How Street Drugs Affect Teens

Experimentation with drugs during adolescence has become increasingly common.
Lift Off explains how to recognize signs and symptoms of teenage drug abuse.

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While the rise of vaping (rightfully) gets a lot of attention when it comes to teens and addictive substances, it’s far from the only one for parents to worry about. With too many substances to count on the rise in the United States, parents have to take precautions.

However, once it’s already begun, parents need to help their children. Fortunately, help is available for all teens who need it.

How Common Is Teen Drug Abuse?

It isn’t a secret or news that teenagers use substances. Whether we used them or not in high school, we certainly heard of peers who did. However, it’s a bigger problem than you may think.

Unfortunately, the statistics for teen drug abuse are rather striking, and numbers only seem to grow. Currently, surveys show that as many as 30% of tenth graders and 40% of twelfth graders said they’ve used a drug within the last year.

The numbers extend to younger teens, too. Even 13% of eighth graders in that same study had used a drug in the last year.

While data from the past is limited, records strongly indicate that this is an increase from previous years. While the 1990s are synonymous with many substances in popular culture, teen drug use fell substantially during the decade and didn’t pick back up until the last decade.

Why Is Addiction Such A Problem For Teens?

Teen drug abuse has several contributing factors, along with several about which we can speculate. However, we can say is teenage brains (on average) are more susceptible to addiction than others. While there are several reasons for this, we can point to two main factors.

First, teens are more susceptible to peer pressure, which any adult likely knows from lived experience. Middle school and high school students have a pressing need to fit in with their peers and are far more likely to follow along, regardless of the consequences.

Second, and less understood, is that when our brains develop during adolescence, the pleasure centers of our brain develop significantly faster than the parts of our brains associated with risk analysis and decision-making.

Essentially, this puts the teenage brain in the “perfect” stage to develop an addiction, especially with outside forces including peer pressure.

Lastly, on a much lesser note, we can also include other factors that aren’t relevant to most teens but that certainly contribute to some developing addiction. These include the increasing levels of anxiety and depression, which can lead to self-medication.

Even if it is treated, many common medications for ADHD, anxiety, depression, and other common disorders are linked to dependence, which likely contributes to the rise of adolescent drug abuse.

Health Effects of Teenage Drug Abuse

It doesn’t take a neuroscientist to understand that drugs are detrimental to the brain, and even more devastating to a developing brain. That’s what makes teen drug abuse such a serious concern.

You probably remember being a teen, and you may remember how you felt about the future. For many teens, the future doesn’t exactly seem real or concrete. It seems too far away to worry about.

However, as an adult, you understand how long of a life your teen still has to live.

Moreover, it’s just as important to understand how some mistakes, actions, or consequences could affect the rest of that long life. Without trying to scare you, here are some ways that can happen.

Dependency

The risk of developing an addiction or dependency is a serious one. Without going too in-depth about the distinction, we will say that physical addiction is different from psychological dependency, but both have serious consequences.

Essentially, you can overcome a physical addiction by choice and make a concerted effort to remain abstinent. However, psychological dependence is far more challenging to overcome, as those with it are convinced that they need a substance.

Consequently, marijuana is no less “addictive” than another substance if the person using it believes they need it to function. It could still lead to them choosing the substance over other aspirations, ambitions, or responsibilities in their life.

Conversely, a chemical dependence (physical addiction) works by altering your brain chemistry, which has devastating effects on a developing teenage brain. When you flood your brain with a substance similar to existing neurotransmitters like dopamine or serotonin, your brain stops producing those chemicals at a normal level.

As a result, brain development will stunt and a young person may forget what it’s like to feel pleasure without the use of an artificial substance, which can lead to depression and other mental health issues. Depression and addiction are too often intertwined.

Unfortunately, that can lead to a negative feedback loop in which the addiction exacerbates a mental illness and the illness exacerbates the addiction. As a young person, this will likely cause lifelong disturbances, delays, or other concerns.

Developmental Concerns

For young teens, substance use (including alcohol and other legal substances) can delay the onset of puberty and other developmental processes. Drinking in teens is known to lower bone mineral density, cause liver damage, and even develop shorter limbs or stunted growth.

Again, these effects last for life, and there’s no undoing them once they are done. Adolescence is a critical development period for humans, and substance abuse will hinder that development.

