Seconal. Besides these, other medications may also contain sedative properties that depress the central nervous system, making the person dull or extremely relaxed and sleepy (9).

5. Antidepressants

Antidepressants are meant to have a calming effect on the person, and may even induce sleep when taken in higher doses. Usually, one does not get addicted to these medicines as one would to narcotics or cannabinoids. However, it is easy to develop a dependency on these medicines, which may alter the brain’s structure a little.

Commonly prescribed antidepressants include escitalopram, citalopram, fluoxetine, sertraline, paroxetine and venlafaxine (10).

6. Hallucinogens and dissociative drugs

As the name suggests, this class of drugs causes hallucinations, which are a person’s altered perceptions of reality (9). LSD is the most commonly used hallucinogen and is made available illegally at clubs, pubs, and other such places. Other hallucinogens include Mescaline, Psilocybin (Magic Mushrooms), DXM, Salvia Divinorum, and PCP (angel dust).

7. Club drugs

Also known as party drugs, club drugs are often consumed with alcohol. These drugs contain methamphetamine, which is an addictive substance and has severe, long-term effects. Ecstacy, ketamine, LSD, and date-rape drugs such as Rohypnol and GHB are the common club drugs that teens can get their hands on.

If your doctor has prescribed any medication mentioned in the list above for your child, make sure that he or she takes no more than the prescribed dosage. If you are not wary, they could end up misusing drugs.

Why Do Teenagers Take Drugs?

All teens like to socialize, fit in, and go to parties. But not all of them do drugs, even though most of them drink, and others smoke. So why do teens take drugs? Here are the top ten reasons why a teen may abuse drugs.

1. To fit in

Peer pressure is perhaps the top cause of drug abuse among teenagers. An adolescent’s need to fit in, to belong to a particular group, and the need to be cool like the others in the group can push them to take drugs.

2. Get high

When a teenager takes an addictive drug, he or she experiences a ‘high’, owing to the excess dopamine and other ‘feel good’ hormones released by the brain. Teenagers tend to take more drugs to repeat that feeling of ‘high’, and eventually get addicted to them.

3. Because it is cool

Being a drug addict is not cool at all. But some teens think that it’s cool to take drugs, get drunk, and smoke. Such misconceptions are often a result of peer pressure and also negative effects of mainstream media where celebrities or influential figures are seen using drugs.

4. To experiment

Teenagers are a curious lot and almost always want to try something new. That is one of the reasons that adolescence is the time when most people are initiated into the world of drugs and alcohol! Most teenagers want to try how it feels to get high on drugs and when they like it, continue using drugs. Before they know it, they are addicted to the substance and have no control of themselves.

5. Because they are bored

Boredom and lack of excitement in life can also push the teen to try drugs or alcohol. If your child’s friends find normal activity boring, they could be tempted to try something more exciting or “cool”, such as taking drugs, taking your teen along with them.

6. Exercise their independence

Independence is one of the things that teenagers want to exercise at their age. Independence combined with misguided judgment can lead to poor choices that involve taking drugs and indulging in other harmful behavior.

7. Escape pain

Drug abuse is often a result of pain – physical or emotional. If your child has physical pain, he may become dependent on the painkillers, leading to abuse. Drugs are also used for coping with problems in the house, conflict between parents or domestic abuse, sexual abuse, or bullying.

Some teenagers dealing with depression, anxiety disorders, and other stress-related disorders tend to take drugs to escape pain.

8. To impress someone

Teenagers who are trying to impress a member of the opposite sex may lean towards drinking and taking drugs. Sometimes teenaged boys take drugs or drink more than they can contain to impress someone. For them, it could be about being ‘man enough’ to handle something strong like alcohol or narcotics.

9. To feel ‘grown-up’

Teenagers are not as mature as adults and don’t get to enjoy the privileges that adults do. In an attempt to feel ‘grown-up’ or like adults, teenagers start drinking and taking drugs.

10. Rebellion

Sometimes, teenagers take drugs just to hurt their parents and make them angry. It may start off as a one-time attempt to teach the parents a lesson. But before teens know it, they are addicted to the feeling of ‘high’.

Whatever be the reason for taking drugs, teenagers who start using illicit drugs early on are more at risk of becoming addicts as adults. Drug addiction is dangerous in more ways than one. Find out next.

