Tips for Preventing and Identifying Teen Drug Use
out some tips from the experts about how to begin to talk with your teen about
drugs. It may be one of the most important conversations you ever have with
your child. In this age of deadly synthetic opioids like fentanyl infiltrating
the drug supply in the United States, it may just save their life.
Danielle M. Dick, Ph.D., is a tenured Professor of Psychiatry
at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, where she serves as the
inaugural director of the Rutgers Addiction Research Center and holds the Greg
Brown Endowed Chair in Neuroscience. She is an internationally recognized and
award-winning expert on genetic and environmental influences on human behavior.
Psychology Today, March 15, 2023, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/genes-environments-and-human-behavior/202303/teen-substance-use
Teen Substance Use: Here’s What Every Parent Needs to
- Adolescence is the time
when most kids initiate substance use, establish regular patterns of use,
and start to experience consequences.
- Adolescents have brains wired for risk-taking,
which is a result of the fact that the brain isn’t fully developed until
- There are actions that parents can take to reduce
the likelihood that their teen will initiate substance use or use in risky
I direct one of the largest addiction research centers in the country, and I study
substance use in adolescence. Here’s what every parent needs to know
about adolescent substance use.
1. Adolescence is the time when most
kids initiate substance use.
It's when they establish regular
patterns of use, and many start to experience consequences. About 15 percent of
the population will meet the criteria for a substance use disorder at some
point in their lives, meaning that substance use is causing significant harmful
consequences. The average age of onset for problems is in the early 20s, so
most problems start in adolescence. That’s why we focus so much substance use
prevention programming on teens.
2. Adolescents have brains that are
wired for risk-taking.
This is a result of the fact that the
brain doesn’t develop evenly. The part of the brain that is highly attuned to
experiencing reward is fully developed in adolescence. That’s a product of
evolution—if our brains didn’t respond positively to food, social interactions,
and sex, as a species, we wouldn’t survive very long. Those things make us feel
good, and we seek out more of them.
But as we all know, too much of a good
thing can lead to trouble. The part of our brain that helps us weigh the
consequences of our actions and think about long-term implications isn’t fully
developed until the mid-20s. So, teenagers are like race cars without fully
functional brakes. Using drugs is a novel experience that adolescent brains
crave—and then drugs hijack the reward system by producing feel-good effects.
It’s a big part of the reason why most adolescent substance use is risky
adolescent substance use. Teens don’t have a glass of wine with dinner; if one
drink is good, their reward-primed brains tell them, five drinks must be
better! Of course, there is a lot of individual variability in this trait, but
developmentally, teenage brains are at a high point for risk-taking.
3. The drugs available to kids today are
more dangerous than in the past.
Vaping has risen tremendously in popularity, with one in four
youths reporting that they have
vaped. Vapes come in fun flavors and are easy to hide; most youth (and parents)
do not realize that a single vape can contain as much nicotine as a pack of
Cannabis use is on the rise as most states have
legalized marijuana for either medicinal or recreational purposes. Up to 11 percent
of youth report using cannabis
daily. This is the drug most of us who study adolescent substance use are most worried
The marijuana available today is nearly 10 times
stronger than the marijuana that was available in the 70s, 80s, 90s, and up
through the 2000s. Early research is showing potent adverse effects on memory and motivation in kids who use regularly. The level of THC, the
psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, was about 3 percent until the early
2000s; it is now close to 25 percent in the marijuana available today, and up
to 90 percent in edibles like gummies! Many parents are unaware of just how
different and dangerous this drug is compared to how they remember marijuana.
Parents, think of it this way: If marijuana use in your youth was the
equivalent of having a beer, when your kids use marijuana, it’s more like
drinking a liter of vodka.
Fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid which can be
produced far more cheaply than other opioids, has flooded the drug market as a
result of the opioid epidemic. It is the top cause of
accidental overdoses, which have
grown exponentially over the past several years. The concern now is that it’s
not only opioids that are laced with fentanyl; it’s other drugs as well.
Increasingly, cocaine, ecstasy, and other street drugs also contain fentanyl,
leading to accidental overdoses in youth who experiment.
4. Alcohol remains the most widely used
drug in youth.
It is the most available drug, so it continues to be
the one most kids use recklessly, leading to injuries, fights, unwanted sexual behavior and assaults, accidents, and death. Well-meaning parents
have asked me if, due to the increasing availability of more dangerous drugs,
they should instead encourage their child to take the “least-worse” path and
stick to alcohol.
