Updated on November 28, 2023
7 min read

How is Teen Addiction Recognized and Treated?

Risk Factors of Teen Substance Abuse

Some teenagers are more at risk of developing an alcohol or drug problem than others. 

Common risk factors that can lead to drug abuse include:

  • Family member(s) who have a substance abuse problem or had one in the past
  • Problems with sexual and gender identity or being rejected by family and/or friends
  • Poor parenting and discipline or other family issues
  • History of sexual abuse
  • Surrounding themselves with peers who use substances
  • Poor performance in school
  • Feeling disconnected from school
  • Low self-esteem and confidence
  • Mental health problems, such as depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder

Why Do Teens Abuse Substances?

Teenagers are exposed to various problems that many parents, teachers, and other adults may not understand or relate to. These problems can cause intense feelings of isolation, loneliness, and confusion.

Dealing with difficult emotions can cause teens to abuse illicit drugs or alcohol. Other reasons for substance abuse include:

  • Peer pressure
  • Stress relief
  • Curiosity
  • Self-medicating untreated mental health issues
  • Genetic predisposition
  • Addiction
multiethnic group of young cheerful students walking on campus 1

Signs of Teen Drug Abuse

Many teens experimenting with illicit drugs and alcohol will turn out fine and live healthy lives. However, others will go on to develop long-term addictions and other serious health issues.

If you suspect that a teenager is abusing drugs or alcohol frequently, look for the following signs:

  • Sudden mood swings and changes in behavior
  • Getting in trouble for misbehaving
  • Declining grades
  • Being late or absent from school
  • Inability to stop drinking once they start
  • Hiding drugs, alcohol, or paraphernalia
  • Feeling tired, disinterested, or angry with life
  • Continuing the use of drugs or alcohol despite getting in trouble
  • Borrowing and stealing money
  • Giving up old hobbies, sports, activities, or friends for drugs or alcohol
  • Using eye drops or mouthwash to hide symptoms of drug or alcohol use
  • Health problems
  • Getting in trouble with the police
  • Withdrawal symptoms

Common Substances Abused by Teens

Nearly half of all high schoolers have tried marijuana, and approximately two-thirds have consumed alcohol by the time they graduate. The most commonly abused drugs by teens include:

Effects of Drugs on Teens

Drug and alcohol abuse can disrupt brain development. It can impair memory, thinking, and learning. It can also change how a teenager responds to emotional or stressful situations.3

Substance abuse can have mild to severe side effects. Some of these effects include:

  • Illnesses and health problems
  • Mood swings and mental health problems
  • Suspension or expulsion from school
  • Loss of job/income
  • Arrest or legal troubles
  • Poor judgment and decision-making
  • Risky sexual behavior
  • Financial problems
  • Relationship problems with family and friends

Severe Side Effects of Drugs on Teens

The effect of drugs and alcohol on a teenager's brain can increase the likelihood of developing a mental health disorder.3 Although it's difficult to prove that substance abuse causes mental health problems, they are closely linked.

Teenagers who abuse substances are more likely to have mental health issues. Conversely, teenagers with mental health issues are more likely to use substances to cope with their problems. 

Other severe and long-term side effects include:3

  • Co-occurring disorders
  • Substance use disorder (SUD)
  • Alcohol or drug dependence
  • Long-term health problems (liver disease, heart disease, etc.)
  • Disrupted brain development
  • Car accidents
  • Overdose
  • Death

Teen Alcohol Abuse

Alcohol is the most frequently abused substance among teenagers. The activity has been proven to be extremely dangerous in many situations, with drunk driving accidents killing thousands of teens each year.

High schoolers who binge drink (drinking five or more alcoholic drinks in one sitting) are often more likely to develop an alcohol addiction later on. This is because the teenage brain is still developing, making it more susceptible to addiction.3

Reportedly, binge drinking is down 10% to 30% among high schoolers.7

Short-Term Side Effects of Teenage Alcohol Abuse

Short-term effects of teen alcohol abuse include:

  • Impaired judgment and decision-making ability
  • Inability to recognize inappropriate or risky behavior
  • Higher chances of engaging in unhealthy or unsafe behavior (such as drunk driving, aggression or violence, unprotected sex, etc.)
  • Inability to recognize dangerous situations
  • Behavioral health problems

Long-Term Side Effects of Teenage Alcohol Abuse

Underage drinking during the teenage years can also lead to serious long-term effects, such as:

  • Impaired learning ability and information processing
  • Increased risk of developing an alcohol use disorder (AUD) and/or mental health disorders
  • Increased risk of developing long-term health issues, such as heart disease and memory loss

How to Prevent Teenage Substance Abuse

The most critical part of preventing teenage substance abuse is communication. By fostering trust and understanding, you can help them through difficult times. Proper communication can also help them develop healthy coping mechanisms. 

