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Underage Drinking

How to spot the signs of teen substance misuse

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As teens grow into their bodies, they can also grow into substance misuse.

Adolescents aged 12 to 17 accounted for over 40% of first-time alcohol users reported in the 2020 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) survey. That age group also accounted for nearly 36% of reported first-time marijuana users and about 30% of reported first-time cigarette smokers.

This popularity can make substance misuse seem like a rite of passage for teens, even when illegal under U.S. law. But students’ misuse of substances in their formative years carries serious health risks that can follow them into adulthood.

The dangers among teens

Teens try drugs or alcohol for different reasons, including peer pressure, stress, or to show their independence. But all types of users share increased threats to their immediate and long-term health.

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), underage drinking poses several dangers:

  • Impaired judgment
  • Altered brain development
  • Increased likelihood of experiencing or instigating interpersonal violence
  • Increased risk of problems with alcohol later in life
  • And more

Drug use among adolescents shares these dangers and, as the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) explains, can also interfere with family and peer relationships and school performance. The wide range of risks means the dangers of substance misuse can stretch to all aspects of students’ lives.

Teen misuse can lead to abuse

For teens, experimenting with substances often escalates to serious misuse later in life.

In 2020, SAMHSA found nearly 5 percent (1.2 million) of adolescents aged 12 to 17 had at least one illicit drug use disorder in the past year. About 3 percent (712,000) of adolescents in the age group had alcohol use disorder (AUD) during that time. This connects to teens’ status as major binge drinkers. Cases rose significantly among those aged 18 to 25 surveyed. About 15 percent (4.9 million) in the age group had at least one illicit drug use disorder during the previous year, while about 16 percent (5.2 million) had AUD in the period.

Teen substance abuse can bring life-altering outcomes, including injuries or death. Underage drinking, for example, contributes to alcohol overdoses, motor vehicles crashes, homicides, and other forms of death among youth under the age of 21 each year.

The severe consequences surrounding students’ substance misuse make it crucial to spot the warning signs early on.

The signs of teen substance misuse

While some behavior changes are normal for teens to display as they grow up, others can serve as signs of substance misuse. The NIAAA names several signs of underage drinking:

  • Detecting the odor of alcohol
  • Slurred speech
  • Mood changes, such as increased irritability
  • Academic and/or behavior problems in school
  • Loss of energy and interest in activities
  • Changing friend groups
  • Rebelliousness
  • Problems with coordination, concentration, and/or memory

Many of today’s teen users are misusing more than one substance concurrently. According to NIDA, symptoms of overlapping drug and alcohol use are often more pronounced in adolescents and include:

  • Missing classes or skipping school
  • Changing sleeping and eating habits
  • Carelessness with grooming
  • Deteriorating relationships with friends and family

These signs can present themselves at any adolescent age and in any environment. Parents and teachers alike can help spot when students’ behavior changes start pointing to drug or alcohol use.

Looking out for surges in teen substance misuse

Precautions taken during the COVID-19 pandemic have limited the spread of the coronavirus nationwide. Some have also helped to restrict substance misuse among teens.

The 2021 Monitoring the Future survey showed no significant increases in drug use from 2020 among 8th, 10th, and 12th graders. Instead, they found the students’ combined drug use in their lifetime and the last 12 months declined by more than 20% from the previous year in many drug categories. Alcohol and tobacco use also dropped across the grade levels.

How have COVID-19 precautions affected these changes? By making students see substances as less available to them. With lockdown came fewer parties or other social events and more time spent with parents at home.

But with many social activities resuming nationwide as COVID-19 cases decline, the return to normalcy could also lead to increased adolescent exposure to drugs and alcohol. Growing social outlets, such as parties or other events where teens can mingle unsupervised, should be watched as potential sources of substances for your teen.

A new normal amidst COVID-19 doesn’t have to bring new surges in teen substance misuse.

Fostering prevention as a parent

As a parent, you can take an active role in preventing your teen from using substances that could harm their health. This can start with recognizing the myths surrounding adolescents using alcohol or drugs.

The NIAAA shares several practices parents can use to have a positive or negative influence on students, such as acting as role models. When parents engage in substance misuse, their children are more likely to repeat the behavior.

It’s never too late to encourage healthy habits in your teen, including avoiding substance misuse.

Explore more of our resources on substance misuse

Seeking the help of a professional

Even seemingly minor experimentation with drugs and alcohol by students can lay the foundation for addiction. It's crucial to involve a certified health care provider in managing your teen's substance misuse.

Treatment programs offer comprehensive care tailored to assessments of each adolescent’s intervention needs. Programs are available in outpatient, inpatient, and partial hospitalization treatment settings.

Find treatment for your teen today

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