What Parents Should Know About Teen Substance Use
“Parents should be aware that adolescence is the time when most kids initiate substance use, establish regular patterns of use, and start to experience consequences,” wrote psychiatry professor Danielle Dick in March on Psychology Today. “About 15 percent of the population will meet the criteria for a substance use disorder at some point in their lives, meaning that substance use is causing significant harmful consequences. The average age of onset for problems is in the early 20s, so most problems start in adolescence.”
The reason many people initiate substance use in adolescence is that human brains are not fully developed at that age and are wired for risk-taking. “The teenage brain is not there all the way,” as neurologist Frances Jensen put it in a 2016 interview. “It takes often into your early 20s and possibly late-20s and maybe even beyond for the brain to fully mature to adult levels.”
“Teenagers are like race cars without fully functional brakes,” Professor Dick wrote in the article. “Using drugs is a novel experience that adolescent brains crave—and then drugs hijack the reward system by producing feel-good effects. It’s a big part of the reason why most adolescent substance use is risky adolescent substance use. Teens don’t have a glass of wine with dinner; if one drink is good, their reward-primed brains tell them, five drinks must be better!”
Certainly, there is a lot of “individual variability,” but developmentally speaking, teenage brains are at a high point for risk-taking. And this propensity for risk-taking can be lethal these days.
The powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl has flooded the illicit drug market in recent years and is the top cause of lethal overdoses. “The concern now is that it’s not only opioids that are laced with fentanyl; it’s other drugs as well,” Dick wrote. “Increasingly, cocaine, ecstasy, and other street drugs also contain fentanyl, leading to accidental overdoses in youth who experiment.”
Cannabis use among young people is on the rise as most states have legalized marijuana for either “medical” or recreational purposes. According to the latest results from the Monitoring the Future survey of substance use among high school students in the United States, almost twenty percent of 10th graders, and nearly a third of 12th graders reported cannabis use in the past year.
As a result of the continuing normalization of cannabis use, many teenagers perceive little or no risk in using it. However, the marijuana products available today are much more potent than the “pot” of the 20th century.
“The level of THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, was about three percent until the early 2000s; it is now close to 25 percent in the marijuana available today, and up to 90 percent in edibles like gummies!” Dick wrote. “Many parents are unaware of just how different and dangerous this drug is compared to how they remember marijuana.”
Professor Dick—who has over 350 peer-reviewed publications in the areas of child development, addiction, mental health, genetics, and human behavior— wants parents to think of it this way: “If marijuana use in your youth was the equivalent of having a beer when your kids use marijuana, it’s more like drinking a liter of vodka.”
Meanwhile, alcohol remains “the most available drug, so it continues to be the one most kids use recklessly, leading to injuries, fights, unwanted sexual behavior and assaults, accidents, and death.”
Parents Can Make a Difference
This may sound bleak but there is no need to despair. There are actions parents can take to reduce the likelihood their teen will initiate substance use or use in risky ways.
- Monitor your kids: Know who they are with, where they are, and what they are up to
- Talk to your kids: Ask what they think about using alcohol and other drugs.
When they present themselves, use opportunities to have a conversation about substance use. “It’s normal for teens to push boundaries, and the unfun part of being a parent is that we have to serve as the referees,” Dick wrote. “But unfortunately, this isn’t a game; your child’s life is at stake.”
Many teenagers engaging in substance misuse eventually require professional treatment or else risk developing a full-blown addiction and other serious health problems. The negative impact of substance misuse on scholastic achievements will possibly also further accelerate the use of drugs and alcohol.
There is a new treatment option for teenagers at risk in the Denver area. Avanti Behavioral Health recently launched an intensive outpatient program (IOP) for clients between the ages of 13 and 18 in Greenwood Village, Colorado. Our mission is to provide comprehensive, holistic, family-centered, and trauma-informed care for teens.
We believe that recovery from a substance use disorder is a process that should involve the entire immediate family. We have developed an effective and highly involved method of family counseling. For more information about our IOP and family programming call us at (720) 753-4030.