Other ways you can help prevent substance abuse include:

  • Know who their friends are
  • Don't enable addictive behavior
  • Connect with other parents or adults
  • Promote a healthy family bond
  • Educate yourself on addiction and substance use disorders
  • Get help from doctors and addiction specialists

Teen Prescription Drug Abuse

Prescription drugs are another commonly abused substances among teens. Around 14% of students reported misusing prescription opioids.5

Much like illicit drugs and alcohol, abusing them can lead to addiction. It can also cause numerous short and long-term health problems.  

Some of the most commonly abused prescription drugs include:

Side Effects of Prescription Drug Abuse

Abusing prescription drugs can lead to several risks, including:

  • Adverse drug interactions
  • Seizures
  • Drug Addiction
  • Overdose
  • Death

Around 4,777 Americans aged 15 to 24 died of an overdose of illicit drugs in 2019.6

Withdrawal Symptoms

When you suddenly stop using a substance, you may experience withdrawal symptoms. Withdrawal typically happens to people who have become addicted or dependent on substances and suddenly stop using them.

It can cause uncomfortable and painful side effects because the body adjusts to the lack of drugs or alcohol.

Withdrawal symptoms include:

  • Tremors
  • Muscle pain
  • Fatigue
  • Sweating
  • Irritability and agitation
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Confusion
  • Paranoia
  • Insomnia

Different substances can have different withdrawal symptoms. Some can be fatal, like Delirium Tremens (DTs). Contact medical professionals immediately if you or someone you know is experiencing withdrawal.

Teen Substance Abuse Treatment

Most SUDs begin in the teenage years and continue into adulthood. It can be very difficult for teens to overcome addiction. Seeking help is the best way to increase the likelihood of recovery. 

The best type of treatment for teen drug use and abuse is prevention. Education and honest communication go a long way in helping teenagers learn about the risks of drugs and alcohol. 

It’s important to teach them the power of saying no and how to enjoy life without relying on substances.

Treatment Options for Substance Abuse

Various treatment facilities and options are available for teenagers suffering from substance abuse problems. Your school counselor is a great place to start looking for professional help.

There are also addiction treatment centers that focus specifically on helping teens. Some of the most effective treatment types for SUD and AUD include:

  • Outpatient rehabilitation: A treatment program where you are freely allowed to leave the rehab facility
  • Inpatient rehabilitation: Involves checking yourself into a rehab facility for 24-hour medical supervision
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy: A short-term therapy technique that explores the link between thought patterns and addiction
  • Contingency management: Involves using incentives, such as cash prizes and vouchers, to promote good behavior and sobriety
  • Dialectical behavioral therapy: A form of behavioral therapy that focuses on managing emotions and developing healthy coping mechanisms 
  • Group therapy: A form of psychotherapy held under the supervision of a professional counselor or therapist
  • Intervention: A confrontation with your addicted loved one to encourage treatment and usually involves an addiction counselor or doctor
  • Support groups: Provide a much-needed community to help maintain sobriety after treatment, like Teen-Anon and Alateen

The most important thing to remember is that teens need support before, during, and after substance or alcohol abuse treatment.


Teens often experience negative emotions and stress that may lead them to substance abuse. In some cases, there are other factors in developing addiction, such as genetics, environment, and peer pressure. 

Using drugs and alcohol can impact a teenager's brain and body. The effects of these substances can impair their mental development and increase the likelihood of long-term health problems or diseases.

Educating yourself on addiction is an integral part of preventing it. But it is never too late to get help. Various treatment options are available to help you on your journey of recovery and sobriety.

Updated on November 28, 2023
7 sources cited
Updated on November 28, 2023
  1. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. "Monitoring the Future Survey: High School and Youth Trends." National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2022.
  2. U.S. Department of Justice. “Prescription for Disaster: How Teens Abuse Medicine.” United States Drug Enforcement Administration, 2018. 
  3. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “Adolescent Brain” National Institute on Drug Abuse.
  4. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “Alcohol.” National Institute on Drug Abuse.
  5. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “High-Risk Substance Use Among Youth.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2022.
  6. Drug Use Among Youth: Facts & Statistics.” National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics, 2020.
  7. Get the Facts About Underage Drinking.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 2023.

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