You are not alone.

The media is exploding with information on opioid overdoses, and the debate about the legalization of marijuana wages on. Here are a few important things to know about teen substance abuse.

  • More teens that not have used alcohol.
  • Marijuana use is on the rise, and the potency of marijuana has increased substantially in the last 20 years.
  • The rate of addiction to marijuana almost doubles when marijuana use begins during the teen years.
  • While most young people who use marijuana don’t go on to use “harder” drugs, the majority of young people who use other drugs have first tried marijuana, alcohol or tobacco. While these associations are very complex and not fully understood, the patterns are real.
  • Teens report it is easier to get prescription drugs than to buy alcohol.

What Are the Effects of Substance Abuse on Teens?

Different drugs have different effects on the brain. A teen’s brain is still developing so they are more vulnerable to the toxic effects of substances; such as slowing brain development and causing impairments in impulse control, judgement, ability to plan and successfully complete tasks. Drugs can impact the ability to learn and retain information.

All of these things take a toll on a youth’s school success and the development of healthy relationships. Because teens are more sensitive to the immediate effects of substances, early use results in greater vulnerability to developing addictions and the long term, serious consequences that follow.

Warning Signs

It can be easy to write off warning signs, especially when they are subtle. If something about your teen has changed and their behavior is different for no clear reason, don’t overlook these signs as typical teen development. It could be a sign a drug-related problem is developing.

  • Drop in school performance, missing classes or other problems at school
  • Changes in sleeping and eating
  • Poor grooming
  • Loss of interest in favored activities or a change in their peer group
  • Conflict with family members and friends
  • Anger, irritability, negative self-talk
  • Acting different: hyper-alert, amped-up or in an odd way from normal
  • Physical signs, like dilated or constricted pupils, bloodshot or glazed eyes, sudden weight gain or loss, bruises or other marks on the body or face, changes in skin tone and suspicious odors

So Is It Really a Problem?

Many parents use or have used substances and say that it hasn’t caused them a problem. Some might question whether occasional use by their teen is an issue, especially when it doesn’t seem persistent or “heavy.” But, even smart teens are not equipped to make adult decisions, and may lean in to substance abuse in a way that can become dangerous. There might be short term or immediate consequences that your teen could have avoided thus far, but beware.

  • Underage alcohol use is illegal, as is underage recreational marijuana and other substance use. Many parents and their teens have suffered serious legal, academic and economic consequences for things like hosting a party where there are alcohol and other drugs, or for possessing and sharing marijuana.
  • Getting behind the wheel of a car can easily lead to an accident that could shatter many people’s lives. Excessive drinking is responsible for over 4,300 deaths among underage youth each year, and marijuana may roughly double a driver’s chances of being in a crash.
  • Risky sexual behavior when using can lead to exposure to sexually transmitted disease or pregnancy.

child looking sad while trying to read a book

What Can a Parent Do?

Parents are busy, and it’s easy to gloss over concerns teens have every day. But the costs can be high, so your time and attention can pay dividends over time. Keep these priorities in mind.

  1. Know the risks.

    Children who are impulsive, anxious or depressed are more likely to begin using and abuse substances. Many teens say school stress is a leading cause of drug abuse. Talk openly with your teen about these risks in an open, honest and supportive way that does not scare them, make them feel vulnerable or embarrass them. Dealing with these risks head on helps them have good coping skills and gain confidence in their ability to handle life’s challenges.


  2. Practice what you preach.

    The saying “actions speak louder than words” is true. If you drink and use drugs, your children likely will too. If you provide alcohol or other substances to your teen in your home, or host a party, it conveys the message that you are good with underage use (and it’s also ok to break the law). You may think it is safer, but it reinforces a dangerous message. You need to be a positive role model. What you convey either directly or indirectly will shape their behavior.


  3. Pay attention and be involved.

    If you are actively involved with your teen, you will be able to see subtle changes. Get feedback from teachers about how they are doing in school both academically and socially. Know where your teen is and make sure they have a safe and well-supervised place to spend their free time.

    What is really important is to spend fun time with your teen! It’s easier to keep a close relationship if you are doing something they enjoy and not talking about something serious.

  4. Get the conversation going.

    This sometimes is the hardest part. It’s easier to start a conversation if you have been spending time with your teen, and if alcohol and drugs have been an open topic of conversation from a young age. If your child knows your values and expectations, talking openly about how things are going for them and your concerns will come more naturally. As with any sensitive topic, ask questions in nonthreatening, nonjudgmental and supportive ways. Be honest and clear. Teens know when there is something you are thinking that you aren’t saying. Don’t be surprised if you get questions about your own current or past use. While it is not important for them to know all the details, it might help them to know if there were past choices you regret, and generally how you learned from them.


  5. Act early.

    Let’s face it. Most teens resist or avoid their parent’s questions when they might be using, especially when they understand expectations about this behavior. If talking with your teen doesn’t calm your fears, take action. Talk with other trusted parents and teachers who know your child, and ask them if they see concerns. Talk to their pediatrician and make sure they receive routine medical care and drug screening during visits. Parents want to give their kids a break when they can, but adolescent drug use, especially in early adolescence, really does increase the risk for damage to the brain and for later addiction.


Preventing harm from early use and abuse helps young people reach their fullest potential. If your teen does develop an addiction, get help quickly. The earlier treatment begins, the less suffering and harm there will be, and the long-term outcomes will be better. Recovery does happen, but prevention is best.