There are two reasons this isn’t a good idea. First,
it assumes that all kids will use alcohol or other drugs, which is not the
case. We don’t want to inadvertently normalize substance use in our kids. Many
youth choose not to drink. Rates of alcohol use have fallen steadily over the
past decade, with national data showing that only 55 percent of
high school seniors report using
alcohol in the past year.
Secondly, there is no evidence that when
youth use alcohol it deters them from using other drugs. In fact, the opposite
is true. Youth who use alcohol are more likely to try other drugs as well. When
the novelty of alcohol wears off (remember they have sensation-seeking brains!), they move on to trying
5. Parents can make a difference.
Parents, don’t despair! There are
actions you can take to reduce the likelihood your teen will initiate substance
use or use in risky ways.
- Monitor your
kids. Know who they are with, where they are going, what they are up to.
Remove easy access to alcohol in your house. Parental monitoring is the
number-one thing that research shows reduces substance use in teens. Kids can’t
use alcohol and other drugs if they don’t have access. You can make it harder
for them to get access. Remember, their brains aren’t in a place to help them
make the best choices; you have to make up the difference.
- Talk to your kids
about alcohol and other drugs. Ask your child questions about substance
use in their school and among their friends. Ask what they think about using
alcohol or other drugs. Use this as an opportunity to have a conversation about
substance use. Be clear about the rules and expectations in your house,
and—this part is key—outline and implement consequences if they are broken.
It’s normal for teens to push boundaries, and the unfun part of being a parent
is that we have to serve as the referees. But unfortunately, this isn’t a game;
your child’s life is at stake.
Connecting With Your Teenager to Prevent Drug Use
Source: Partnership to End Addiction, Updated September 2023, https://drugfree.org/article/connecting-with-your-teenager/
Parents are the biggest influence in a
teen’s life. Even though you may feel your child pulling away, eager for more
independence, deep down they still want you involved. A strong bond with your
child, especially during the teen years, helps reduce the chances of them
engaging in unhealthy behavior and helps set the stage for preventing nicotine,
alcohol and drug use.
involved and keeping tabs on teens’ activities — both online and off — can be
another way of demonstrating that you care and can help develop a stronger
parent-teen relationship. This is especially true if you communicate the
reason why you’re interested in their actions and whereabouts.
It’s important to stress that it’s not to be nosy or intrusive, but rather
because you’re interested and care about them.
find themselves between a rock and a hard place when raising teens. It’s a
delicate balance respecting your child’s growing independence while still
needing to set rules and boundaries. Finding the right balance requires
effective communication, making constant adjustments and staying in touch with
what’s going on in their life.
Some tips to
make keeping tabs a seamless part of the routine:
Share some quality
in-person time — without the distraction of electronic devices — whenever
you can: during meals, a walk, while you’re in the car, or simply hanging
around at home together.
- Ask specific questions
about their day but convey interest and curiosity, rather than making it
feel like an interrogation: “Who’d you have lunch with today?”, “How was
soccer practice?”, “What’s planned for play rehearsal tonight?”
- When friends are over,
pop in to meet them or say hello, and check in periodically.
- Talk to their friends’
parents. If you don’t know them yet, introduce yourself the next time
there’s an opportunity. You can email them, text or call to say hello.
- Ask teachers, coaches and
other caring adults in your child’s life how they are doing in school or
with extracurricular activities.
- Connect with the school
as a volunteer or in other school-sponsored activities.
- Check in on online and
phone activities, especially social media, which also includes having
passwords and scanning apps from time to time.
Your teen may push back, but that’s no
reason to back off. Help them understand that you’re involved because you love
and want what’s best for them, not because of a lack of trust.
Find opportunities for
Keep in mind
that teens say that when it comes to substances, their parents are the most
important influence. That’s why it’s important to talk — and listen — to your
teen. So, try to talk. A lot. Discuss the negative effects of nicotine, alcohol
and drugs. Clearly communicate that you do not want your teen using substances.
Talk about the short- and long-term effects drugs and alcohol can have on their
mental and physical health, safety and ability to make good decisions. Explain
to your child that experimenting with drugs or alcohol during this time is
risky for their still-developing brain.
- Look for blocks of time
to talk. After dinner, before bed, before school or on the way to or from
school and extracurricular activities can work well.
