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Adolescent Drug Use: Who’s Most at Risk and Which Drugs Are Being Abused?

“Adolescent patterns of drug abuse are very different from drug use patterns in adults. The uniqueness of adolescent drug abuse means that drug-dependent teenagers usually are not successfully treated with adult-directed therapy.” ~ Dr. Ken C. Winters, Ph.D., Adolescent Substance Abuse: New Frontiers in Assessment With all of the temptations and dangers available in today’s world, it can be stressful – almost terrifying – to be the parent of an adolescent or teenager. Drug or alcohol use at this age, when their brains are still developing, can have serious consequences – school performance, social interaction, future opportunities, and even risks to their health and life. Most adolescents and teens who experiment with intoxicating substances do not go beyond that experimentation and initial use, but there is a percentage that will escalate to fall-blown substance abuse and, eventually, addiction.

Statistics about Adolescent Drug Use in America

First the good news – according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, several types of adolescent substance use are at their lowest level in years:

  • Decreasing use of synthetic/designer drugs
  • Decreasing the misuse of prescription medications
  • NO increase in marijuana use

But the bad news is that many adolescents and teens have a decreased perception of the harms of drug use. This is problematic, because it may lead some users to experiment with substances they believe are “generally safe”. To clarify the picture, let’s look at specific substances and use rates by different adolescent age levels – 8th grade, 10th grade, and 12th grade.

  • Alcohol – Over the past five years (2015 versus 2010), there are encouraging decreases in alcohol use among all grades, particularly in the area of past-month use:
    • 8th grade – 9.7% versus 13.8%
    • 10th grade – 21.5% versus 28.9%
    • 12th grade – 35.3% versus 41.2%

Just as encouraging, there was a significant decrease in rates of binge-drinking among 10th and 12th graders.

  • Cigarettes – In comparing adolescent/teen smoking from 2015 to 2010, the rate is now the lowest it has been in the history of the Monitoring the Future survey:
    • 8th grade – 1.3% versus 2.9%
    • 10th grade – 3% versus 6.6%
    • 12th-grade – 5.5% versus 10.7%

The declining rate of daily smoking among high-school seniors is really stood out when you consider that in 1997, the daily smoking rate for 12th-graders was 25%.

  • Opioids – Although the nation as a whole is experiencing an “opioid epidemic”, the rates of adolescent use has declined – both for prescription painkillers and heroin. In fact, among all age groups, adolescent heroin use is at its lowest rate in the history of the survey.
    • Non-heroin opioid use among seniors is roughly half of what it was a decade ago.

One important area where there could be an improvement is how high-school students obtain the prescription medications that they misuse. Nearly 60% report that they were given the medication by a friend or relative. Less than 20% of teenagers stole from a friend or family member or bought prescription meds from a dealer or stranger.

  • Synthetic cannabinoids – Over the past 3 years, there has been a steady decrease in the past-year use of synthetic cannabinoids. In 2012, 11.3% of 12-graders used substances such as synthetic marijuana, but by 2015, that percentage had dropped to 5.2%
  • Marijuana – Despite marijuana regulations gradually loosening across the country, the rate of past-month use of marijuana has remained steady among all grades.
    • 8th grade – 6.5%
    • 10th grade – 14.8%
    • 12th grade – 21.3%, with 6% of seniors reporting DAILY marijuana use

Disappointingly, there has been a huge change in how the potential harm from marijuana is viewed – only 31.9% of high school seniors think that regular marijuana uses the user at significant risk. In 1991, that number was 78.6%.

For a more accurate snapshot of the substance use behaviors of high-school seniors, here is a breakdown of the most-used substances within the past year, excluding tobacco products:

  • Alcohol – 58.2%
  • Marijuana – 34.9%
  • Amphetamines – 7.7%
  • Adderall – 7.5%
  • Narcotics other than heroin – 5.4%
  • Synthetic cannabinoids – 5.2%
  • Tranquilizers – 4.7%
  • Cough medicine/Codeine – 4.6%
  • Vicodin – 4.4%
  • Hallucinogens – 4.2%
  • OxyContin – 3.7%
  • Sedatives – 3.6%
  • Ecstasy – 3.6%

Who Is Most at Risk of Abusing Drugs or Alcohol?

