Drug and alcohol use rates among adolescents and young adults vary from year to year, but research shows that substance use remains a significant problem for this age group. Teens also tend to minimize the risks of substance use, putting them at greater risk for abusing drugs and alcohol.

After reading this blog, you should be able to recognize the most common signs of substance use, identify the risks your child faces, and explore the treatment options available.

If you suspect your teen has a substance use disorder, have them complete a substance use assessment. Adolescent assessments are offered on a walk-in basis (first come, first served), or can be scheduled by calling 704-376-7447.

Key Takeaways

  • Up to 2 percent of teens and 6 percent of adults suffer from alcohol use disorder or substance use disorder
  • Drug and alcohol use affects the adolescent brain in different—often permanent—ways than the adult brain
  • There are many common, recognizable signs of teen drug and alcohol use
  • Substance use disorder is treatable
  • Treatment options can be tailored to a teen’s needs
  • If you suspect your teen is using drugs or alcohol, a clinical assessment can help you decide how to proceed

Jump Ahead

What Is Adolescent Substance Use Disorder?

Adolescent substance use disorder is a mental health condition in which adolescents (children, tweens, or teenagers) use drugs or alcohol in unhealthy ways. Adolescents who abuse drugs or alcohol can be at greater risk of various types of harm, from engaging in impulsive and dangerous behaviors to risking overdose.

What are the two types of substance abuse?

Adolescent substance use falls into two categories. It’s possible that individuals suffer from one or both types of disorders:

  1. Alcohol use disorder
  2. Substance use disorder

Alcohol use disorder (AUD) is a medical condition that presents as an impaired ability to stop or control one’s alcohol use—even after suffering social, school-related, job-related, or health consequences as a result of alcohol use.

AUD is an umbrella term encompassing everything from problematic alcohol use to dependence and alcohol abuse. Terms like “addiction” and “alcoholism” are no longer favored when describing this condition, as they don’t adequately characterize AUD’s status as a brain disorder. While AUD is treatable at all stages, the changes alcohol causes in the brain can perpetuate AUD and make individuals more vulnerable to relapse.

As of 2019, nearly 2 percent of children and teens ages 12 to 17 had an AUD.

Substance use disorder (SUD) is also a medical condition that affects a person’s ability to control the use of a legal (or illegal) drug or medicine. Though SUD can include alcohol, it is broader than AUD as it also includes the use of marijuana, nicotine, prescription medications, and illegal drugs. The term SUD has largely replaced terms like “drug addiction” in the treatment context.

Teen Drug Abuse Statistics for 2022

If your child or other loved one is struggling with substance use, you’re not alone. Many parents struggle to help their adolescent children tackle a substance use disorder.

Recent drug use statistics reported by the National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics (NCDAS) include:

  • Drug use among 8th graders increased 61 percent between 2016 and 2020.
  • 62 percent of 12th graders have abused alcohol.
  • Around 8.3 percent of 12-to-17-year-olds in the U.S. report using drugs in the last month.
  • One in five 8th-graders have tried illicit drugs at least once.
  • 46.6 percent of teens have tried illicit drugs at least once by 12th grade.
  • One in four 8th graders have abused alcohol at least once.
  • Three in five teens have abused alcohol by 12th grade.
  • Around 3 percent of 12th graders drink alcohol daily.
  • Nearly 7 percent of 12th graders use marijuana daily.
  • 12th graders are 82.1 percent more likely to use marijuana in their lifetime than they are to smoke a cigarette
  • Teenagers aged 12 to 17-years-old are nearly twice as likely to suffer from illicit drug use disorder (IDUD) than from alcohol use disorder (AUD).

What Are the Main Drugs Teenagers Use?