- Take a walk or go for a
drive together. With less eye contact, your teen won’t feel like they are
under a microscope.
Approach your talks with
- Keep an open mind. If you
want to have a productive conversation with your teen, try to keep an open
mind and remain curious and calm. That way, your child is more likely to
be receptive to what you have to say.
- Ask open-ended questions.
For a more engaging conversation, you’ll want to get more than just a
“yes” or “no” response from your child.
- Use active listening. Let
your teen know they are understood by reflecting back what you hear —
either verbatim or just the sentiment. It works like this: You listen
without interrupting (no matter what), then sum up what you’ve heard to
allow them to confirm. Try these phrases:
- “It seems like you’re
- “I hear you say you’re
- “Am I right that you’re
- Use “I” statements to
keep the flow going. “I” statements let you express yourself without your
teenager feeling judged, blamed or attached. You describe the behavior,
how you feel about it and how it affects you. Then you spell out what you
need. Like this:
- “When you don’t come
home on time, I worry that something terrible has happened. What I need
is for you to call me as soon as you know you’re going to be late so that
I know you’re okay.”
- “I feel like you can’t
hear what I have to say when you’re so mad. Then I get frustrated. I need
to talk about this later when we’re both able to listen.”
- “Because I love you and
I want to keep you safe, I worry about you going to the concert. I need
to know that you will obey our rules about not drinking or using drugs.”
- “I” statements allow you
to use persuasion (not control or blame) to cause a change in their
behavior. You also allow them to help decide what happens next — another
key to bonding.
Let your child
know you understand. The teen years can be tough. Acknowledge that everyone
struggles sometimes, but drugs and alcohol are not a useful or healthy way to
cope with problems. Let your child know they can trust you.
child that you are there for support and guidance — and that it’s important to
you that they’re healthy, happy and make safe choices.
Why Do Teens Use Drugs?
Source: Get Smart About Drugs, Updated March 31, 2023,https://www.getsmartaboutdrugs.gov/family/why-do-teens-use-drugs
The teen years are often a time to explore
and learn more about themselves as they approach adulthood. Often, this
involves experimenting and testing their boundaries. The desire to do something
new or risky is a normal part of teen development.
Teens who perceive little risk in
using drugs are more likely to use drugs. Teens
may also use drugs or alcohol to:
- Relieve boredom
- Feel good
- Forget their troubles and relax
- Satisfy their curiosity
- Ease their pain
- Feel grown up
- Show their independence
to a specific group
What are the Risk
Factors and Protective Factors for Drug Use?
Many factors influence a child’s
likelihood to use illegal substances or develop a substance abuse disorder.
Effective drug prevention focuses on reducing the risk factors and
strengthening the protective factors that are most closely related to substance
Risk factors are circumstances or events that
increase a child’s use and abuse of drugs. The more risk factors present, the
more likely a child may be to use drugs and develop problems. Risk factors for
drug use include:
- Low grades or failure in school
- Victim of bullying or cyberbullying
- Low self esteem
- Permissive parenting
- Parent or older sibling drug/alcohol use
- Living in a community with a high tolerance for
smoking, drinking, or drug use among youth
- Attending a school without strict rules for
tobacco, alcohol, or drugs and inconsistent enforcement for breaking those
that there is little risk in using a drug.
Protective factors are those
characteristics that can reduce a person's risk for substance abuse or
addiction. Protective factors that may decrease the risk of drug use
- Strong bond with a parent or caregiver
- High self esteem
- Parent or caregiver who talks regularly with
their child about drugs
- Active in faith-based organizations, school,
athletic, or community activities
- Spending time around positive role models
- Living in a community that offers youths
activities where drugs and alcohol are not tolerated
- Attending a school with an effective alcohol and
drug education program and a non-tolerance policy for alcohol and drugs
- Belief that using drugs may be harmful or risky
As a parent you can control many of the
risk and protective factors in your home. Remember that parents and caregivers
are the most important role models in children’s lives. For more
information see Growing up Drug
Free: A Parent’s Guide to Prevention.
POTENTIAL TEEN DRUG USE
Get Smart about Drugs, Updated March 31, 2023, https://www.getsmartaboutdrugs.gov/content/signs-drug-use
How can you tell if your child is using drugs or alcohol?
