Substance Abuse And Teens

One of the biggest concerns many teens find themselves facing is alcohol and drug abuse, whether involving themselves, a family member, or a close friend. There are approximately 1.3 million adolescents in the United States who struggle with substance abuse. Nearly 70% of high school seniors have reported trying alcohol, 50% have taken an illegal drug, and more than 20% have used a prescription drug for a non-medical reason. Equally as worrisome, most teens who have a substance use disorder started doing drugs before the age of 18, and teens who start drinking before the age 15 are four times more likely to develop an alcohol use disorder.

One leading factor in the development of an alcohol use disorder for teens is binge drinking. Binge drinking is the consumption of excessive amounts of alcohol in a short period of time. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) further defines binge drinking as a pattern of drinking that brings blood alcohol concentration (BAC) levels to 0.08 g/dL. This typically occurs after 4 drinks for women and 5 drinks for men, in approximately 2 hours. NIAAA studies report that 5.1 million teens reported binge drinking at least once in the past month, and 1.3 million teens reported binge drinking on 5 or more days over the past month. Binge drinking is very common within teens today and can lead to many adverse consequences.

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Signs Of Teen Substance Abuse

Have you ever wondered if one of your peers is struggling with substance abuse? Identifying signs of substance abuse is the first step in bringing awareness to a problem that is commonly occurring among teens today. There are many signs, sometimes subtle and sometimes blatantly obvious, to be aware of. Some of these signs include, but are not limited to:

  • Sudden change of friends.
  • Change of routine and behaviors.
  • Changes in appetite or sleep patterns.
  • Isolating from friends and social activities.
  • Poor performance at school (skipping class, tardiness, not completing homework, sleeping during class, grades declining).
  • Irritability.
  • Strained relationships with family and friends.
  • Impulsive or risk-taking behavior.
  • Bloodshot eyes.
  • Frequent nosebleeds.
  • Deterioration of physical appearance.

Common Risk Factors For Teen Substance Abuse

Being aware of common risk factors for substance abuse is important in preventing the development of a substance use disorder. There is a common misperception that substance use is “normal” and that the majority of people engage in use. This places teens at higher risk of experimenting with alcohol and other drugs. One of the most consistent findings in research on the etiology of teen substance use is that social influences are central, powerful factors that promote experimentation or initiation of use. Other risk factors for developing a substance use disorder include, but are not limited to:

  • A family history of substance abuse.
  • A mental or behavioral health condition, such as depression, anxiety, or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
  • Impulsive or risk-taking behavior.
  • A history of traumatic events, such as experiencing a car accident or being a victim of abuse.
  • Low self-esteem or feelings of social rejection.
  • Peer pressure.

Consequences Of Teen Drug And Alcohol Abuse

Many teens struggle with understanding the severity of consequences that can occur, short-term and long-term, because they think it is “fun.” Many see their parents, older siblings, peers, or even celebrities glorifying drinking or using drugs and feel that it is “ok,” “cool,” or something that is “controllable,” perhaps. Many teens do not understand or even realize the consequences that can occur through drug and alcohol use. Below are some of the common consequences of substance abuse, although there are many more:

Drug Dependence

Teens who misuse drugs or alcohol are at increased risk of developing a substance use disorder later in life.

Poor Judgment

Teenage drug and alcohol use are associated with poor judgment in social and personal interactions.

Sexual Activity

Drug and alcohol use are associated with high-risk sexual activity, unsafe sex, and unplanned pregnancy.

Mental Health Disorders

Substance use can complicate or increase the risk of mental health disorders, such as depression and anxiety.

Impaired Driving

Driving under the influence can impair a driver’s motor skills, putting the driver, passengers, and others on the road at risk. It can also result in DUI’s, and sometimes can be fatal.

Changes in School Performance

Substance use can result in a decline in academic performance, tardiness, absenteeism, and in some cases, dropping-out.

Illegal Activity

Illegal behavior resulting in prison/jail time, probation, house arrest, and court and legal issues and fees.

Preventive Strategies

Due to the common misperception that substance use is “normal” and that the majority of teens engage in substance use, it is important to be aware that there are many teens who do not use substances and find ways to ignite passions in healthy activities as preventive measures to reduce the risk of getting involved with substance abuse. Preventive strategies for getting involved with substance use include, but are not limited to:

Find a Healthy Support Group

Having either a close friend, parent or other peer that you feel comfortable opening up to about either your personal experiences with substance abuse or about a friend who is struggling with substance abuse allows one the ability to open up about how they are feeling and communicate openly about their feelings, experiences, and thoughts. Also, if a loved one is using alcohol or drugs and it is affecting you, joining a support group, such as Al-Anon or Nar-Anon is a healthy way to find support with others who can relate.

Join Extracurricular Activities

Whether at school or at a recreational center in your community, getting involved in a hobby you are passionate about can help reduce the risk of getting involved with substance use. Examples may include joining an art club, music club or band, dance classes, martial arts, or sports.


Journaling is an excellent way to express your feelings, evaluate your behavior, and get in-tune with your inner self. When we bottle up our emotions and don’t express them in a healthy way, it places teens at higher risk of experimenting with drugs or alcohol.

Hang Out With Friends With Similar Values And Interests

Who we hang out with places a significant role in who we are. If we spend time with friends who are positive, motivated, and focused on healthy activities, it influences us to do the same. Spend time with other teens who display traits that you want to be like. The common saying, “we are who are friends are,” is very true and should never be discounted.

Provide Support

Offer praise and encouragement if your friend was struggling with substance abuse and has been successful in making positive, healthy changes. Express your concerns to them openly and in a safe environment. Open communication is key to expressing your concerns and your feelings to the ones you love, which can help you too. Be a good role model for others while setting healthy boundaries.

How Can I Help?

Substance abuse affects millions of teens each year in the United States. The common misperception that substance use is “normal” and that the majority of people engage in use is not true, and teens do not need to join in on alcohol and drug use in order to fit in or feel liked by their peers. Despite many teens struggling with substance abuse, there are also many teens who do not. It can be heart breaking watching a close friend turn to substance use to cope, try to fit in, or other reasons. But being a strong support and good example to them may help them find their way to changing behaviors and seeking help.

Get Help Today

One of the most important things that you can do for a fellow teen who is struggling with an alcohol and drug addiction is to let them know they are not alone and not to shun or shut them away but to be a good support system and let them know that there is help is out there. There are many inpatient and outpatient treatment programs available to help teens recover. Contact a treatment provider today to learn more about helping your peers or yourself recover from a substance use disorder.

Last Updated:


Theresa Parisi, CAP

Photo of Theresa Parisi, CAP
  • Theresa Parisi is a Certified Addiction Professional (CAP), Certified Behavioral Health Case Manager (CBHCM), and International Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor (ICADC) with over 12 years of experience in the addiction treatment field.

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Reviewed by Certified Addiction Professional

Certified Addiction Professional

Cindy Hardy