August 23, 2013 —

There are several primary reasons why teens are at risk for substance abuse. First, American teens live in a culture that promotes substance use, especially through the tone of some of our media content that is designed for the teen audience. These images are more pervasive and accessible than ever before. Although teens may not always seem to be consciously digesting the information, they are absorbing it and it is influencing them. While our culture is not the only culprit that can cause a young person to develop substance abuse problems, it can exert a significant amount of influence on teens today, especially those who are more vulnerable. 

Second, with adolescence comes the increased need for social connections. The need to belong can sometimes be so strong that it will override their better senses, even the need to care for oneself. While teens still need connection to family, they are also seeking connection and acceptance from peers more than ever before. The less self-assured a teen is, the more likely he or she is to use substances and to let friends influence his or her decision to abuse them. Some teens use alcohol and other drugs as a social lubricant to feel more at ease when making these connections with peers. 

Third, teens often abuse substances to self-medicate or cope with difficult feelings. Teens have a lot to deal with – family relationships, academic expectations, jobs, athletics, as well as friend and romantic relationships. Substances can be used to escape difficult feelings or to help them cope with meeting challenging expectations. Unfortunately, the temporary relief gained from the substance use often only compounds the problem.

Lastly, teens have a perception of invulnerability. While teens recognize that bad things happen, they often do not think bad things will happen to them. The many biological and social changes that are taking place during the teenage years can make teens particularly susceptible to making bad decisions and increased risk taking, both of which can set them up for substance abuse issues. Talking with teens about the consequences of poor decision making is essential, but is not enough to stop substance abuse.

Parents can address these risks and help our teens make better decisions by doing the following:

  • Send a clear anti-drug message – this should be an ongoing conversation about your expectations about substance abuse.
  • Provide a counterbalance to media messages. Help kids look at these messages with a critical eye. 
  • Use good parental monitoring. Know where your kids are, who they’re with, and what they’re doing.
  • Make an effort to know your kid’s friends and their parents.
  • Take note of changes in behavior, shifts in peer groups, and a decline in academic performance.
  • Try to understand the emotions underlying your teen’s behavior. Talking with them about how they feel is more effective than talking about their behavior.

Susan Averna, PhD is a developmental psychologist. She completed a post-doctoral research fellowship at the University of Connecticut, School of Medicine, in the Alcohol Research Center.  She specializes in child and adolescent social and emotional development and parent-child relationships.