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Drug Addiction in Teens

Teen curled up on a couch facing away from the camera.
Marcy Willard
Marcy Willard
Ph.D., NCSP
Last modified 26 Aug 2022
Published 08 Mar 2022

What is Addiction in Teens?

Addiction in teens is a pattern of dependency on substances resulting in disorganization, disturbance in relationships, and erratic or uncharacteristic behaviors. 

Substance use is extremely common in teenagers. Although the precise reasons for increased teen substance use are not entirely clear, the availability of delivery methods like vape pens, and the legalization of marijuana and THC, could play a role. Recent estimates are that 1:5 high school students have vaped in the recent past [1].

However, not every kid who tries drugs will get addicted. 

“When the switch has flipped toward addiction, the substance becomes the coping strategy. For this reason, the opposite of addiction is not only abstinence. It’s healthy coping and strong connections with others.” 

The reason it is important to think about coping skills in the context of addiction is that most often people assume that a drug problem is just a behavior. 

They begin to think ‘if only’ their child had not encountered certain people or situations, ‘this would have never happened.’ Unfortunately, that faulty logic judges the behavior as an isolated event and fails to see the main problem: a hurting kid who needs your help. 

The challenge for parents is setting boundaries while also supporting and guiding your teenager through the inevitable pressures they will encounter. It is not unusual for teens to experiment with substances. If this happens, it is important to engage with your child from an early age, understand what they are doing, and set clear boundaries with love.

Top 10 Myths about Addiction in Teens

1. “He’s just being a boy. Every kid experiments at some point.” Although many kids will experiment with drugs, there is no reason to assume this behavior is normal or healthy for your child

2. “There’s nothing we can do.” If you are thinking there is nothing you can do to help your child or other family member with an addiction problem, read this book: No More Letting Go. In fact, the most loving act a family can take is to confront addiction and stay determined until you root it out of your home

“When the Hazelden Foundation asked sober alcoholics what set them on their new course to recovery, 77% said a family member intervened.” 

[2, p.9]

3. “Addiction is a lifestyle choice.” Most addiction starts in the teenage years when the brain is not fully developed in terms of judgment and decision making [2]. Once the teenager becomes addicted, a switch is flipped, making it very hard for the person to stop.

“Reports of binge drinking and the use of other drugs are common on college campuses but only 10 percent of students will develop an addiction. Genetics, not choice, determines their fate” [2, p.16]

4. “You have to wait until they want help.” This is perhaps the most insidious myth of all. Most addicts do not want help. They might want help with other aspects of their lives as things become unmanageable. However, once addiction takes hold, they will not generally seek help for their drug use

5. “Kids that use drugs usually come from bad homes.” As addiction’s primary driver is genetics, not environment, kids can get addicted no matter what type of family they have

6. “Teens who have good morals won’t use drugs or alcohol.” This is another brutal myth in that teenagers have seen literally over a billion ads for alcohol by the time they reach adulthood [2]. People put alcohol in their hands in college and the workplace. In our culture, we celebrate events and handle upsets with the common phrase, ‘you need a drink.’ Then, when someone gets addicted, we treat it like a moral issue. 

“The moral way of handling this situation in the family is to take action against the addiction while remaining supportive of the real person hidden behind the addict’s persona. With addiction at the wheel, your teen will act crazy, like someone you cannot even recognize. But your kiddo is in there. Have your face-off with addiction, not with your kid.” – Dr. Willard

7. “My teenager should be ashamed of himself for using drugs.” Anyone who has been to an AA or Alanon meeting will tell you that the first thing you learn is, ‘don’t shame me, blame me, or judge me.’ Your job is to stand by your teenager with a firm resolve and firm boundaries. It has nothing to do with shame

8. “It’s just his peer group that is the problem.” Yada yada. This statement is just another form of wishful thinking and denial. Yes, pay attention to what their peer group is doing, but hold your child responsible for their own behavior 

9. “I would do something about the addiction but we don’t have time right now.” As silly as this sounds, time can be a reason why families don’t get help for their loved ones with addiction issues. They say ‘he has a big tournament coming up,’ or ‘college applications,’ or ‘I have a big work trip next week.’ Remember that drugs can kill your teenager. Cocaine laced with fentanyl kills people frequently. Given the risks of overdose deaths, time is of the essence in a whole different way

10. “ABC drug is so much better than XYZ drug.” Unfortunately, drug companies and manufacturers are sending these messages to our kids:

  • Vape pens or e-cigarettes are so much better than real cigarettes. In fact, most vape pens have much more nicotine than cigarettes. Recent estimates are that one vape pen contains about 20 cigarettes worth of nicotine
  • THC is so much better than alcohol. There may be some aspects of alcohol that could be more dangerous or addictive. However, there are many harmful effects of THC on the teenage brain such as decreased memory, learning difficulties, and psychosis [3]. Further, THC in its current form is much more potent than ever before. Prior to the 1970’s, marijuana contained less than 1% THC. Today, weed contains about 30% THC and commercial concentrates have over 95% THC [8].
  • Prescription drugs are so much better than illegal drugs. In fact, your child’s brain does not know the difference between drugs that were prescribed by a doctor vs. purchased from a peer. Your doctor may not know what drugs your child is using when giving a prescription. Remember that chemical combinations produce different effects in your child’s brain
  • Beer, wine, and hard seltzers are so much better than hard alcohol. Again this is a myth, particularly with underage drinking, because it depends on how much alcohol is digested and your child’s unique chemical makeup

Hearing the above justifications, teenagers and parents start to believe that some drugs are ‘not that bad.’ 

Are all drugs extremely dangerous for teenagers? Well, as with many issues in life, ‘it depends.’ 

Symptoms of Addiction in Teens

  • Memory problems: Recent neuroscience research has shown that frequent marijuana use, particularly in teens, impacts memory [3]
  • Learning problems: The same research referenced above indicates that when children are using THC and then they stop, learning improves quite significantly, even after only a week of cessation [3]
  • Lying & manipulating: It is not unusual for a teenager to lie to their parents, especially when you have done your job in making it clear that drug use is against the rules. Although it is maddening to parents to find that they have been lied to, it is important to be aware that this is common behavior for a teenager to attempt to avoid consequences
  • Appearing high or intoxicated: Obvious signs of trouble are any observation that your child is under the influence. Take this seriously
  • Relationship changes: This important symptom of addiction often goes unnoticed. If your child stops hanging around the same friends, experiences rejection, a breakup or other turmoil, it can be possible that addiction is involved
  • New friend group: It is really important that parents don’t blame their kids’ friends for their behaviors. It is necessary to notice what your kids’ friends are doing, though. It is likely that your child is also engaged in similar behaviors
  • Overly tired & hard to wake: Teens do need a lot of sleep. That trait is not unusual. It is concerning when your child seems ridiculously tired or it is extremely hard to wake them in the morning
  • Functional impairments: Your normally responsible child starts spending all their money, leaving their room insanely messy, and giving up on goals. Other impairments you may see are: decreased academic performance, a disheveled physical appearance, and missing important events 
  • Isolation & pulling away: Remember that in the course of normal development, your teenager will pull away from you somewhat. However, it is not healthy for your teenager to spend all day, almost every day in their room alone. Addiction tends to feed on isolation. Often teens believe they are different from everyone else; that they are so unique and special that no one could possibly understand. These logical fallacies only increase the sense of isolation for a teenager
  • Sneaky behavior: You might notice your teenager looks like a ‘deer in the headlights’ when you walk into a room where you have suspicion of drug use. You may see your teenager go to extreme lengths to hide substances from you

“Every addict is a master manipulator. They have a sixth sense for knowing how to convince people they’re not seeing what they are seeing. Addicts are like magicians. They camouflage what is in full view. All the signs and symptoms of addiction are apparent but the family’s attention is diverted elsewhere.” [2, p.11]

Common Phrases from Addiction

When you hear your loved one using phrases like these, take notice. Addiction is deceptive and your teenager may have fallen right into its clutches. Here’s some hallmark phrases that addicts say. Listen carefully.

  • “I’m in control”
  • “I have more time”
  • “I’m different. I’m so unique, not like an addict”
  • “I can reel it in. I’ll cut back”
  • “That didn’t even happen” 
  • “Let’s just forget the past”
  • “It’s no big deal” 
  • “You guys just worry too much”
  • “You just don’t trust me”
  • “If you just hadn’t intervened, everything would be fine” 
  • “The drug is not the problem. It’s this other thing that happened.”
  • “I don’t know where I got this drug”
  • “I was holding onto this for a friend”
  • “I just need things to go back to normal. Everything will be fine.”
  • “I can handle my own problems. Just leave me alone, but can I have five bucks?”

Remember that addiction has a predictable voice and a predictable course. These phrases are not handed down necessarily from other addicts. Yet, they appear in every language on the planet. When you hear these phrases, do not believe them. Believe in your teen’s capacity to get into treatment, not in the addiction’s ploy to hold you hostage.

“Underestimating what they are up against is the undoing of many families.” 

[2, p.44]

Warning signs that addiction is taking hold in your teenager

The beginning of addiction tends to be subtle. There is an odd incident that happens. As a parent you start to wonder, “That’s strange. John never forgets to go to practice.” Or, “I’m confused. I thought Ella said she was coming straight home after school.” 

Then the voice gets a little louder. You start to notice your child is acting irritable and skittish fairly often now. Your child starts losing interest in some of the wholesome activities they used to do. All of the sudden, they might need to run an errand at an odd time of day. You might notice the smell of weed or vape and think, “That smells interesting” and then second guess yourself when you find nothing in the room. 