Dangers Of Teen Drug Abuse

Excess use of drugs can only have adverse effects on the individual’s overall well-being. Misuse of drugs leads to physical and mental health problems in the long run. Dangers of teenage drug abuse include:

1. Poor cognitive development

Adolescence is a time when the person goes through physical and intellectual changes. Excess use of illicit drugs at such a vulnerable age can have a detrimental effect on the brain and can disrupt the teen’s ability to function normally (10).

Drug abuse can hamper proper brain development by interfering with the connections between the neurotransmitters and the brain, instilling harmful and unhealthy habits into the brain, and inhibiting the development of the child’s ability to perceptive things.

Drug abuse also minimizes the person’s ability to experience pleasure and affects the memory.

2. Addiction and dependency

Repeated use of drugs by teenagers can lead to addiction and dependency. Use of certain drugs can activate the reward center in the brain. When that happens over and over, the brain’s response to the drug changes and it prevents the person from exerting control over the urge to take the drug.

While it is true that some people are more vulnerable than others when it comes to addiction, studies have said that a person’s chances of becoming an addict are higher if they start taking drugs early on in life (11). That said, genetics, environmental factors, stress, physical trauma, or abuse and other factors can also contribute to drug addiction of teenagers (12).

3. Emotional problems

Excess use of drugs masks the presence of mental health problems such as depression, anxiety disorders, mood swings, suicidal tendencies, and schizophrenia. A study pointed out to a link between depressive symptoms and the initiation of drug use among teenagers (13).

4. Physiological changes

Teen drug abuse can increase the risk of illness, stroke, and heart disease. Repeated use of some drugs can lead to calcium leaching, which can make the bones brittle (14).

5. Behavioral changes

Drug abuse among teenagers increases the risk of behavioral problems and can contribute to developing social anxiety, suicidal thoughts, and aggression. If the teenager is taking drugs to push boundaries or to rebel against parents, his behavior can worsen.

And, if they become dependent on the drug, the kid may even start lying, stealing, and being secretive about his activities.

6. Risky sexual behavior

Drugs such as LSD, ecstasy, and other sedatives and hallucinogens have a way of changing the person’s perceptions. They are also sleep-inducing and often prevent the teen from thinking about the consequences of their actions. Adolescents indulging in drugs are at a higher risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), which can lead to infertility and also HIV (15).

Teenage girls are at risk of early pregnancy and of being sexually abused, especially at parties where Rohypnol is in supply.

7. Learning problems

According to a study, there is a possibility that drug abuse can lead to learning disabilities (16). Repeated use of drugs affects both long-term and short-term memory of the child and also affects the individual’s ability to learn later in life.

8. Danger to the society

A drug addict is a danger to self and the society, as they may misbehave and get aggressive or violent, when under the influence of t he drug. Dependency on the drug may drive the person to antisocial behavior, which involves stealing, lying, and use of violence just to get their hands on their drugs.

Do you suspect that your teenager is taking drugs, but are not sure about it? Keep reading to know how to identify a drug problem in teens.

Signs Of Teen Drug Abuse

When a teenager takes drugs occasionally or once in a blue moon, his or her behavior may not be out of the ordinary. But if the teen has been abusing drugs, there are definitive signs indicating the problem. Some of the common signs include:

  • Bloodshot eyes
  • Loss of interest in activities
  • Dilated pupils
  • Physical inactivity
  • Poor Hygiene and diminished personal appearance

Unusual appetite, frequent hunger pangs, eating or munching on something too often

  • Unusually tired
  • Moody, laughing for no reason, and overly anxious
  • Being secretive, avoiding eye contact and face to face conversations
  • Missing curfew, socializing with new friends at odd hours
  • Changes in attitude

Seeking more pain medicine than needed, or using painkillers even when not necessary

  • Depression and general apathy, isolation
  • Increased body odor, odor from clothes
  • Changes in sleep routine

Changes in car driving habits – drug abusers may often seem reckless when driving a vehicle

Watch out for these signs early on to prevent the child from forming a dependency on the drug(s). In case the teenager has already become dependent on the drug, you can help them come out of the addiction through rehabilitation and other treatment options.

Dealing With Drug Abuse – Treatment And Rehabilitation

Drug addiction and dependency is an illness and can be treated with timely intervention and rehabilitation. The extent of treatment depends on how far the drugs have changed the teen’s brain. The time taken to come out of addiction varies from one person to another, depending on the response to the treatment.

