Reducing the Risks of Adolescent Substance Use

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Advances in research have helped us to identify and understand the risk factors that can contribute to the development of drug and alcohol problems in adolescents, as well as ways to reduce those risks. One of the most important things we have learned about treating adolescents is the importance of addressing other issues in their lives in addition to their problems with drugs and alcohol. My research over the past 15 years has focused on developing more effective ways of integrating the assessment and treatment of addiction with the mental health, behavioral and family problems that are often linked to substance use in adolescents.

Parents often ask:

  • "What are some of the factors that increase my child's risk of substance use and what can I do to reduce those risks?"
  • "What are some early signs that my teenager might be using drugs or alcohol?" What are the some of the risk factors?

What are the some of the risk factors?

Research has shown that children who have significant mood and behavior problems, such as prolonged temper tantrums, excessive aggression, impulsivity or risk-taking have a greater chance of developing substance use problems in adolescence compared to those who do not have these behaviors. In addition children who have learning disabilities or other academic or behavioral problems during elementary and middle school years may also be at higher risk of early drug or alcohol involvement during adolescence.

What can I do to reduce the risks?

Early evaluation and treatment

The good news is that early evaluation and treatment can help reduce the risks if your child does develop some of these problems. A number of proven interventions for childhood behavior problems focus on helping parents learn the tools of effective behavioral management such as how to notice and reward good behavior as well as how to identify and interrupt problem behavior cycles. Another important aspect of effective treatment is the cognitive and behavioral skills training that helps children achieve greater control over their own behavior, moods, and thoughts. Early diagnosis and treatment of learning disorders, attention-deficit-hyperactivity disorder and mood disorders may also reduce the risks of substance use and other associated behavioral and mental health problems in adolescence.

Be an involved parent

Research shows that parental support, monitoring and involvement in their child's life is an important protective factor against adolescent drug use. Involvement in a child's school reduces behavioral and academic problems and also helps parents to know their children's friends and their friend' parents. This helps parents connect and network with other parents in monitoring their own children's activities as well as those of their peer group. Research clearly shows that appropriate parental monitoring protects against the risks of problem behaviors including substance use.

Open and honest communication

Regular family discussions characterized by open, honest and respectful conversation regarding behavioral expectations and consequences, including attitudes and family rules about drug and alcohol use can reduce the risk of adolescent drug use and other serious problem behaviors. The tricky part for parents is achieving the balance between being clear, consistent and authoritative when establishing household rules and the consequences of rule violation while at the same time making it "safe"for your kids to tell the truth. Make it clear to your teenager that he or she can call you anytime, day or night, if they feel that they might be in an unsafe situation. For example, let them know that if the person who was to drive them home is intoxicated, you will come and pick them up -no questions asked, at least not on the way home.

Get the help you need

All of us are affected and connected by the enormous personal and societal impact of substance use and addiction. The majority of us have had a family member or a close friend who has suffered from the impact of substance use or addiction (or we have suffered ourselves). When this happens it is important to get the additional help and support from family, friends and professionals that we need. Several individual and family-based treatment approaches are effective in treating substance use in both adolescents and adults. Information about illicit drugs, alcohol, prevention and treatment programs can be obtained on the following websites:

What are some of the early signs that my teenager might be using drugs or alcohol?

The most obvious indication of drug or alcohol use are signs of intoxication, smelling alcohol or drugs on breath or clothing, or finding alcohol, drugs, or drug paraphernalia, such as pipes, rolling papers, in your teenager's room, clothing, or car - all of which would be cause for a frank discussion.

A change in your child's previous level of functioning can be another important sign. This can be a somewhat less obvious but often an earlier signal that there may be a problem. It's important for parents to be alert to any significant changes or decline in the following areas:

  • Change in school performance such as decline in grades, decreased motivation to complete assignments or involvement in school activities; skipping classes/truancy
  • Significant changes in personal habits such as sleep (sleeping much more or much less), level of activity, appetite (increased or decreased), or hygiene
  • Significant changes in behavior and/or mood such as increased irritability, aggression, decreased motivation, disregard for rules, mood swings, depression; expressing suicidal thoughts or behaviors
  • Decreased involvement in positive social activities such as team sports or school related activities; loss of interest in a favorite hobby
  • Association with a deviant peer group, gang involvement; legal problems

A significant change in mood, behavior, academic performance, or peer group does not necessarily mean that your teenager is involved with drugs or alcohol. It does mean that a heart-to-heart parent-child talk about concerns and problems is in order.

Don't feel that you have to handle everything alone. There are a growing number of clinical professionals with experience and training in the evaluation and treatment of mental health and substance problems in adolescents. This is important because adolescents with substance use disorders have a higher risk of having co-occurring mental health problems, such as depression or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, compared to non-substance involved adolescents. The Center for Substance Abuse Treatment website provides information about the availability of clinical resources and treatment programs. The National Institute on Drug Abuse website provides a broad range of other information about drug abuse that is supported by the most current research.

Will they just grow out of it?

Yes and no. While it is true that many teens may simply grow out of problem behaviors that arise during the teenage years, many do not. It's almost impossible to tell when problem behaviors begin who will relinquish them and who won't. The important thing for parents to know is that they should take problems such as adolescent drug use seriously should it arise and seek appropriate support and treatment as soon as a problem is identified. They can help to ensure that their children will grow out of it and flourish as happy and healthy individuals as they grow into young adults.