teen drinking

Parents often ask: Where is the line between experimentation and drug abuse? They may know or strongly suspect that their child is using drugs but they tell themselves, “It’s just alcohol or marijuana” or “As long as they don’t let it affect their schoolwork.” They’re holding out hope that it’s just a passing phase. And for some it is. But the consequences that befall others reveal the flaws in this type of logic:

1. Experimentation Isn’t Harmless.

“Soft” drugs like alcohol and marijuana can have serious consequences, such as an increased risk of accident or injury, learning and memory deficits, heart disease, sleep disorders, depression, stroke, and several types of cancer. These effects are especially problematic for the adolescent brain, which is still developing into the mid-twenties.

Experimentation is not harmless, healthy or even “the norm” for teens. A report from the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University found that nearly half of American high school students are using addictive drugs. These statistics suggest that while teen substance abuse is deserving of the title, “the nation’s number-one public health problem,” experimentation is not inevitable. Half of teens graduate high school never having used illicit drugs.

For peer groups where substance abuse is the norm, the future looks bleak. Nine out of 10 people who end up addicted started drinking, smoking or using drugs by age 18, CASA reports. One in four high school students who drinks or uses drugs becomes addicted. Drinking at an early age is linked to dangerous binge drinking in young adulthood. Many people come to treatment with histories of drug abuse spanning decades, or the majority of their young lives, making the recovery process more challenging.

2. The Degree of Risk Is Unknown.

Whether they are influenced by peers, curiosity, boredom, stress, or something else, teenagers are programmed to experiment, but they don’t want the negative consequences that go along with it. So they’ll start off with something they perceive as “innocent” such as alcohol or marijuana or set mental boundaries like, “I’ll only party on weekends.”

Some of these teens manage to use drugs recreationally without becoming addicted. The problem is we don’t know in advance who will become addicted, to which type of drug and at what level of use. Occasional use of any drug can quickly lead to addiction for someone who has a personal or family history of addiction or mental illness, difficulty coping with stress, strained family ties or other risk factors for addiction.

3. The Signs of a Drug Problem Can Be Easily Overlooked.

While it is normal for teens to be moody, to crave independence and to spend more time with their friends than usual, certain behaviors are warning signs that something more serious is going on. Don’t just look for the obvious signs of a problem such as legal troubles or dropping grades; look for the early warning signals such as lying, moodiness, losing interest in activities that used to be important to them, and a change in peer group, appearance or sleep habits.

Alone, each of these can be a part of normal adolescent development. The time to express concern is when you notice a combination of changes or a complete turnaround (e.g., a good student loses all interest in school, a normally calm teen becomes angry or hostile, or a late sleeper is suddenly awake at all hours). You know your child. If something seems off, investigate.

Play it Safe—This Is Your Child’s Future

Many teens experiment with drugs. Only a small percentage of teens will develop addictions. Is it a gamble you’re willing to take?

Detecting teen drug use requires active involvement, not passive curiosity. Best case scenario, your child isn’t using drugs and by talking and listening frequently, you’ve conveyed your zero-tolerance policy and sent a clear message of concern for your child. Worst case, your child has a problem that you caught before it follows them into adulthood.

David Sack, M.D., is board certfied in addiction medicine and addiction psychiatry. He is the CEO of Elements Behavioral Health, a network of addiction treatment programs that includes a teen treatment program  at Right Step, Promises, The Ranch, and Malibu Vista.

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