Successful treatment for drug addiction focuses on:

  • detoxification – a process that eliminates all traces of the drug from the body
  • behavioral counseling
  • medications, in cases of opioid abuse
  • treatment of any co-occurring mental health or behavioral disorders
  • long-term follow-up to monitor the teen and prevent relapses

Remember that there is no one-size-fits-all treatment for drug addiction and dependency. The medical professional may recommend one or a combination of the following treatment options to treat a teenager with drug problems.

1. Behavioral approach

These enable the teenager to actively participate in the treatment and the recovery program while enhancing the child’s ability to resist the urge to take the drug. Adolescents can join in the following treatment options under this approach (16).

  • Group therapy is a form of peer support program that helps them achieve abstinence. Group therapies are led by trained cognitive behavioral therapists who reinforce positive changes through support and incentives for staying away from drugs. However, this kind of treatment also has risks of the teenager being steered away from the goal of drug-abstinence by other members of the group.
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy or CBT is a one-on-one approach that focuses on teaching the teenager to anticipate problems, and develop coping strategies that work. This therapy helps the teen look at the positives and negatives of drug use and helps them replace negative behavior with positive ones.
  • Motivational enhancement therapy (MET) is an interview-based approach that focuses on encouraging teens to partake in the treatment and abstain from drugs. The treatment begins with an assessment of the teen’s motivation to participate in the therapy to quit drugs. This is followed by individual sessions with the therapist that focus on educating the teen about the importance of treatment and motivating them to participate.
  • Contingency management uses immediate rewards to appreciate and encourage positive behavior. This treatment involves in giving away low-cost incentives such as coupons, movie tickets, or cash vouchers in exchange for achieving a goal during the treatment to resist the impulse of taking drugs.

In addition to these, there is the 12-step facilitation therapy that enables the teen’s chances of following the 12-step Narcotics Anonymous (NA) program to stay away from drugs.

2. Family intervention and therapy

This approach emphasizes the importance of involving family members including parents, siblings, and friends to support the teen in kicking the drug habit. Family-based therapies also focus on other significant problems such as familial conflicts, communication problems, and problems such as mental health issues and learning disorders that can affect the individual’s family as well.

Therapies under this approach include the below:

  • Family behavior therapy is a tried and tested therapy that has produced positive results treating adults and teens. The therapy combines contingency management and behavior modification to address substance abuse as well as other behavioral problems. The teenager as well as one or both the parents have to participate in the treatment process, discuss, and choose the ideal course of treatment from the list of evidence-based treatments for fighting drug dependency.
  • In brief strategic family therapy (BSFT) the problems of one member are likely to have stemmed from familial conflicts or unhealthy family interactions. Over a period of 12-16 weeks, the counselor will work on understanding each family member and work on changing their negative interaction patterns. This treatment works for teens who have developed drug-related problems owing to family problems.
  • Functional family therapy focuses on the premise that the functioning of a family determines the behavior of the individuals in it. The therapy uses behavioral techniques to address unhealthy family interactions, communication problems, and individual behavior patterns that may have contributed to the teenager’s drug problem.
  • Multidimensional family therapy is a community-based therapy approach that focuses on high-risk teenagers with substance abuse and conduct problems. This system works on promoting family competency in collaboration with the school and juvenile justice system. This therapy has been proved to be effective in reintroducing juvenile delinquents with a drug problem, back into the society.
  • Multisystemic therapy is also family and community-based therapy that works best with teenagers with a drug abuse problem, and those who are prone to aggressive or violent behavior. The therapist will look at substance abuse problems in terms of the individual’s attitude towards drug use, the familial environment, attitude of friends, the subculture in the neighborhood, and the teen’s performance at school, or the lack of it.

3. Addiction medications

Medications are considered to be effective where the teenager is addicted to opioid, nicotine, and alcohol. However, there aren’t any FDA approved medications for treating drug addiction in adolescents. Also, the medications do not aid in treating addiction to cannabis, cocaine, and methamphetamine in teens.

Some of the commonly used medications to treat opioid addiction include:

  • Buprenorphine, which helps in eliminating any symptoms of withdrawal after detoxification. It is used to control any cravings for the drug, without high-risk side-effects that the opioid has. Buprenorphine works by activating and blocking the opioid receptors in the brain.
  • Naltrexone is used to prevent relapses in adults. The FDA approves it for treating opioid addiction among adults, but it has not been tested for use in adolescents. This medicine works by blocking the opioid receptors, thus preventing the high that the teen would feel when he uses the drug.
  • Methadone is also used to prevent withdrawal symptoms and the cravings for the drug. It works by activating the opioid receptors in the brain. While this drug is also approved only for use by adults, it can be used for adolescents in some cases. A few states in the US allow methadone treatment for teenagers, but only if there is sufficient proof that their detoxification and other drug-free treatments have failed.

