Substance Abuse In Teenagers: Facts, Signs, Treatment and Counseling

Teenage Substance Abuse Overview

Teen substance abuse remains a significant (and unfortunately prevalent) problem throughout the United States — and in many other parts of the world as well.

The term “teen substance abuse” covers a wide-ranging list of behaviors, including (but not limited to) alcohol abuse, the abuse of illicit drugs (such as marijuana, heroin, and cocaine), and the abuse of prescription and over-the-counter medications.

The following information from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and The Partnership at provides a statistical snapshot of the prevalence of teen substance abuse in the United States:

  • Alcohol: 36 percent of 8th graders, 58 percent of 10th graders, and 71 percent of 12th graders report having had at least one alcoholic drink in their lives. 41 percent of 12th graders reported drinking alcohol in the previous 30 days, as did 29 percent of 10th graders and 14 percent of 8th graders
  • Marijuana: 39 percent of U.S. teens report having used marijuana in the past year. 6.1 percent of high school seniors report abusing marijuana on a daily basis
  • Over the counter (OTC) Drugs: 11 percent of teens report having abused OTC cough medicine at least once in the past year
  • Prescription Drugs: 25 percent of teens report having taken prescription medication that had not been prescribed to them. 23 percent of teens report having used a prescription painkiller without a proper prescription
  • Tobacco — More than 1 in 4 (27 percent) of U.S. teens report having used a tobacco product in the previous 30 days

These statistics are just a brief glimpse into the world of teen substance abuse. Other drugs (including but not limited to heroin, cocaine, Ecstasy, inhalants, LSD, steroids, and methamphetamine) are also abused by thousands or tens of thousands of teens every day in the United States alone.

Clearly, the problem of teen substance abuse remains a significant challenge to the health and well-being of young people in the United States and elsewhere around the world.

Causes of Teenage Substance Abuse

Teen substance abuse has myriad causes, from simple experimentation to a genetic predisposition to addiction.

For many teens, substance abuse begins out of curiosity, peer pressure, or an “everyone else is doing it” mindset. As the statistics presented earlier in this section indicate, the vast majority of teens in the United States have engaged in some type of substance abuse before they have graduated from high school. For those who go on to college, substance abuse-related issues such as high rates of binge drinking and prescription drug abuse present additional problems.

In some cases, teen substance abuse occurs because a does not have a healthier way to respond to stress or pressure. As is also the case with adults, teens may abuse alcohol or another drug in an effort to relieve work- or school-related stress, release anger, ease anxiety, or otherwise respond to both internal and external factors.

If a teen is struggling with a mental health issue or behavioral disorder (especially disorders that have not been diagnosed or are not being properly treated), the substance abuse may be a teen’s misguided attempt to self-medicate.

Symptoms of Teenage Substance Abuse

Signs that a young person has been engaging in teen substance abuse can vary widely from person to person, and can include physical, emotional, and social indicators. Other factors include the type of substance being abused, the length of time the young person has been engaging in teen substance abuse, and the reaction between multiple substances.

That said, the following are among the many common signs of teen substance abuse:

  • Changes in sleep patterns, including hypersomnia (sleeping too much), insomnia (difficulty getting to sleep) and other changes in the amount of time the teen sleeps
  • Poor personal hygiene (for example, neglecting to bathe or otherwise keep up one’s appearance)
  • Withdrawal from family and friends
  • Change in eating habits. Significant increase or decrease in appetite; unusual and/or unexplained weight loss or gain.
  • Persistent illnesses such as coughing, nausea, and dizziness
  • Sudden and dramatic mood swings
  • Paranoia and an insistence upon secrecy (including refusing to let parents know where he/she is going or has been)
  • Nervousness, irritability, anxiety, and unexplained restlessness
  • Increase in accidents and accident-related injuries (such as unexplained cuts, scrapes, and bruises)
  • Loss of interest in sports, clubs, or hobbies that were once very important to the teen
  • Dramatic drop in academic performance
  • Behavior problems (both in school and at home)
  • Slurred speech and glassy or bloodshot eyes
  • Poor coordination and motor control

Any one of these signs can be attributed to a number of causes. But if a teen exhibits several of these signs — and, most importantly, if a parent notices that a teen’s behavior has significantly and unexplainably changed — then the likelihood of teen substance abuse demands additional investigation.

Substance Abuse Treatment For Teenagers


Treating teen substance abuse involves careful analysis of a number of factors, including the teen’s age, the type of substances that the teen was abusing, the amount of substances that were being abused, the length of time the teen substance abuse had been occurring, and the presence of any disorders that may have either led to or been exacerbated by the teen substance abuse.

For some teens, the remedy to teen substance abuse is close supervision, outpatient therapy, or participation in a drug-prevention or 12-Step group. For other teens, the problem may have progressed to the level where partial hospitalization or enrollment in a teen wilderness program, residential substance abuse program, or therapeutic boarding school is called for.

The following therapeutic techniques have been effective in treating young people who have been engaging in teen substance abuse:

  • Individual therapy
  • Group therapy
  • Family therapy
  • Equine therapy
  • Expressive Arts therapy
  • Wilderness therapy
  • Recreational therapy
  • 12-Step support groups
  • Anger management