A key concern for parents is why teens use drugs or alcohol. It makes sense. Most parents understand that a child will likely experiment with drugs or alcohol at least once. Does it make them “a bad kid”? Of course not. It can be part of growing up. We all had a friend (or ten) in high school who started drinking and doing drugs as a teen and turned out just fine. Maybe, that teen was you.
However, that doesn’t mean it’s something parents should ignore. Early experimenting can lead to future troubles, and be a sign of some deeper issues. The following topics are 10 reasons why teens use drugs.
1. They Are Curious
Drugs and alcohol are everywhere — on television, in conversation with their peers, on social media. They are often presented as not being a big deal or cool. It’s natural for teens to want to know what alcohol tastes like, what being drunk feels like, or what being high is really like. Adolescence is often a time of firsts and hopefully experimenting, episodically with “soft” drugs or alcohol, will go no further than that.
2. They Want to Feel Like They Belong
Teenagers love to feel like they belong to a group. Their friends are the most important people in their lives. According to LoveToKnow.com, that makes them particularly likely to succumb to peer pressure, especially if their friends are drinking or smoking marijuana around them. They’ll probably want to join in so they’ll feel accepted.
3. They Want to Feel Grown-up
According to the National Institutes of Health, using drugs and alcohol is often depicted as a rite of passage into adulthood. They might see older relatives they admire, an older friend, or even parents indulging into a glass of wine, a cigarette, or a joint and want to mimic it.
Interestingly, in other countries where drinking is more a part of the culture, or where younger drinking ages are allowed, this is less of an issue. Check out reason #9 below, regarding drinking or taking drugs as a form of rebellion.
4. They Are Looking for Heightened Sensations
It’s a well-known fact that teenagers are not always the best decision-makers, especially in the spur of the moment. Drugs and alcohol work quickly, giving them instant gratification.
While many believe that teenagers are huge risk-takes, research had disproved this theory. Dan Romer, research director at the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, noted that there is evidence that adolescents take on more dangerous tasks in the real world, but says, “it’s not because they are intrinsically more risk-taking than [younger] children.” They just have less supervision and more time and freedom to try out new things.
Bottom line? Sometimes they’ll engage in forbidden behaviors like underage drinking or illegal drug consumption just for fun. If their peers join in, it gives them an extra incentive to indulge.
5. They Have Low Self-esteem
Alcohol and drugs have a reputation for loosening inhibitions and helping one forget about their problems. Its effects can incentivize a teenager to use them if they’re going through a socially awkward stage due to puberty. This is also true for teenagers who outwardly maintain a confident attitude on a regular basis.
6. They’ve Got Access to Drugs or Alcohol
Teens are more likely to start drinking or consuming drugs if they are easily accessible. Be aware of the unlocked family liquor cabinet or prescription drugs sitting in a relative’s medicine cabinet.
7. They Are Stressed Out
According to a 2007 study conducted by Partnership for a Drug-Free America, stress is the main reason why teens drink or use drugs. With SATs and college applications looming, teenagers see drug consumption as a form of self-medication, which is something only 7% of parents are aware of.
8. They Are Depressed
Depression is the most common mental disorder in the United States, and it is not always diagnosed properly. Teenagers who are depressed and whose symptoms are dismissed as typical sulky teenage behavior are more likely to turn to drugs and alcohol as a form of self-medication.
9. They Want to Rebel
Engaging in prohibited behavior is a way for teenagers to rebel against their parents’ authority if they see it as too oppressive or, on the contrary, too permissive.
But it’s hard to rebel with alcohol when it’s not an issue. Research from the World Health Organization found that in many European countries where the drinking age is 18 or younger, or where it’s a part of the normal culture and less of a “forbidden” part of life, there are fewer issues. Their findings saw that 15 and 16-year-old teens have more drinking occasions per month, but fewer occasions of dangerous intoxication than their American counterparts.
ChooseResponsibly.org notes, “In many southern European countries roughly one in ten of all drinking occasions results in intoxication, while in the United States almost half of all drinking occasions result in intoxication. In these countries the introduction of alcohol typically comes from parents. In the United States, where the drinking age is 21, parents are not legally afforded that opportunity, and as a result initiation to alcohol consumption is not responsibly controlled.”
10. They Are Genetically Predisposed
Not everyone is created equal when it comes to drugs and alcohol. Studies have shown that there is a strong genetic component to addiction. If there is a history of addiction in your family, your teenager needs to be aware of it before engaging in risky behaviors.
The only person who knows why your teenager might be consuming drugs or alcohol is your child. It’s crucial to maintain an open and honest conversation with them as you help them navigate some of the most turbulent years in the human experience.
Why Teens Use Drugs — Sources
American Psychological Association
National Institutes of Health
Statistics on Peer Pressure
NIH — Rite of Passage
NIH — Adolescents and Brain Maturity
Partnership for a Drug-Free America