The drugs available to and most commonly used by teenagers can vary from state to state and even city to city. However, there are some commonalities:

  • Alcohol is the most prevalent substance used by young adults, with 80 percent of adults ages 19 to 30 reporting using alcohol in the last 12 months.
  • Marijuana is by far the most commonly used drug in the U.S., with 11 percent of young adults reporting daily marijuana use in 2021.
  • Cigarette use continues to decline, with only 18.6 percent of Americans aged 19 to 31 using cigarettes in the last year.

What over-the-counter (OTC) drugs do teens abuse?

  • Acetaminophen
  • Dextromethorphan (Nyquil)
  • Diphenhydramine (Benadryl)
  • Pseudoephedrine (Sudafed)
  • Caffeine

What prescription drugs do teens abuse?

  • Amphetamines (including Adderall, Focalin, and Ritalin)
  • Benzodiazepines (including Vicodin, Xanax, Ativan, and Klonopin)
  • Pain medications (opioids such as OxyContin, hydrocodone, etc.)

What illegal drugs do teens abuse?

  • Marijuana (smoking, edibles, or vaping) – while legal in many states, marijuana is illegal for teens in all states
  • LSD
  • Cocaine
  • Methamphetamine
  • Narcotics (including prescription opioids and fentanyl as well as “street drugs” like heroin)

What Are the Signs of Drug Use in Teens?

Teens who are using drugs or alcohol may think they are able to hide their actions. In most cases, however, there are often signs of drug use that parents may notice over time.

These signs can appear at home, in school, or during extracurriculars, and could be physical, mental, emotional, or behavioral. While not all of these signs are clear-cut indications of a substance use disorder, parents should be on the lookout for even subtle changes in their adolescents’ behavior and habits.

Physical Signs

  • Changes in appearance
  • Lack of hygiene
  • Sudden or unusual changes in clothing style
  • Tiredness or lethargy
  • Drastic weight loss or weight gain

Emotional/Mental Signs

  • Sudden shifts in your teen’s relationships or social circles
  • Unexplainable mood swings and changes in behavior
  • Signs of depression
  • Unusual sensitivity or defensiveness
  • Secrecy and deceitful behavior
  • Disappearing for long periods of time

Signs of Drug Use at Home

  • Loss of interest in family activities
  • Consistently borrowing or asking for money
  • Disrespecting family rules
  • Lying (actively or by omission)
  • Avoiding difficult conversations

You may also notice other signs of drug use, including:

  • Missing money or valuables
  • Missing prescription pills or bottles of alcohol
  • Unusual containers, wrappers, baggies, or seeds around your home
  • Pipes, medicine bottles, rolling papers, and other drug paraphernalia

Signs of Drug Use at School

  • Declining grades
  • Truancy (missing school)
  • Loss of interest in schoolwork
  • Defiance of authority—more frequent detentions or complaints from teachers
  • Sleeping in class
  • Reduced attention span or ability to focus

If you’ve noticed several of these changes in your adolescent concurrently, it’s possible they’re using drugs or alcohol.

Don’t be afraid to discuss these changes with your teen. If you’ve noticed they’re overly tired, distant, secretive, or depressed, bring this to their attention. If your teen is running through money or hanging out with new friends you haven’t met, ask for details.

Why Do Teens Use Drugs?

Although no two teens are alike, there are a few common reasons teens may try (or begin regularly using) drugs and alcohol. These include:

Peer pressure. Many teens are offered drugs or alcohol by a peer and may partake as a way to be accepted or to fit in. The idea of standing up to a peer or group can be overwhelming for many.

Self-medication. Teens who deal with issues such as depression, anxiety, and ADHD, may use drugs or alcohol to cope with the symptoms.

Improving performance. Teens who are under pressure to perform well in an academic, athletic, or other extracurricular activity may use drugs—especially stimulants—to meet these expectations.

Experimenting. Children, including teens, are naturally curious. Teens may seek out and consume drugs or alcohol just to see what it’s like.

Feeling older. The thought of drinking, smoking cigarettes, or using substances that are off-limits to children and teens can be new and exciting. Teens may begin using these substances as a way to feel more grown-up.