Cognitive Problems

We mentioned how chemical dependency interferes with neurotransmitters and damages connections in the brain. However, that’s not all it can do. Other risks include (but aren’t limited to):

  • Reducing the ability to experience pleasure
  • Developing memory problems
  • Missing opportunities during an age with high learning potential
  • Normalizing and expecting unhealthy behaviors
  • Inhibiting development of perceptual abilities


The list goes on, especially when discussing the effects of specific substances. However, these are often what you can expect from substance abuse.

Of course, cognitive issues can lead to serious academic, social, and work-related concerns both in the immediate future and throughout their lives.

Social Concerns

Drug abuse during the teenage years carries some major social risks for teens that could severely impact the rest of their life. While there are many potential outcomes, some of the most common risks include:

  • Unplanned pregnancy
  • Sexual assault
  • Fights
  • Car accidents
  • Arrests or developing a criminal record
  • Academic losses
  • Trouble in school
  • Developing brain disorders or cognitive delays
  • Overdose


Any one of these concerns could have a permanent effect on their life, especially if it involves trauma, brain damage, or a significant life change so early on. Any of these can affect their ability to find jobs, get into college, and build relationships throughout their life.

In today’s world, a wasted academic opportunity could mean significantly lower living standards throughout adulthood, as around half of current job openings require a college degree. Unplanned pregnancies or trauma from an assault could have a similar or even worse effect.

Of course, the threats of overdosing and car accidents speak for themselves. Anything on that list or mentioned above is worth preventing at all costs, so it’s important to know how to help your teen.

Health Effects of Teenage Drug Abuse

As a parent, or any adult in a teen’s life, you’re at a disadvantage when talking to your teen, which is important to understand. It’s no secret that teens resist. Unfortunately, that creates an extra barrier to helping a teen.

Consequently, we suggest taking a mild approach, especially if your teen is currently using substances. If you can prevent it in the first place, do so, but it’s just as important to learn to recognize the signs and carefully approach your teen.

Prevention

Prevention always starts with education and open communication. Try talking to your teen or preteen about drugs and their consequences. Do your best to not sound accusatory or suggestive, but instead try to help them understand your concerns.

Having this talk with your children early is important, and you should encourage them to learn more about this in school. Most schools have programs that educate children about these issues, and encouraging them to talk to their health teacher, doctor, or appropriate authority is a good way to start. Education is the best defense against addiction.

Recognize The Signs

Of course, you don’t want to imagine your teen using drugs. Nobody does.

However, it’s best to understand the signs of substance abuse just in case. The sooner you can help, the better. Some common signs include:

  • Constantly being sick (showing withdrawal symptoms)
  • Lack of attention
  • Constantly lying about whereabouts
  • Acting irrationally
  • Not being present
  • Social isolation
  • Lack of interest in old hobbies
  • Changes in mood or mood swings
  • Physical signs (needle scars, smell, covering breath, etc.)
  • Noticeable memory problems
  • Spending time with the wrong people
  • Avoiding questions


Now, not everything on this list spells out a drug problem right away. For example, teens aren’t always 100% honest with their parents. It’s when you recognize a pattern that you should be concerned about, and if that’s the case, then it’s time to do something about it.

Intervene

If you believe your teen is abusing drugs, then it’s time to intervene. Again, this can’t be an attack if you want it to be effective.

Instead, talk to your teen about your concerns and offer support in any way you can. Ask questions and try to reassure them that they aren’t in trouble to get the most honest answers.

Try your best to prevent a fight, as this could lead to other issues or even worsen the existing ones. If your child has a therapist or counselor, we recommend talking to them about your concerns first, asking for advice, or having them moderate the conversation if possible.

If your teen has been abusing substances for a long period, then it’s time to get help. Therapy services, support groups, and doctor’s visits will go a long way, but not if the addiction is severe.

In the event that a teen has been abusing substances for a long period and they feel they can’t stop, then we recommend inpatient rehab services, as they have the highest success rates. Inpatient services offer everything that outpatient services offer but with the added benefit of a controlled, substance-free environment and around-the-clock care.

Although, any treatment is better than no treatment, and the sooner, the better. The longer your teen continues to abuse substances, the longer they are at risk of serious health and developmental complications.

Remember, an adolescent brain is not equipped to make these decisions on its own. A teen using drugs requires the help of an adult, so let them know your intentions and try your best to avoid conflict. You may only have one chance to help them find the help they need.