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Most teens will experiment with drugs or alcohol. It’s a parent’s job to work to disrupt or limit the extent of this experimentation.

Teens are drawn to the thrills of drugs and alcohol but unfortunately, with still-developing brains, early-use can have lifetime consequences – for example, teens who start drinking at age 10 – 11 are 10 times more likely than teens who wait until the age of 19 to become alcohol addicted in adulthood!

So if your son or daughter regularly uses drugs or alcohol you need to get them to stop, but until you understand what motivates the behavior you can’t really know how to respond.

  • A teen who uses alcohol as a way to ease social anxiety needs a far different intervention than a teen who binge drinks for the fun and excitement.

So why does your son or daughter experiment? To help you answer this primal question, here, according to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, are the 5 most common reasons why teenagers use drugs or alcohol.1

The 5 Motivations Behind Teen Substance Use

1. To Have Fun/ Feel Good

Drugs and alcohol can induce euphoria and decrease social inhibitions. Just as adults do, teens may use drugs and alcohol simply to have fun or get pleasurably high.

2. For Excitement

Just for the thrill of it…

Adolescent brains are hard-wired to seek out novel excitement and thrills and far less able than adults to control risk-taking impulses.

From a developmental viewpoint, this is explained by the fact that the brain's reward systems develop and mature far earlier than the cognitive systems we use for impulse control – these don’t fully mature until a person’s mid-twenties.2

3. To Be One of the Gang

Teens will sometimes use drugs or alcohol simply because their friends or peers do or because they feel pressure to fit in.

Your child’s friends have enormous influence – associating with substance using friends increases a teen's addiction vulnerability.3 As teens progress through adolescence it’s easy to lose track of their friendships and social schedule, but for this reason (and others) it’s important to stay involved in your child’s life and know the people he or she hangs around with.

4. To Feel Better

Many teens use drugs or alcohol to self-medicate anxiety, depression, stress, ADHD symptoms or even physical pains.

A person using alcohol as a tool to ease social anxiety would obviously have very different needs than a person over-using alcohol to get drunk and have fun.

5. To Perform Better

Some teens abuse drugs or stimulant medications to increase school or athletic performance.

Stress is a significant risk factor for substance use disorders at all ages.

Responding to Substance Use

So get and stay involved in your child’s life and try to understand what motivates their behaviors. If substance use becomes a recurring problem that you can’t stop then professional help is entirely appropriate.

  • With treatment, the rule is to start with the least intrusive method that’s likely to get results and move up in intensity only if needed.
  • For this reason, working with a family or adolescent counselor who specializes in substance use would be a great place to start.

For more resources and information on how to respond, read:

  • How to find trauma-sensitive adolescent treatment – Trauma sensitivity is essential for any teen using drugs or alcohol to self-medicate trauma stress, in fact, certain forms of treatment, such as anything overly-confrontational in nature, can actually worsen the situation.
  • A teen marijuana addiction self-test – If your teen smokes marijuana but denies the existence of a problem, ask them to take this 2 minute self test that’s clinically proven to correctly identify marijuana dependence.
  • Adolescent addiction treatment options - If you ultimately decide that treatment is needed, you’ll have to also decide on an appropriate level of care. This article outlines the different levels of care with basic guidelines for each.
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Page last updated Apr 10, 2015

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