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Learn about problems with drugs or alcohol and options for treatment and recovery. Hear from people who took control of substance use in their teens.

People are often exposed to drugs and alcohol for the first time as teenagers. But there is a common misconception that all teens are experimenting with substance use. For instance, teens typically perceive that more of their peers are drinking alcohol, and more heavily, than actually are.

In fact, according to the National Institutes of Health, teen substance use is on the decline, and the number of teens using most illegal substances is at an all-time low. But that doesn’t mean there won’t be pressure. Learning about substance use and its effects can help teens make healthy decisions and stay safe. 

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Common challenges

Everyone has a different experience during middle and high school, but many teenagers face similar challenges. Teens may be feeling insecure, working hard to fit in, or getting stressed out about balancing schoolwork with sports or jobs. That’s when using drugs and alcohol may seem like an easy fix. Some common challenges in teenagers’ lives include:

Family life

Teens who have been abused or had tough experiences early in life can be more likely to have problems with drugs and alcohol. Young people are also at greater risk than other teens if their family members have been through an addiction, their mothers used drugs or alcohol during pregnancy, or they haven’t had the guidance of a parent or other adult.

Pressure from schoolwork and friends

As students prepare for high school graduation and applying to college or getting a job, stress can build. Struggling to maintain a strong grade point average or turning in college or job applications may push some students to seek relief through drugs or alcohol. Some teens also are attracted to substance use to try to improve their social life, using drugs or alcohol to loosen up or fit in. But remember: Teens have the power — and responsibility — to make healthy decisions for themselves.

Developing minds

During the teen years, the brain is still developing, and that increases the risk of developing problems with drugs and alcohol. In fact, most adults with a substance use disorder report that they started using drugs as teenagers. It’s important to deal with a teen’s drug or alcohol problem early because it can affect the brain, making it more difficult to stop or control substance use through willpower alone.

Commonly misused substances 

  • Alcohol
  • Tobacco
  • Marijuana
  • Prescription drugs, such as opioid pain relievers (e.g. Vicodin) and stimulants (e.g. Adderall)

Signs of a problem

Many students experiment with drugs and alcohol, and it can be difficult to tell when substance use becomes a problem — especially in ourselves. It’s time to do something about it when teenage alcohol and drug use interferes with daily life or causes health issues, including:

  • School failure
  • Problems with family and other relationships
  • Loss of interest in normal healthy activities
  • Memory loss
  • Reckless sexual behavior that increases the risk of pregnancy or contracting a disease
  • Mental health problems
  • Overdose, which can lead to permanent health complications or death

Common signs of a substance use disorder can include loss of sleep or appetite, mood changes, dilated pupils, strange and unpredictable behavior, or losing interest in normal activities. If you notice signs of a drug problem or signs of an alcohol problem in yourself, a friend, or a loved one, it may be time to reach out for support.

Options for support

While it may be hard to talk about substance use, opening up to a parent, guardian, or other caring adult can help a teen connect with the right support and treatment. Teens who aren’t comfortable talking about these issues with a parent or guardian, can ask a school guidance counselor to put them in touch with support groups and resources that have worked for other young people. In some cases, teen rehab programs are the best way to treat a drug or alcohol problem.

Reaching out to other teens and adults who have overcome their drug and alcohol problems can help young people to figure out which treatment option is right for them. No one has to face problems with drugs and alcohol alone. Help is available.

The Office of Adolescent Health

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Adolescent Health provides national statistics on adolescent substance use, the risks of using drugs and alcohol as a teenager, and several resources for both students and parents.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse

The National Institute on Drug Abuse provides information about individual drugs and their effects on teens along with a list of treatment options for substance use problems.

Just Think Twice

Just Think Twice was developed in partnership with the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) to show teens the myths about drugs and drug abuse through real-life stories from young people who have been through an addiction.

A comprehensive resource on drugs, alcohol, steroids, inhalants, and hallucinogens, created by the American Academy of Pediatrics. 

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