People are most likely to begin misusing drugs—including tobacco, alcohol, and illegal and prescription drugs—during adolescence and young adulthood.

Substance misuse in adolescents can range from experimentation to serious substance use disorders. All substance misuse, “even experimental use, puts adolescents at risk of short-term problems, such as accidents, fights, unwise or unwanted sexual activity, and overdose.” Children,  Preadolescents, and adolescents are vulnerable to the effects of substance misuse which increases the risk of developing long-term consequences, such as mental health disorders, underachievement in school, and a substance use disorder.

Adolescent and preadolescent substance abuse results in a child’s inability to control emotions and impulses. Teens are particularly susceptible to substance abuse because adolescence is the stage of the greatest vulnerability to addiction. During adolescence, the parts of the brain that are so critical for judgment and self-regulation do not fully mature until people reach 21 to 25 years of age.    

Factors that increase vulnerability to addiction include family history (presumably through genes and child-rearing practices), early exposure to drug use, exposure to high-risk environments (typically, socially stressful environments with poor familial and social supports and restricted behavioral alternatives and environments in which there is easy access to drugs and permissive normative attitudes toward drug taking).  Certain mental illnesses (e.g., mood disorders, attention deficit–hyperactivity disorder, psychoses, and anxiety disorders) can also contribute to substance abuse.

Prevention Related Standards



What does this look like in my child?

Behaviors that should prompt parents to discuss their concerns with their child and doctor include:

  • Erratic behavior

  • Depression or mood swings

  • A change in friends

  • Declining school performance

  • Loss of interest in hobbies

  • Parents who find drugs or drug paraphernalia (such as pipes, syringes, and scales) should discuss their concerns with their child



How can I help my child now?

  • Seek therapy for child and family

  • Reduce stress and stressful environments

  • Allow child time with loving, caring adults

  • Limit access to drugs and alcohol

  • Encourage exercise and participation in age appropriate healthy social interactions

  • Change circle of friends

  • Meet with a trained/certified pediatric mental health care provider

  • Have pediatrician conduct a full physical

  • Meet with school to develop a plan that supports interventions

What can I do for my child in the long-run?

“If the doctor thinks the adolescent has a substance use disorder, a referral for further assessment and treatment may be needed.

The same treatment used for adults with substance use disorders can also be used with adolescents; however treat should be tailored to the child’s needs.

Adolescents should receive services from adolescent programs and therapists with expertise in treating adolescents with substance use disorders. In general, adolescents should not be treated in the same programs as adults.”


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