Medication for drug addiction should be used sparingly, and only if the doctors recommend, as part of the treatment. If the doctor prescribes medication, ask about any side-effects and check if it is safe for young adults.

In cases of drug abuse, continuous care is essential to help the child stay on the right track.

4. Recovery support mechanisms

Continuous monitoring and support are necessary to ensure that the progress made during therapy is not lost. For this, there are recovery support options for the teenager.

  • Assertive continuing care (ACC) is a doctor-assisted support program to prevent relapse. Usually followed by the A-CRA therapy program, ACC is hosted at the teenager’s home and involves one-on-one sessions for developing communication skills and positive social skills.
  • Peer recovery support services include community recovery services supporting recovering adolescents stay clean and build social skills. The communities usually have peer leaders who have dealt with addiction or abuse themselves, to guide the recovering teens.
  • Recovery high schools are special schools for teenagers recovering from drug addiction. These schools are a set of institutions within the public school systems but focus only on recovering teens. The schedules and the physical set up of the schools are such that kids with drug problems and the others are segregated.

In addition to these, there are community support programs such as narcotics anonymous that the teenager can seek help and support from to stay sober and clean.

Helping the child come out of drug addiction or substance abuse be very taxing for you and the entire family. If you have a teenager or a pre-teen at home, know that you can always prevent them from getting addicted to drugs.

Preventing Teenage Drug Abuse

Parenting is all about commitment. And that commitment, with a lot of love and compassion, is all you need to help your child stay away from drugs and lead a healthy life. Keep reading to know how.

  • Teach the kid to say NO! Most often, it is peer pressure that motivates the teenager to try drugs. Fear of negative reactions or criticism from friends and the idea that ‘taking drugs is cool’ or ‘everyone is doing it, so why shouldn’t I?’ can be the culprits that push the teen to this habit. Teach your teen to make his or her own decisions without being influenced by peers.
  • Pay attention to your teen’s friend circle. Help them choose their friends wisely and encourage them to communicate their views or opinions freely. If they are hanging out with a group where everyone drinks or takes drugs, you might want to encourage the teen to make some new friends.
  • Educate yourself about the signs of drug addiction and watch out for them if you suspect that your teen is abusing drugs. Do not assume that it won’t happen in your family. Teenagers are vulnerable and can be turned to drugs and alcohol with some pressure.
  • Connect with your children and gain their trust. As they grow older, adolescents need someone they can trust to talk about delicate issues such as alcohol or drug use, relationships, career, and other important life decisions. Having a positive role model can help them stay on the right path.
  • Talk to your children about the consequences of substance abuse. Also, have consequences of your own for negative behavior or actions including taking drugs or alcohol.
  • Set family rules for alcohol consumption and drug use and ensure that everybody follows them. Explain in detail why the rules are in place and make sure that even adults in the family follow the rules, to set a good example.
  • Challenges in life can also push the teen to rely on drugs and alcohol to ease the pain. Teaching the child to deal with stress caused by life problems is an effective way in keeping the child away from substance abuse.
  • Kids with mental illnesses are more likely to use drugs. So watch out for any signs that indicate behavioral or mental health issues such as depression, anxiety disorder, and such. Getting help in time can also reduce the chances of drug or alcohol abuse.
  • Remove any environmental, biological, and physical risk factors that may contribute to stress, which may increase the teenager’s need to use drugs. Conflicts in the family or between parents, communication problems, problems with siblings, etc., should be handled efficiently to eliminate any stress caused by them.

If you suspect that your teenager has started taking drugs, talk to them. You may even want to include random drug tests to know if they are taking drugs. This also allows you to act immediately and eliminate the problem before it becomes bigger.

Drug addiction is one of the most dangerous problems that youth today has to deal with. As a parent, you can save them from this evil. All you need to do is be watchful as the child enters adolescence and guide him or her through the teen years. Talk to them, hold their hand when they need you, and be the best parent you can be by offering support. Criticizing or punishing them for using drugs will only make matters worse.

But a little love and understanding can turn the tide in your favor.

Do you have any suggestions on dealing with teen drug abuse? Share them with us in our comments section.

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