The voice gets louder still. Your teenager may do something reckless you never thought possible such as driving under the influence. Your daughter may start talking crazy like she has psychosis. Your son may get home late with red eyes, a bruise on his face, and an implausible story about where he has been.

If you don’t take action then, the voice will yell in your face. Literally. You may find yourself getting screamed at by your teenager for not letting them go out on a particular evening. Your child may become angry and aggressive seemingly out of the blue. There is a sense of ‘everything is out of control’ that pervades your home.

“Addiction lives in shadows, secrets, and silence. It whispers to the family, don’t say anything. Don’t do anything. Don’t ask for help.” [2. p.41]

Causes of Addiction in Teens

  • Genetics: The primary cause of addiction is genetics. If that were not the case, most people who drink would be alcoholics, most people who take pain meds would be addicts. This is simply not true. Did your teen get brown eyes from you and grandpa? He could have gotten the addict gene just the same way. A family history of addiction puts certain teens at an increased risk. Hear more about it in this TedTalk called, “Everything you thought you knew about addiction is wrong.” 
  • Depression or mood challenges: A child with pre-existing mental health challenges such as depression or bipolar disorder can be especially vulnerable to addiction
  • Numbing as coping: Research continues to show that one of the biggest precursors to addiction is the desire to numb our feelings. Brene Brown describes,

 “We are the most in debt, obese, addicted and medicated adult cohort in US history.” [6]

Brown believes our desire to avoid feelings of fear, vulnerability, shame, and guilt has led to this epidemic.

  • Developmental trauma: Although the key ingredient for addiction is genetic vulnerability, there is often a trauma component to the progression of the disease. Developmental trauma is the response to an environment that is perceived to be unsafe for the developing child. When a child’s need for connection, trust, attunement, autonomy, or love, go unmet, the child may develop a rigidly adhered to behavior pattern to cope with the ongoing perceived threat. 

Dr. Heller teaches in Healing Developmental Trauma that the traumatized child dissociates from their experience using an ‘adaptive survival style.’ 

For example: 

  • Connection survival style: A child who feels unsafe in the care of others will have intense fears of being close to people, will disengage from others, and attempt to be invisible 
  • Trust survival style: A child who feels it is unsafe to trust others will give up authenticity in order to be what people want them to be
  • Attunement survival style: A child who feels the environment is not attuned to their needs will decide to ignore their own needs and attune to the needs of others
  • Autonomy survival style: A child who feels it is unsafe to say ‘no’ to parents will go along with the agenda but secretly resent or rebel against an authority figure’s expectations
  • Love survival style: A child who believes that the only way to get love is to perform or achieve, will go to extreme lengths to impress others 

As you can read between the lines, any of these survival styles can play right into addiction. Remember, healthy families and excellent parents can still have kids with these issues. Your child is being raised in an environmental context that exists outside your home and is largely outside of your control

However, in the midst of this bad news, there is so much good news! When parents are aware of what is going on and willing to take action, everything changes. The great news about addiction is that it is predictable. There are predictable addiction patterns and predictable treatments that lead to optimistic outcomes.

When parents intervene with commitment and persistence, most teens get better. When families come together to face addiction, the addiction loses the battle. 

“But when we decide to talk about addiction, we open the windows and let in the light. Doors swing open to new ideas. Good decisions are made.” [2, p. 41]

What to Do About Addiction Issues in Children

  • DO: Listen and pay attention to your child’s behaviors, attitudes, and words. If something smells fishy, investigate. 
  • DON’T: Put your head in the sand. The most important way to combat teen drug use and dependency, is to be honest about what is happening. Tell your spouse, family members and trusted others about your concerns. 
  • DO: Educate yourself and your family about intervention. There are tried and true methods for guiding an addict into treatment. 
  • DON’T: Look for a short term solution to addiction. Long-term recovery requires long-term action and commitment. A two-five day detox program is not recovery. Hospitalization for a psychotic episode is not recovery. Most good rehab programs require 90 days followed by a long-term recovery program that may take many months or years.
  • DON’T: Shame, reject, or judge your child. Realize that this is just a kid who needs your help. Provide that help without insulting who your child is as a person.
  • DO: Find an addiction counselor or recovery mentor to support your efforts. Resources are listed at the end of this article.
  • DON’T: threaten things you will not actually do. For example, if you say you will take your teen’s car away, which is a good boundary to set, be prepared to drive him to school every day.
  • DO: understand this will be a hard process. Commit to your kiddo and family that you will follow through with the recovery plan, no matter what it takes. Your teenager and other family members will thank you for it someday.

