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Substance Abuse: Dealing With Teen Substance Use

What is an Actionset?

Use of alcohol, cigarettes, inhalants, and other drugs among adolescents is a major concern for parents. Preteens and teens are starting to use harmful and illegal substances at younger ages. Teen drinking, smoking, and drug use can affect general health, physical growth, emotional development, and school performance. You can recognize and respond to substance use by:

  • Knowing the signs of substance use.
  • Discussing substance use with your teen.
  • Getting appropriate treatment if your teen has an abuse problem.
  • Experimenting. Teens may try alcohol, cigarettes, inhalants, or other drugs one or more times. But many of these teens never go any further than experimenting. And they usually do not have any problems as a result of their substance use.
  • Substance abuse. For some teens, experimenting leads to regular or frequent use (abuse). Substance abuse results in problems at home (such as more arguments with parents), at school (such as failing grades), or with the law (such as driving under the influence or possessing illegal substances).
  • Substance dependence (addiction). Teens can become physically and/or psychologically dependent on the substance. At this stage, use of the substance takes up a significant portion of the teen's activities, continues despite causing harm, and is difficult to stop. Addiction is an ongoing (chronic), progressive, and possibly fatal disease.

Test Your Knowledge

Answer the following questions to see whether you understand what teen substance abuse is.

All teens who experiment with alcohol or another drug become addicted to the substance.


After a teen becomes addicted, he or she completely loses control over his or her substance use.


Many parents believe that teen substance use is just part of growing up and is not a problem unless it "gets out of hand." It is true that most teens do not have problems after experimenting with alcohol, cigarettes, inhalants, or other drugs. But all substances abused by teens stimulate the part of the brain that regulates pleasure, memory, learning, and emotions. The effects cause changes in a teen's alertness, perceptions, movement, judgment, and attention, making the teen more likely to:

  • Engage in high-risk behaviors. Alcohol and drug use is a leading cause of death and disability from car crashes, suicide, violence, and drowning. Unprotected sex can lead to pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including HIV.
  • Use other drugs. Teens who use one substance are more likely to use others. Alcohol, cigarettes, and marijuana are considered gateway drugs, because teens who use these substances are more likely to begin using other drugs.
  • Be involved in violent crime or homicide.
  • Commit suicide.
  • Have difficulty at school or even drop out of school.
  • Have legal problems, which may lead to jail sentences.
  • Suffer health problems as a direct consequence of drug use. Heavy use of some drugs, such as ecstasy or methamphetamine, may cause permanent brain damage. In rare cases, even casual or first-time use of drugs such as inhalants, cocaine, or heroin can lead to sudden death.

Teen substance use can progress from occasional use (experimenting) to regular or frequent use, abuse, or physical and/or psychological dependence (addiction). If dependence develops, the teen may have problems maturing. This can make it hard to establish personal identity, form healthy relationships, gain physical and emotional independence, and prepare for the future.

The most serious consequence of teen substance use is the risk of addiction. Teens are at high risk for early development of addiction, especially if they start using drugs at a young age. In adults, addiction to a substance usually develops slowly. But a teen may rapidly progress from occasional use to addiction. Alcohol dependency and drug dependency require treatment for the person to stop using the substance. Recognizing the risk factors and signs of substance use can help you deal with a problem early. And that can reduce your teen's risk for becoming addicted.

Test Your Knowledge

Which of the following can be affected if a teen abuses substances?

Growth and maturity
Safe behavior
The ability to learn and achieve success in school
Health and physical safety

You can recognize and deal with substance abuse in your teen by using the following techniques.

Is your teen using alcohol or drugs?

If you think your teen may be using substances, look for warning signs such as:

  • Signs that suggest substance use. Watch for a decline in personal appearance or other evidence of substance use such as discarded chemical-soaked rags or drug paraphernalia.
  • Changes in peer relationships. Peer influence has the greatest effect on whether your teen is using substances.
  • Changes in home behavior that are more severe than expected from teenagers, such as aggressiveness or withdrawal.
  • School problems that indicate a loss of interest or lack of involvement.

Has he or she experimented?

If you believe that your teen has begun experimenting with alcohol or other substances:

  • Ask about use. Find out what substances he or she has tried, what effects the substances had, and how he or she feels about substance use. Listen carefully to what your teen liked about using the substance and why. The closeness of your relationship will determine the quality and accuracy of the information shared with you. Ask your teen about peers who provided drugs and peers with whom your teen used drugs.
  • Share concerns. Talk about your concerns, not only about drug and alcohol abuse but about other problems that may be going on, such as school performance issues.
  • Review expectations. Talk with your teen about the family rules concerning substance use and the consequences when rules are broken. If you do not want your teen to use any substances (including cigarettes and alcohol), make that clear. If you do not have a written plan for dealing with this issue, write down a plan with your teen.
  • Ask that he or she stop. Ask your teen to stop, especially if there is a strong family history of substance abuse or dependence. If your teen stops now, he or she probably will not develop a substance abuse problem.
  • Provide drug education. This is an important time to provide additional drug information. Whether you or a doctor provides this information, talk about the immediate effects and consequences of using alcohol, inhalants, cigarettes, and/or other drugs. Don't talk only about long-term health problems.

Is it "getting out of hand"?

Your teen may be having difficulties in school, at home, with relationships, or with the law related to substance use. These difficulties point to a substance abuse problem. If you think your teen is using any substance, including alcohol, cigarettes, inhalants, or other drugs—regularly or daily—don't ignore it. This use is serious and should not be denied or minimized. Frequent or regular use of a substance can quickly lead to physical or psychological dependence—or dependency may have already developed.

To help your teen:

  • Investigate. Look for evidence of your teen's use. Review the information on ways to identify use. (For more information, see the Is Your Teen Using Alcohol or Drugs? section of the topic Teen Alcohol and Drug Abuse.) If you suspect a specific drug, gather other information about that substance and its effects.
  • Choose a time. Wait until he or she is not high (intoxicated) to confront your teen about using a substance. Talking to someone who is high on drugs or alcohol usually does not work and may make the situation worse.
  • Ask about use. Find out what substances are being used, how often, in what setting, and where your teen is getting them. Your teen may be very reluctant to give you all this information.
  • Have an evaluation. Talk with a doctor about an evaluation of your teen's substance use. Your teen may need treatment. And early treatment may prevent future alcohol and drug use problems.
  • Get support. You may find it helpful to participate in a support group for family members of people with alcohol use problems, such as Al-Anon. There are Al-Anon meetings specifically for parents, and these meetings include discussions about family effects from alcohol and other substance use. Substance abuse is a family disease: all family members are affected by it, and they need some form of help to change the ways they react to the person who abuses substances.

Test Your Knowledge

If you think your teen only experimented with alcohol or other substances but doesn't have a problem, don't do anything.


If your teen is using a substance frequently or regularly, he or she probably has a substance abuse problem.


Now that you have read this information, you are ready to recognize and deal with substance use in your teen.

Talk with a doctor

Talk with a doctor if you think your child or teen is using alcohol, cigarettes, inhalants, or other drugs. Ask for the doctor's help in dealing with your child or teen on this issue.

If you would like more information about alcohol, cigarettes, inhalants, and other drug issues in young people, the following resource is available:

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information (NCADI):

More information about alcohol and drug use problems can be found in:

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ByHealthwise Staff
Primary Medical ReviewerPatrice Burgess, MD - Family Medicine
Specialist Medical ReviewerPeter Monti, PhD - Alcohol and Addiction
Last RevisedJuly 20, 2012

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