When you are considering which adolescents are most at-risk for substance abuse or addiction, you have to consider both risk factors and protective factors that may mitigate the dangers. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, some of the risk factors that play the largest part in the development of a substance abuse disorder include:

  • Heredity – Children whose biological parents have an Alcohol or Substance Use Disorders (AUDs and SUDs) initiate substance use at an earlier age and have higher rates of both use and abuse. Genetics is the single largest factor in the development of an addiction and is responsible for up to 50% of the risk.
  • Childhood Behavioral Issues – Termed “psychological deregulation”, this refers to disruptive behavior disorders that manifest during preadolescence. While not risk factors in and of themselves, these conditions can be predictors of possible substance use later during adolescence.
    • Conduct Disorder
    • Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD)
    • Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
  • Environment – The environment that a preadolescent child is raised in plays a major part in their perceptions and future use of the intoxicating substance. Children learn to model their behaviors and coping mechanisms after what they are exposed to.
    • Parental drug/alcohol use – From watching their parents, children shape their expectations about the role that alcohol/drugs play – i.e., as a means of coping, as a means of “acting out”, etc.
    • Peer Influence – Although peers are less of an influence than parents, they are influences, nonetheless. Studies have shown that early exposure to “deviant” peers can accelerate the initiation of similar behaviors.
    • Trauma – Childhood exposure to traumatic experiences such as physical or sexual abuse is a significant predictor of future substance use. “Maltreated” children are 7 times more likely to start drinking by age 12 and children who did not suffer trauma and start drinking an average of 2 years earlier, as well.

How Protective Factors Help Reduce the Risk of Adolescent Substance Abuse

Now that you have a better idea as to some of the risk factors, what are some of the protective factors an intervention that can help reduce the risk of adolescent substance abuse? Healthy parental involvement is the single most important protective factor available to young children, adolescents, and older teenagers. And the earlier that parental intervention occurs, the more impact it will have. For example, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s Preventing Drug Use among Children and Adolescents: A Research-Based Guide for Parents, Educators, and Community Leaders, childhood behavioral issues should be addressed immediately – “For young children already exhibiting serious risk factors, delaying intervention until adolescence will likely make it more difficult to overcome risks. By adolescence, children’s attitudes and behaviors are well-established and not easily changed.” Other protective factors include:

  • Parents who do not abuse alcohol or drugs. If you have a substance abuse problem, seek treatment – the sake of both you and your children.
  • A stable home environment
  • Supportive parenting that meets the child’s social, cognitive, emotional, and financial needs
  • Clearly-established limits as to acceptable behavior
  • Consistent enforcement of discipline
  • Parental/adult monitoring of social behaviors – curfew, being familiar with your child’s friends, etc.
  • Academic and extracurricular engagement
  • Involvement with positive pro-social institutions – school, church, youth groups, etc.
  • A clear understanding of the family’s stand against substance abuse – misunderstanding comes about from regular parent-child discussions

What Can I Do If My Adolescent Is Already Abusing Drugs or Alcohol?

The first thing you should do if your adolescent or teenager is using alcohol or drugs is to stay calm. That may seem the hardest thing in the world to do, but it is the RIGHT thing. When you can stay levelheaded, you can make the right decisions for your child and your family. What you do now is critical to your adolescent’s successful recovery. Don’t listen to promises, threats, or entreaties from them. The nature of addiction means that the ability to control their drug and alcohol use has passed beyond your child. Don’t try to handle this on your own – addiction is a disease that is bigger than any single person. You will need professional help to guide your child through the recovery process. Adolescent substance abusers have specific treatment needs, so make sure you discuss all of you are concerns the addiction specialist beforehand.