When to Seek Help for Addiction Issues in Teens

Get help for addiction issues when your teen is struggling to the point that it is getting in the way of their learning, relationships, or overall functioning. The most important thing to look for is uncharacteristic or risky behaviors. If you are concerned, review the resources provided at the end of this article. Many of these sources are available immediately to support your family. If you have a life-threatening emergency, call 911 or visit your nearest emergency room.

How to help your healthy teen stay safe

Keep in mind, not all kids who use drugs will become addicts. As mentioned before, most people who use substances are not addicted. If your teen is functional, open, and willing to take stock of their behaviors and attitudes, there may not be cause for concern.

If your teen is in a healthy place but has experimented with substances, focus on keeping communication open. Are there addiction patterns in your extended family? If so, your teenager should be aware of that significant risk factor. Provide opportunities to seek help for addiction related issues and mental health treatment without the stigma. 

Tell your child that you are here to help and listen. If your child opens up about concerns, focus on your connection and relationship, not advice giving or lecturing. 

Protective factors for your child include strong self-esteem, healthy connections with family and friends, good grades, high achievement in sports or extracurricular activities, effective coping strategies, a generally positive attitude, and a sense of goals and aspirations. 

If these assets are in place for your child, still keep firm boundaries around drugs and alcohol. However, there is no reason to assume that addiction has taken hold unless the other symptoms in this article appear in your child’s life.

Further Resources on Addiction Problems in Teens

  • Love First.net: A site with resources for recovery and intervention for family members who are serious about taking action against addiction. From the authors referenced throughout this article (Jeff Jay and Debra Jay)
  • Charlie Health: an affordable online treatment program for teens, young adults and families. Counselors are available 24/7 (866-540-1828)
  • Coaching options for your family 
    • Next Level Recovery: Offers life coaching, family coaching, and recovery coaching (919-428-0048)
    • 360 Transitions: Offers case management, collaboration with local therapists, transitioning of learned skills from rehab into the home environment, daily texting and conferencing with the child
  • Turnbridge residential treatment center: a holistic long-term treatment center for teens and adults. This recovery model encourages development of self-empowerment, fitness, physical health, mental health, academics and career planning
  • Family First Adolescent Services: a residential program for teenage boys in a non-traditional, non-hospital, homey style setting. Therapy is combined with ocean kayaking, deep sea fishing, trampoline, and other healthy thrills to develop relationships with staff and foster self esteem. This program uses the Neuroaffective Relational Model (NARM) to address developmental traumas that may influence a teen’s addiction and recovery
  • Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation (800-257-7810) Nonprofit chemical dependency treatment center with an emphasis on child and family issues 
  • Sustain Recovery: Adolescent treatment and long-term recovery residential placement in southern california. Includes ocean adventures. Uses a 12 step model.
  • Alcoholics Anonymous. Welcomes anyone who wishes to stop drinking

References on Addiction in Teens

[1] Center for Disease Control (September 2020) E-Cigarette Use Among Middle and High School Students

[2] Debra Jay (2006). No More Letting Go: The Spirituality of Taking Action Against Alcoholism and Drug Addiction

[3] Jodi Gilman, Ph.D., Director of Neuroscience at Center for Addiction Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital. Marijuana and the young brain

[4] Johan Hari (June 9, 2015). Ted Talk. Everything you think you know about addiction is wrong

[5] Lawrence Heller. Healing developmental trauma: How early trauma affects self-regulation, self image, and the capacity for relationships

[6] Brene Brown (June 2010). Ted Talk. The power of vulnerability

[7] Debra Jay (April 2021). Love first: A family’s guide to intervention (Love First Family Recovery)

[8] Ben Cort (November 2017) What commercialization is doing to cannabis

Other resources on addiction in teens

Claudia Black (1982, 2020). It will never happen to me. Growing up with Addiction as Youngsters, Adolescents and Adults

Claudia Black (2002) Changing Course: Healing From Loss, Abandonment and Fear

Robert L Dupont, MD (2000). The Selfish Brain: Learning from Addiction 

Reportdrugevents.com is a website where you can report any side effects your child has experienced with their medications.  Upon submission, patients or their parents receive an automatically generated report with details of the side effect, drug-drug interactions, and genetic predisposition to harm specific to certain drugs. This information enables healthcare providers to adjust your or your child’s medications accordingly. 

Note: Website reportdrugevents.com is operated by a private company,  Veracuity LLC. Anonymized reports are shared with manufacturers of the suspect drugs and the FDA.

Katherine Ketcham and Nicholas Pace, MD (2003). Teens Under the Influence: The Truth About Kids, Alcohol and Other Drugs – How to Recognize the Problem and What to Do about It. A parenting resource offering a factual look at the problem of teenage substance abuse. Valuable both to parents of children who are abusing drugs and alcohol and to those who want to prevent their kids from using. The book provides a detailed chapter on each drug and how it works.

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