healthy man after sub-acute medical detox

Is My Child Abusing Drugs?

Risk Factors for Adolescent Substance Abuse


Adolescent substance abuse is the largest indication of future addiction. Knowing the risk factors that increase the likelihood of teenage drug abuse can support families and communities to prevent drug abuse and reduce the need for long-term treatment.

According to data from the National Monitoring the Future Survey, in 2019, 8.5% of adolescents in 8th grade had used any illegal drug within the previous 30 days. This is an increase from 7.3% in 2018. Among 10th graders, 19.8% had used any illegal drug within the past 30 days, up from 18.3% in 2018. The rates of using drugs in the past 30 days were essentially unchanged for 12th graders between 2018 and 2019, standing at around 24% both years.1

Given the relatively high rates of drug use among 8th to 12th-grade students, it appears that substance abuse is a significant concern among adolescents. There are many short and long-term consequences of substance use in adolescents, as well as risk factors that increase the likelihood of drug and alcohol abuse.

Short-Term Risks of Adolescent Substance Use

Teens who abuse drugs and alcohol may experience immediate or short-term consequences of their use. For example, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), substance use is linked to risky behaviors like unprotected sex or unsafe driving.2 Teens who are under the influence may lose their inhibitions and drive recklessly or have sex with multiple partners, increasing the risk of car accidents, injuries, STDs, or pregnancy.

Risks Associated with Spefific Drugs

There are also short-term risks associated with specific drugs. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), most drugs are known to hurt the heart. For example, drugs may cause various heart problems, including irregular heart rate, heart infections, and heart attack. Some drugs also harm the respiratory system. The NIDA reports that smoking marijuana can cause chronic bronchitis, whereas smoking crack cocaine can lead to serious problems like lung damage.3

NIDA explains that some drugs can cause dangerous consequences after just one use. These can include psychosis, stroke, heart attack, and overdose, which can result in death. Other short-term effects of drug use can include:3

Sleep disturbances

Changes in mood

Increased blood pressure

Appetite changes

Long-Term Effects of Adolescent Drug Use

Over time, teens who use drugs may experience some long-term consequences. For example, if a teen begins to skip class to use drugs, grades may begin to suffer. This could potentially lead to dropping out of school. It is also possible that they will be arrested for drug possession and face legal charges or incarceration in a juvenile detention facility.

NIDA reports that, over time, substance abuse can lead to several long-term effects:3

Sleep problems

Poor nutrition 


Lung disease

Drug dependency

Future Drug Dependency

According to the CDC, teens who begin using drugs earlier are more likely to experience substance abuse later in life. So, adolescents who abuse drugs during their teen years may continue to struggle with drug abuse as adults. In addition, drug abuse during teenage years negatively affects brain development.2

That being said, while it may seem that temporary drug experimentation has no lasting consequences, it may only be the beginning of long-term consequences, like worsened mental functioning and ongoing struggles with addiction.

Researchers have proven that adolescent substance abuse is linked to long-term consequences like struggling with addiction as an adult. Data from a 2019 study in Drug and Alcohol Dependence show that teens who abuse prescription opiates are at an increased risk of showing symptoms of a substance use disorder at age 35.4

Risk Factors for Adolescent Drug Abuse

Family Risk Factors for Substance Abuse

Abusing drugs as a teenager has both long-term and short-term consequences, and certain risk factors increase the odds of drug abuse. One area that can increase the risk of adolescent substance abuse is a teen’s familial characteristics. These factors within the family make it more likely that an adolescent will have problems with substance abuse. According to the CDC the following familial factors increase the odds of teens using drugs:5

Family history of drug use

Positive family attitudes toward drug use

Use of drugs by parents

Lack of supervision/monitoring from parents

Family disapproval of gender identity or sexual orientation  

Sexual abuse

Child abuse and neglect within the family also appears to be a strong risk factor for adolescent substance abuse. According to a 2013 report in the Journal of Addiction, research has shown that as many as 29% of children who experience maltreatment will abuse substances.6

This maltreatment can include physical abuse and neglect. In addition, the emotional trauma that comes from witnessing domestic violence in the family can increase the risk of adolescent substance abuse by as much as two to three times, according to research.6

Social Factors and Adolescent Substance Abuse

Beyond family factors, social characteristics can also increase the risk of adolescent substance abuse. For example, research shows that the following social factors elevate the risk of teen drug use:6

Relationships with peers

Affiliation with gangs

Peer pressure

Adolescents may use drugs to fit in with their peers. Also, they may form relationships with other peers who use drugs, which is why peer relationships can increase the risk of adolescent substance abuse. When it comes to bullying, both teens who are bullied and the bullies themselves are more likely to abuse drugs.6

Individual Risk Factors for Teen Drug Abuse

In addition to social and familial factors, some teens have personal characteristics that contribute to substance use disorders. For example, the research shows that teens with ADHD are 1.47 to 3 times more likely to struggle with substance abuse. Interestingly, when teens with ADHD take prescription medications to treat their condition, their risk of substance abuse decreases by 50%.6

Depression is another individual risk factor for adolescent substance abuse, and researchers have speculated that teens struggling with depression, similairily to adults, may use drugs to alleviate their emotional pain and sadness. According to the research, male youth who are depressed are 12 times more likely to develop alcohol dependence, and depressed females are 4 times more likely to struggle with alcohol dependence, when compared to those who are not depressed.6

Beyond depression and ADHD, the research seems to suggest that teens with PTSD and other mental health issues are more likely to struggle with adolescent substance abuse.1 As with depression, drugs and alcohol may provide temporary relief from the emotional distress that accompanies mental illness.

Treatment for Adolescent Substance Use Disorders

Signs of Adolescent Substance Abuse

Signs of an adolescent substance use disorder include changes in mood and behavior, difficulty being successful at school, continuing to use drugs despite consequences like legal troubles or health problems, and difficulty controlling drug use or cutting back on use. If an adolescent is displaying these signs, treatment is warranted.

The Need for Treatment and Recovery

As the research shows, individual, social, and familial factors can increase the risk of adolescent substance use. Unfortunately, teens who continue to use drugs may develop clinical addictions, typically referred to as substance use disorders. Once a teen has developed a substance use disorder, treatment is often necessary to help them recover from the addiction and live a life free from drugs and alcohol.

Outpatient Treatment

The type of treatment necessary will vary based on the severity of the adolescent’s substance use disorder. Some adolescents may find successful recovery with outpatient treatment, which will likely include regular individual therapy sessions, as well as group and family sessions.

Inpatient Treatment

In some cases, adolescents who are experiencing severe addiction may develop withdrawal symptoms when drug use is stopped. If this is the case, an inpatient detox program, where medical staff monitor symptoms and provide medications to make withdrawal more comfortable, may be necessary.

Some adolescents may enter an outpatient treatment program after detox, whereas others may require an inpatient program.

Get Help for Adolescent Substance Abuse

An addiction professional can help a person determine the best type of treatment for their individual situation. Regardless of what format of treatment is chosen, it may be comforting to know that treatment has been proven to be effective. In 2013, researchers writing for the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment reviewed the results of multiple studies and found that most types of treatment were successful for reducing substance abuse among adolescents, but family therapy appeared to be the most effective.7

If you or a teen in your life is struggling with an adolescent substance use disorder, there is help available to treat the disorder. Reach out to an addiction professional today to begin the journey toward a drug-free lifestyle.

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