Changing societal norms. As marijuana is legalized in many states, many teens view marijuana as relatively safe and natural. Vaping or e-cigarettes are also marketed as safer alternatives to smoking.

What Are Risk Factors Associated With Adolescent Drug Use?

Many adults may remember trying alcohol and drugs in their youth; thus, sometimes it can be easy to write off teen drug or alcohol use as typical or harmless experimentation.

It is important to remember, however, that drug and alcohol use affects the adolescent brain differently than the adult brain. Teenage substance use, even if it doesn’t rise to the level of AUD or SUD, can affect that person’s mental and physical health, long-term habits, and ability to meet future goals.

How do drugs affect teenage behavior?

Every teen’s brain goes through important physiological changes as it matures and develops ways to work more effectively. Using drugs or alcohol during this critical period can harm brain development in serious, sometimes irreversible ways.

The teenage brain is also more susceptible than the adult brain to developing a substance or alcohol use disorder.

Drugs may alter your teen’s behavior by affecting one or more areas of their health, including:

Mental health

Substance use can affect adolescent mental health by:

  • Reducing the person’s ability to experience pleasure
  • Damaging neurotransmitters and synapses in the brain
  • Creating memory problems
  • Interfering with learning critical decision-making skills
  • Inhibiting the person’s development of their perceptual abilities
  • Creating long-term brain connections that cement these unhealthy habits

Physical health

Substance abuse, including alcohol use, can have the following negative physical effects:

  • Delayed puberty
  • Lower bone mineral density
  • Liver damage
  • Alcohol poisoning
  • Accidental falls, burns, or drowning
  • Drug overdose
  • Increased risk of infection or cardiac problems

Social and behavioral implications

Teens who engage in reckless behavior while under the influence of drugs can risk everything from a criminal record to a sexually transmitted disease. Some of the social and behavioral consequences of teenage substance use include:

  • Arrests
  • Criminal convictions
  • Physical assault
  • Sexual assault
  • Car accidents
  • Sexually-transmitted diseases or infections
  • Delayed or missed career opportunities
  • Damage to the person’s relationships with friends and family

Although the teen years pass quickly, many of these consequences may be permanent.

Which Teenagers Are At Greatest Risk For Substance Use?

Not all teens are at the same risk of developing a substance or alcohol use disorder. Below are a few factors that can increase an adolescent’s risk of using drugs or alcohol.

  • A family history of substance use
  • Parental substance use
  • Favorable or permissive parental attitudes toward substance or alcohol use
  • Poor parental supervision
  • Family rejection of the teen’s gender identity or sexual orientation
  • Childhood sexual or physical abuse
  • Mental health issues
  • Association with friends and classmates who use substances

While not all of these factors are within a family’s (or a teen’s) control, some are. Increasing family support, parental connection, and family engagement can help protect youth from misusing drugs and alcohol.

How Can I Help My Teen With Substance Abuse?

The steps parents can take to help their teens tackle substance use challenges will depend on the severity of their child’s use and whether or not they meet the criteria for a SUD or AUD.

One of the most important parts of talking about substance use with your teen involves tone and phrasing. Words matter and adolescents can be especially sensitive to signs of condescension, judgment, sarcasm, and criticism–especially coming from someone they love.

Some loaded terms that should be avoided are “alcoholic” and “addict.” It’s usually best to discuss issues in a calm, non-sarcastic tone, and share observations rather than making accusations.

