Teen substance use can progress, sometimes rapidly, from
experimenting or occasional use to
abuse and dependence (addiction).
Teens try alcohol, cigarettes,
chemicals (inhalants), and other drugs for many of the same reasons that adults
use them, to relax or feel good. But they also have other
reasons for drug use, such as curiosity, rebellion
against their parents, or seeking acceptance from their peers.
Often the first substance used by a teen is alcohol or cigarettes, and
many times these are obtained from the teen's own home. Some parents expect and
tolerate experimentation with these substances because at least the teen is not
using "drugs." But these substances are considered gateway drugs, because they
can lead to the use of other drugs.
Most teens never go any
further than experimenting with substance use. But if experimentation begins
before the age of 15, a teen is likely to continue and to develop problems
related to use. Other things that make a teen likely to develop a substance
use problem include:
Using a substance alone rather than in a peer
Having untreated behavioral problems or psychiatric
At this stage, teens frequently seek
opportunities to use the chosen substance or substances. Also, a teen
may start to need more and more of the substance to achieve the same effect:
this is called tolerance.
Often the first signs of substance abuse
are school problems, such as a sudden increase in absences or falling grades.
The teen may also have problems at home, including conflicts with parents.
Teens often give up activities that they enjoy in order to use the substance.
Also, teens may use the substance in school or in situations that lead to legal
problems. They may sell drugs as well as use them.
abuse is a condition that needs treatment to prevent the progression to
dependence (addiction). Over half of teens who abuse drugs or alcohol
eventually become addicted. Although treatment for substance dependence can be
effective, it is best to intervene before dependence develops.
Substance dependence (addiction) is
physical or psychological or both. It results in increased tolerance and in
withdrawal symptoms if the dependent person stops
using the substance.
As your teen progresses toward dependence, he
or she experiences increasing difficulty carrying out normal daily
responsibilities and routines. Getting and using the substance may take up a
large portion of the teen's activities, regardless of the consequences. Over
time, tolerance increases, and the teen loses control over use of the
At this stage, your teen's physical appearance or
health may change or get worse. These changes may include weight loss, dental
or gum disease, or complexion problems. Your teen may show less interest in
personal hygiene or clothing. Lying about alcohol and drug use is common. And
the teen often becomes isolated from family and friends. Since abusing drugs
can be expensive, the teen may steal from family members or sell drugs to
support his or her habit. Your teen may even stop using the substance for 2 to
3 weeks at a time, creating the false belief that his or her use is under
Substance dependence is a lifelong (chronic) disease,
which can be controlled with the help of professional treatment. Returning to
use after treatment (relapse) is common. And treatment may have to be repeated
several times. Usually a long-term support system is needed for the teen to
maintain a lifestyle that does not include substance use.
ByHealthwise Staff Primary Medical ReviewerPatrice Burgess, MD - Family Medicine Specialist Medical ReviewerPeter Monti, PhD - Alcohol and Addiction
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