Muir Wood therapist, David Laing

Drug and Substance Abuse

Teen Substance Abuse: The Difference Between Abuse and Addiction, and How To Treat Both

“My child has a substance abuse problem.” It’s a sentence no parent would want to utter, yet drug abuse and alcohol abuse seem to be prevalent throughout the country.

For example, the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University (CASA) reports that 26 percent of public school students ages 12 to 17 years say that drugs are used, kept or sold on school grounds, and each day CASA reports, more than 13,000 adolescents take their very first sip of alcohol.

Unraveling the reasons for substance abuse in teens is difficult, as each teen is an individual and has his/her own reasons for making disastrous choices like this, but parents who know more about what abuse like this can look like are in a good position to step in with solutions when their children begin heading down an addictive path. Armed with information, these parents can ensure that their children get help and leave their dangerous behaviors behind as they move into adulthood.

Alcohol Abuse

For many teens, alcohol abuse is their first introduction to the world of addiction. Alcohol is plentiful in American households, meaning that kids can just swipe these powerful substances and use them without ever leaving the comforts of their own homes. Since teens have also seen their parents and/or family members drinking, and they’ve likely seen celebrities drinking on television programs and in the movies, they might be under the impression that alcohol is somehow safe for them to use.

The Monitoring the Future study conducted by the University of Michigan suggests that alcohol abuse by teens has dropped to about 40 percent in 2012, after reaching a high of about 70 percent in the late 1970s. This is good news, as it seems to suggest that fewer teens are falling prey to the siren song of alcohol, but the number of teens who drink is still distressingly high, and alcohol remains a favorite of teens new to substance abuse.

Teens who drink might hide their use with language, referring to alcoholic drinks by their brand names instead of using phrases their parents are more likely to recognize.

They also might call their drinks:

  • Hooch
  • Sauce
  • Rotgut
  • 40s
  • Jack
  • Juice

Teens who use these words comfortably might be drinking on a regular basis, and they could face terrible health consequences as a result. The liver processes alcohol, and large amounts of alcohol can put great strains on this vital organ. A person who begins drinking as a teen, and develops an alcohol addiction and continues to drink as an adult, may damage the liver to such a degree that a transplant is needed. Teens who drink large amounts of alcohol can also simply stop breathing during a binge, and if drunken friends surround them, this situation might not be recognized as an emergency. Teens can die in these party situations, right in front of people who could have helped them.

Drugs of Abuse

Alcohol abuse might be dangerous and prevalent, but alcohol isn’t the only substance teens can obtain and abuse. Marijuana use among teens is also remarkably common, as teens see legalization of the drug in some states as proof that it is safe. Some teens also seem to believe that marijuana is safe because it’s a natural plant, and they point to multiple blog entries and articles extolling marijuana’s ability to help people get in touch with the natural world.

On the other side of the spectrum, teens might also ingest prescription drugs made in pharmacies far, far away. These drugs aren’t mere plants, so teens can’t claim that they’re somehow safe and natural, but teens might find these drugs of abuse reassuring since they emerge from doctors’ offices, not far-away drug dens in developing countries. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, prescription drugs rank third in popularity among teens, behind only alcohol and marijuana, showing just how popular these drugs might be among the under-20 set. Some teens also dabble in stimulants like cocaine, opiates like heroin and hallucinogens like acid. Teens might also abuse inhalants by sniffing in the solvents they can find in the garage.

Language can once again help teens mask their substance abuse when they’re using drugs. A few samples of drug slang include:

  • Marijuana: Mary Jane, pot, herb, skunk, weed
  • Prescription drugs: Vikes, uppers, downers, yellow bus, happy pills
  • Hallucinogens: mushrooms, buttons, cubes, blotters
  • Inhalants: laughing gas, poppers, snappers, whippets
  • Opiates: sugar, dope, gum, smack, junk

No matter what teens might choose to call the substances they take, the consequences they’ll face due to the abuse can be significant. Teens who abuse drugs by using needles, for example, can develop infections at the injection site, and if they share needles, they can develop blood-borne infections including hepatitis and HIV/AIDS. Teens who abuse hallucinogens can become so disoriented that they race into traffic or fall out of moving cars. Even marijuana can cause serious health problems, as a study by the Department of Health and Human Services found that teens who were heavy users of the drug had a serious drop in IQ, likely due to brain damage caused by the drug. It’s clear that this isn’t something parents should allow to continue.

What to Look For

Helping teens with substance abuse means spotting the behavior early, and forcing a conversation about the issue. Since teens often won’t readily admit that they’re using drugs or alcohol, parents are forced to become detectives on their own, looking for signs of drug use and/or alcohol abuse on a 24/7 basis. It’s hard to be suspicious day in and day out, but it might be the best option for parents who want to ensure that the problem is handled early.

Teens who are intoxicated with alcohol or high on drugs have behaviors that are hard to ignore. These teens might smell like substances they’ve used, and they might stagger, fall or stumble. They may have bloodshot eyes or half-closed eyes. They may talk incredibly rapidly, or they may not talk at all. When the substances wear off, these teens might wear long sleeves to hide track marks, or they may seem sensitive to loud sounds or bright lights. Teens may also seem confused, unable to remember what happened when the intoxication was in progress.

Teens who abuse drugs and alcohol may also develop a new set of friends, trading “uptight” friends for new acquaintances who are more forgiving of the substance abuse issue. They may choose to stop participating in sports or other extracurricular activities, so they have more time to nurture their fledgling addictions. Their grades may drop, as they have less time available for study. Some teens begin to skip their classes altogether, and they resist spending time with their family.

While some drugs are remarkably easy for teens to take without leaving a trace, there are some drugs that need a bit of preparation, and these drugs might also require the use of tools before the teen can actually take these drugs. These tools, or paraphernalia, could be a red flag for parents that substance abuse is taking place. Items to look for include:

  • Pipes
  • Cigarette papers
  • Rolled-up money with powdered substances clinging to the surface
  • Small baggies, glass vials or pill bottles
  • Empty spray paint cans

Abuse or Addiction?

Substance abuse is always dangerous, but drug addiction is a much more serious matter. The same could be said for alcohol. When a teen abuses substances, those chemicals can cause temporary damage and put the teen on a dangerous path. But when the teen moves from just experimenting and occasionally using substances into full-blown compulsive use, an addiction has taken hold. It’s a fine line, and it can be hard for parents to determine if their teens have crossed that line. Some teens abuse substances regularly, but they can stop abusing these substances when they’re asked or told to do so. Teens with addiction issues, on the other hand, have endured chemical changes within their brains that make it difficult, if not impossible, for them to stop abusing substances on their own. Their bodies have become accustomed to the presence of the substances, and these bodies feel as though they need access to the substances in order to remain functional. Without access, the teen can feel terribly unwell.

When to Get Help

The Treatment Episode Data Set suggests that teens might be waiting a long time to get the help they need to deal with an addiction. This study found that 84.1 percent of teens in addiction treatment programs were between the ages of 15 and 17, but 56.3 percent reported using drugs for the first time when they were between the ages of 12 and 14. This means the teens had been using drugs for years before they got help. Long delays like this can be detrimental to recovery, as drug habits that are older are harder to break. Teens might develop deep alcohol addiction and drug addiction cues within their environments, meaning that everything they see reminds them of a time when they were drunk or high. When they attempt to get sober, these cues can cause deep cravings, and lead teens back into substance abuse. Additionally, substances of abuse can cause increasing brain cell damage, and this can make it difficult for teens to stop abusing substances, even when they want to do so.

Further Reading

Teen Drug Addiction

Substance Abuse