If you suspect your teen is at risk of substance use

  • Acknowledge that talking about substance use with your teen will probably be uncomfortable, but is necessary
  • Try to find common ground to build a connection with your teen
  • Schedule the conversation for a time when you’re relaxed and unrushed
  • Speak compassionately and practice empathy
  • Calmly discuss the dangers of substance use, especially in the teen years
  • Ensure that your teen has several trusted people (including, but not limited to, parents) to confide in
  • Take steps to address your teen’s substance use risk factors that are within your control

If you suspect your teen has begun experimenting with substances

  • Talk to trusted professionals who deal with your teen regularly (like teachers, coaches, or guidance counselors) to share your concerns and ask for their observations
  • Share your observations with your child, including specific changes you’ve noticed in their appearance, behavior, or mental health
  • Describe to your teen the benefits of sobriety
  • Ask your teen questions in a calm, non-judgmental manner
  • Set boundaries (e.g. establishing a curfew or ensuring that you know where your teen is and who they’re with)

If you suspect your teen has a substance use or alcohol use disorder

  • Get a comprehensive clinical assessment to understand your child’s level of use
  • Talk to a trained counselor for tips on how to handle a tough conversation
  • Remind yourself and your child that SUD and AUD are brain disorders that generally require treatment to overcome
  • Talk to a counselor (in combination with a substance use clinical assessment) to help your teen decide which treatment type is best
  • Set realistic goals for substance use treatment
  • Discuss expectations for the future

Some treatment options that are available at Anuvia include:

  • Detox, which helps teens withdraw from substances safely and under medical supervision
  • Short-term programs, which allow teens to attend therapy, group sessions, and other support programs while still living at home and attending school
  • Intensive outpatient treatment, which includes 12-step meetings, group, and individual therapy, and other approaches designed to provide teens with a broad array of resources without moving from their home
  • Inpatient treatment, where teens live at a support facility that’s open 24/7/365

What are the benefits of treating adolescent substance use in an inpatient facility?

There are several benefits provided by residential drug or alcohol treatment programs:

  • Fewer outside distractions, as teens are removed from the environment that led to their substance use
  • Residential treatment makes recovery the top priority
  • Direct and regular access to mental health professionals and social workers
  • Access to prescription medications that teens need to help them through recovery
  • The ability to manage withdrawal symptoms under medical supervision

Though not all teens will need each of these benefits, the breadth of advantages to residential treatment simply can’t be replicated in an outpatient environment.

Is drug use a leading factor in teen depression?

Yes. Adolescents who have depression disorder have higher rates of substance use. And unfortunately, the use of many substances—including alcohol, benzodiazepines, and opioids—can affect brain chemistry in a way that exacerbates depression.

How many teens die from drug and alcohol abuse each year?

Accidental drug overdoses among teens rose dramatically during the COVID pandemic. In 2019, the number of 14-to-18-year-olds who died of a drug overdose increased from 492 to 954 (or 4.57 per 100,000 teens), and then rose to 1,146 deaths (5.49 per 100,000) in early 2021.

Can you test for teen drug use at home?

Yes, although home drug tests may not always be the most accurate or the best way to assess teen substance use. Unlike a clinical substance use assessment, a drug test won’t tell you things like the best type of treatment for your teen, and testing your teen may lead to distrust and resentment.

Additionally, home drug testing may not detect all illicit drugs and is unlikely to detect alcohol, false negatives or positives are possible, and further analysis may take weeks. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) opposes the use of involuntary drug tests on children and teens.

Next Steps

If you’re concerned that your teen is dealing with a substance or alcohol use disorder, you’ll want to act quickly.

First, complete a substance use assessment. This is a tool to help counselors understand how alcohol or drugs may have impacted you or your loved one. Adolescent assessments are offered on a walk-in basis (first come, first served), or adolescent assessment appointments may be scheduled by calling 704-376-7447.

This assessment will consider personal circumstances, including:

  • Your teen’s physical and mental health
  • Family relationships
  • The type and amount of substances used
  • Your teen’s work and/or school history
  • Your teen’s age and gender
  • Your family’s culture

Through the evaluation of each of these factors, an assessment can help determine what programming, if any, will best meet your teen’s needs.

Next, talk to a counselor about your teen’s treatment options. There’s no one-size-fits-all treatment option, which is why Anuvia offers adolescent treatment that focuses on each teen’s challenges and personal goals.