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The Truth About Teen Drug Use


Whether you have a child approaching their teen years or nieces, nephews, or grandchildren, knowing the truth about teen drug use is important. There are many misconceptions about adolescent drug use, which is why it’s critical for you to get the facts.

In this article you’ll learn everything you need to know about teen drug and alcohol use, and how to prevent your child from becoming an addict.

Drug and Alcohol Abuse Starts Early

Did you know that most teens have their first drink or take their first hit by the time they’re 13 or 14 years old? Starting young puts kids at greater risk for developing substance use disorders—about 6.5 times more likely according to a report done by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse—than if they start after age 21.

DoSomething.org reports that by 8th grade:

  • 28 percent of adolescents have tried alcohol, 
  • 15 percent have smoked cigarettes, and
  • 16.5 percent have tried marijuana. 

Substance abuse at such an early age increases the risk of developing an addiction that affects the rest of a child’s teen years, and it may even follow them into adulthood.  

Marijuana vs. Cigarettes

Which do you think is the most common drug with teens: marijuana or cigarettes? Believe it or not, the answer is marijuana. Marijuana is the most commonly used illegal drug today. This is an alarming fact because Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the ingredient in marijuana that causes addiction, is much stronger now than it was 20 years ago. 

Though marijuana is very addictive, many teens don’t see it as dangerous. In fact, 60 percent of high school teens believe regular marijuana use is safe. Even more disturbing: 21 percent of parents think marijuana is harmless, too. If parents think it’s ok to smoke marijuana, their kids will be more likely to take a hit when the opportunity presents itself. And if they try it once, they’ll likely try it again.

The Mental Effects of Marijuana 

Marijuana affects the brain in many ways. The effects of THC can sometimes last for days after smoking. 

Teens who smoke marijuana typically experience the following: 

  • Memory loss 
  • Inability to learn or study 
  • Mood swings 
  • Anxiety
  • Depression 

As a result, they are twice as likely to have poor grades. Many teenage marijuana smokers end up dropping out of school.

Nicotine Addiction Happens Fast

Nicotine—one of thousands of harmful ingredients found in cigarettes—is the main one that affects the brain. Nicotine is one of the most addictive substances out there, and it works fast. It only takes one or two cigarettes for a teen to be hooked. Repeated nicotine use increases tolerance, thereby creating the need for more in order to get the same effect.

Alcohol Is a Drug

Alcohol is a drug just like marijuana, cocaine, or other substances. And it’s dangerous: one in 10 alcohol users admit to driving under the influence in the past month, putting themselves and other drivers at risk. Drunk driving is currently the second leading cause of death among teens.

How Alcohol Affects Teen Development

Studies show that extended alcohol use can decrease the size of the hippocampus (the area of the brain responsible for memory and learning) by about 10 percent. It also affects teens’ self-identity, relationship skills, and emotional stability. Alcohol delays teen development by interfering with their ability to prepare for their future. Their performance in school and extracurricular activities suffers, impeding their ability to get into college or trade school. 

Other Substance Abuse

These days, teenagers are creative when it comes to getting high. There are a lot of options and opportunities—which means our teens are at even greater risk of a deadly addiction. Unfortunately, dangers can be found in a place you might not expect: your medicine cabinet.

Prescription Drugs vs. Illegal Drugs

Prescription drugs currently cause more deaths than illegal drugs do. It’s estimated that 15 percent of high school teens have misused prescription drugs in the past. These legal substances have become the new “gateway” drug: 90 percent of students who’ve gotten high with prescription drugs have also used other drugs.

Common prescription drugs that teens typically abuse include:

  • Pain relievers (opioids and narcotics): Morphine, Codeine, Oxycodone, Hydrocodone
  • Stimulants: Adderall, Dexedrine, Ritalin, Concerta
  • Tranquilizers/Sedatives: Xanax, Ativan, Valium

Keep in mind that these drugs can be prescribed under many different brand names.

The Mental Effects of Prescription Drug Abuse

Prescription drugs are incredibly addictive and cause a variety of issues. With pain relievers and sedatives, effects such as slowed breathing and anesthesia are common. These drugs affect concentration and alertness, impairing a person’s ability to drive. 

Stimulants have the opposite effect. Teens who abuse these drugs are able to work or study for hours on end. High school teens may use them to keep up with a heavy school load. But misusing stimulant drugs can stress the heart while also causing paranoia and other psychological stresses.

Further Consequences

Once hooked on prescription drugs, a person can struggle with their addiction for years—and it can create lasting damage on their relationships, career, finances, and overall quality of life. However, detoxing from prescription drugs requires professional treatment. Attempting to reduce use of these substances on one’s own is very dangerous and can result in serious complications, or even death. 

Preventing Teen Drug Use Starts at Home

The best thing you can do to help protect your kids from drugs and alcohol is to lead by example. Nearly half of children under 18 are living with a parent who engages in risky substance abuse. Teenagers are extremely observant and tend to pick up the habits of their parents. It’s in your best interest, as well as your child’s, to live a healthy lifestyle.

Family and Friends

Another source for both legal and illegal substances is friends and family members. Make sure you know who your child’s friends—and their parents—are. At the same time, it’s also important to know when and how your child is interacting with cousins, aunts, uncles, and other family members that you would typically trust. Because drugs are so pervasive in our culture, people you don’t even realize are suffering from an addiction could provide an opportunity for your teenager to become an addict, too.

Parents are the #1 Influence in their Teen’s Life

Despite the heavy influences of the media, their peers, and the community, there is hope for parents who are concerned about their teenager getting involved with drugs and alcohol. The best way you can prevent your teen from trying drugs is to simply talk to them about it. Teens are 50 percent less likely to abuse drugs after parents talk with them about the dangers of them. 

Having a conversation about drugs and alcohol isn’t always easy—but it could save your child’s life.


At Dallas Behavioral Healthcare Hospital, we’re here to help you. We offer inpatient and intensive outpatient treatment for many of the conditions associated with substance abuse. Please call us at 855-982-0897 or fill out a contact form online for a free, confidential assessment for you or a loved one.