How Are School Performance And Addiction Related?

Substance use and addiction impact teen school performance in several ways, including affecting cognitive functioning, memory, attention, behavior, and engagement.

Teenage brains are in the process of developing and are constantly adapting to the environment. The introduction of substances to this process can result in brains developing strong memories of pleasure and reward around substance use, which can increase the likelihood of ongoing substance use and the potential for addiction.

The impact of substance use on brain development and cognitive functioning has been shown to impair the ability to pay attention and remember information. This impairment also impacts the teen’s ability to stay engaged in the learning process, which could lead to behavior concerns and attendance issues, directly impacting school performance.

Since the prefrontal cortex is still developing, teens are also prone to impulsive reactions and have difficulty with long-term reasoning. The brain’s capacity for self-control and decision-making is not fully developed, which makes teens more susceptible to risky behaviors and less able to recognize the potential for long-term consequences, such as negative impacts on school performance.

Engagement in school and academic activities can also be diminished by the influence of peer groups who use substances and who lack connection to the school environment. In addition to the negative impact on cognitive functioning, substance use has been correlated with low motivation, difficulty with organization, and lack of social skills, which can result in attendance issues and dropout.

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Causes Of Teen Drug Use

Teen drug use is caused by a combination of factors that are unique to each teenager, their family, peer group, and environment. In the teenage years, social pressure and curiosity are prevalent, both of which may lead to substance use.

Beyond those potential motivators, certain lifestyle, environmental, and psychological factors may increase a teen’s susceptibility to substance use, including:

  • Having family members who use drugs
  • Having the perception that family members approve of drug use
  • Feeling rejected by their families due to their sexual orientation or gender identity
  • Lacking connection to the school community
  • Established academic struggles
  • Having friends who use substances
  • History of abuse or trauma
  • Mental health issues

These factors may indicate a heightened risk for teen substance use, but they are not definitive proof. It’s important to talk with your teen if you recognize any of these behaviors.

What Are The Signs Of Substance Use In Teens?

The teenage years are a time of rapid change in behavior and personality, which can sometimes make identifying problematic changes difficult. It is helpful to notice if several changes occur at once, if they occur suddenly, or if the change is extreme. Some signs that might indicate substance misuse include:

  • Mood changes
  • Deterioration of academic performance
  • School attendance problems
  • Change in friend group
  • Withdrawal from family bonding activities and routines
  • Lack of involvement in former interests
  • Low level of interest in activities
  • Finding evidence of substance use in the teen’s room or among their belongings
  • Physical or mental changes (memory lapses, poor concentration, lack of coordination, etc.)

The best approach to addressing concerns about substance use is to communicate with the teen. Conversations with teens about substance use are most effective when the conversation occurs with a trusted adult and when the goal is to develop understanding.

Common Substances Teens Abuse

Ease of access, peer pressure, and perception of danger are all factors that contribute to teens using these common substances.


Alcohol use among teens presents a particular danger because of how teens tend to use alcohol. Most teens who report alcohol use also report binge drinking patterns, in which they drink large amounts of alcohol over a short period, such as during a party. This pattern of use presents the risk of alcohol poisoning and high levels of intoxication, which can contribute to other risky behaviors.


Marijuana use presents risks to brain development and cognitive functioning for adolescents. Smoking or vaping marijuana can have negative health impacts, particularly related to lung health. Additionally, marijuana-related mental health concerns can include increased anxiety, agitation, paranoia, and psychosis.


Vaping is a growing concern among teenagers. Vaping devices can be used to inhale nicotine, marijuana, and flavored vapor. The harmful health impacts of vaping are not fully known, but there is much evidence to show the negative health impacts from the use of nicotine. Additional concerns about vaping include the health impacts of the inhalation of artificial flavor additives and the increased risk of addiction to nicotine and marijuana.

Illicit Drugs

Studies show low rates of illicit substance use (with the exception of marijuana), including cocaine, heroin, amphetamines, and nonmedical use of prescription drugs among teenagers. However, the use of these substances does occur among the adolescent population, and the use of narcotics, such as prescription opioids, has increased among high school students.

What Can Parents And Teachers Do Regarding Teen Addiction And School Performance?

Conversations with teens about substance use are most effective when trust is established and the teen feels heard and respected. Studies show that teens most often report that their parents and caregivers are the people who have the most influence on their behavior, and teens whose parents speak to them about substance use have lower rates of use.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has developed specific goals for effective conversations with teens about substance use that include the following:

  • Be clear about your disapproval of teen drinking and drug use.
  • Let the teen know you care about their health, wellness, and success.
  • Show you’re a good source of information about alcohol and other drugs.
  • Show you’re paying attention to their behavior and discourage risky behaviors.
  • Help the teen build skills and strategies for avoiding drinking and drug use.

The Importance Of Trusted Relationships

The most impactful intervention is developing and maintaining trusted relationships.

Teenagers are in the midst of an important phase of life in which they are at risk for beginning drug and alcohol use. Still, teens report that they are interested in having conversations about substance use with adults they trust. So, initiating a conversation with your teen may be help reduce the chances that they start using drugs or alcohol.

Change Is Possible

If you have concerns about a teen’s use of substances and their school performance, there are effective treatment programs throughout the country that address teen substance use and addiction. Reach out to a treatment provider today to find out more information.