Teens are known to have mood swings. However, some behavior may indicate more serious issues, such as abuse of drugs and alcohol. Here are some of the warning signs of drug use.
Problems at school
- Frequently forgetting homework.
- Missing classes or skipping school.
- Disinterest in school or school activities.
- A drop
- Lack of energy and motivation.
- Red eyes and cheeks or difficulty focusing -
- Red eyes and constricted pupils - marijuana use.
- A strange burn on your child’s mouth or fingers
– smoking something (possibly heroin) through a metal or glass pipe.
nosebleeds – cocaine abuse.
of interest in clothing, grooming, or appearance is not normal. Teenagers
are usually very concerned about how they look.
Changes in behavior
- Teenagers enjoy privacy, but be aware of
excessive attempts to be alone.
- Exaggerated efforts not to allow family members
into their rooms.
- Not letting you know where they go with friends,
or whom they go with.
- Breaking curfew without a good excuse.
in relationships with family.
Changes in friends
- No longer is friends with childhood friends.
- Seems interested in hanging out with older kids.
secretive about spending time with new friends.
- Sudden requests for money without a good reason.
- Money stolen from your wallet or from safe places
gone from your home. (May be sold to buy drugs.)
of marijuana, cigarettes, or alcohol on teen’s breath, on clothing, in the
bedroom, or in the car.
KNOW WHAT TO LOOK FOR? DRUG HIDING PLACES AND DRUG PARAPHERNALIA
Operation Engage provides tips for parents on this important topic.
Here are some videos to help you identify potential signs of teen
Click2Houston, March 20, 2023, https://www.click2houston.com/news/local/2023/03/20/kprc-2-investigates-sneaky-devices-your-kids-could-be-using-to-hide-drugs/
Eyes Wide Open:
Spotting the Signs of Substance Use
Source: Awkward Conversations, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AayBZzPONNM
USE AND SOCIAL MEDIA
when drug deals typically took place primarily on darkened street corners are
long gone. Social media platforms are now among the most popular places to go
for purchasing and selling drugs. Given the high rate of social media usage
among teens, they are particularly at risk of being influenced by drug dealers
advertising their illicit products through sites such as Snapchat or Instagram.
Parents need to be aware that teens across the country are increasingly dying
from pills they purchased on the internet that, often unknown to them, were
found to be laced with lethal fentanyl.
Enforcement Administration, January 2022, https://www.dea.gov/sites/default/files/2022-03/20220208-DEA_Social%20Media%20Drug%20Trafficking%20Threat%20Overview.pdf
of the One Pill Can Kill Campaign, the DEA issued its "Emoji Drug Code -
Decoded," as a reference guide to give parents, caregivers, educators, and
others a better sense of how emojis are being used to purchase illegal drugs.
With the recent spike in fentanyl-related deaths, officials are warning
parents that smartphones and social media platforms could be contributing to
the problem. Do you know
what each emoji code means?
Source, Drug Enforcement Administration, https://www.dea.gov/sites/default/files/2021-12/Emoji%20Decoded.pdf
A similar chart was released as part of Texas’s
One Pill Kills Campaign.
Source: Get Smart about Drugs, https://www.getsmartaboutdrugs.gov/content/talking-your-child-when-you-suspect-drug-use
Choose the right time to talk. When talking to your child be
sure your child is sober or has not been using drugs before
talking about drugs and alcohol.
Voice your suspicion. Begin by expressing your concerns
without making accusations. “Susan, I suspect you may be smoking pot
occasionally. I love you and I’m concerned about you. Is there something going
on that we need to talk about?”
Be specific. Explain what you observed to make
you concerned. For example, you found missing pills or an empty pill bottle. Or
your child’s appearance indicates a problem.
Be prepared for strong reactions. Your child may accuse you of snooping or
say you’re crazy. Stay calm.
Reinforce what you think about drug
use. Tell her how
much you care for him or her.
Get help from the experts. Contact the school counselor, school
nurse, or family doctor about your concerns.
For more information, see Growing
Up Drug Free.https://www.getsmartaboutdrugs.gov/publication/growing-drug-free-parents-guide-substance-use-prevention
A teen who is using drugs or alcohol needs
to be evaluated by a professional for a possible substance abuse disorder.
RESOURCES RELATED TO TEEN DRUG USE
Partnership to End Addiction
Free Downloadable Book on Vaping
From the Fort Bend Community Prevention Coalition