By Dr. Arastou Aminzadeh, Founder BNI Treatment Centers
Wouldn’t it amazing if there was a crystal ball to teach parents in advance the factors that might lead their child into substance abuse? Knowing those specific risk factors before the child is even out of grade school would be such a gift, providing parents with a roadmap to safely and confidently navigate their teen successfully through high school without a hitch. Imagine that: Do this, don’t that, do this, and don’t do that—voila! The teen makes it through unscathed by drugs and alcohol. Oh, if only it were that easy.
Since there is no magic crystal ball to guide parents, it might help to understand what factors have been shown to influence teen substance abuse, as well as what protective factors have been identified to help prevent it. Accessing this information, along with an abundance of love, hope, and a little luck, parents are at least a little better equipped to help their teen get from Point A to Point B without falling into the trap of addiction.
8 Factors that Influence Teen Substance Abuse
According to recent statistics provided by the National Institutes of Health, nearly 44% of today’s teens have used marijuana and 58% of the nation’s sophomores, aged 16, have used alcohol. Both marijuana and alcohol are considered gateway drugs, opening the door to drug experimentation, binge drinking, and potentially addiction. Below are some of the factors that can contribute to teens starting to use drugs or alcohol.
- Family Environment. Family discord is a common source of stress for teens. Divorce can have a devastating impact on a teen, destabilizing him or her in profound ways. Just as impactful, however, is living in an intact home with parents who fight verbally or physically, openly display contempt for one another, or disrespect each other. Kids pick up on the dysfunction and the resulting stress can cause them to seek solace in drugs or alcohol.
- Genetic Predisposition. Ever wonder why siblings from the same two parents, raised in the same home with the same rules can end up with totally different experiences regarding substance abuse? The sibling who shuns drugs and alcohol might be stable, hardworking, and popular, where the other sibling, who indulges in substance abuse, is sullen, depressed, and socially awkward. Genetics can predispose our personalities, our coping skills, and our risk appetite. A family history that is riddled with addiction is also a significant risk factor.
- Trauma. When the heart and soul is scared by trauma at an early age, it can be very difficult to overcome without professional help. In many cases, kids who have been physically or sexually abused or neglected or exposed to any traumatic event may initially suppress the pain associated with these events. As they get older and are exposed to drugs and alcohol, they may begin to self-medicate these deep pain points and complex trauma with the substance.
- Social Issues. Peer scrutiny and social pressure have always been a factor for substance abuse. Kids taunting others to try something or face public shame or bullying on social media platforms can push an adolescent to try drugs or drinking games just to fit in and avoid being ostracized. Some kids just don’t fit in and become depressed and isolated, also leading to self-medicating with substances.
- Mental Health Disorders. Undiagnosed mental health disorders are a significant factor in teen substance abuse. The teen may be struggling with social phobia, teen depression, anxiety, or an eating disorder and trying to manage the discomfort experienced by leaning on marijuana or alcohol. Mood disorders are not uncommon among today’s teens and should be addressed and treated.
- Pain Medication. Teens who participate in school athletics may find themselves with an injury or a need for surgery. Far too often, doctors over prescribe opioid pain medications to teens, providing them with enough of the drug to spark an opioid addiction. Even oral surgeons prescribe the addictive drugs for teens getting their wisdom teeth extracted.
- Accessibility. Parents are aware of the importance of their teen’s choice of friends. Who they hang out with can contribute to what they are exposed to. If friends are accessing drugs and alcohol, your teen is vulnerable. They are in situations where substance abuse is occurring and want to fit it, often succumbing simply because the drugs or alcohol were easily accessible.
- Stress. Today’s teens confront the highest levels of stress in modern times. Academic stress is so intense that some teens simply crack under it and look for ways to manage the demands placed on them. Using drugs or alcohol is one-way teens seek to relax and decompress from the unending pressures placed on them at school, for college preparation, and if they also have to hold down a part-time job.
Protective Factors for Teens Against Using Drugs and Alcohol
Although a parent might feel somewhat helpless for many of the above listed risk factors, there are some important protective factors against teen substance abuse. Some of these might include:
- Establish a close parent-child bond. Do not postpone this effort until the teen years when kids naturally veer away from parental influences and toward peer influences. Nurturing this bond all through childhood, by open communication, paying attention to the child’s emotional needs, and remaining engaged in their daily activities will build a strong deterrent to them experimenting with drugs and alcohol. They will want to please you and not let you down.
- Set a positive example. Kids mimic what they witness from their significant others growing up. If parents are abusing alcohol and smoking marijuana openly, the child will grow up assuming that is normal behavior and emulate it. Be vigilant about the example you set for them and be a positive role model in their life.
- Provide supervision. Parents are naïve if they believe that their teen will not push boundaries when left unsupervised. Starting at an early age, have clearly articulated house rules, set expectations, and provide the supervision needed. Kids actually crave boundaries and structure. Without them they will be easily led down the wrong path if the opportunities arise for drug and alcohol experimentation.
Unfortunately, no crystal ball has yet been invented to help parents guide teens away from substance abuse. Until such a tool is available, parents are well served by nurturing a positive sense of self-worth in their children from an early age, helping them to value their body and their well-being.
About the Author
Dr. Aristou Aminzadeh is a triple board certified physician in psychiatry, child and adolescent psychiatry, and addiction medicine, and is the co-founder of BNI Treatment Centers a mental health and teen treatment center in Agoura Hills and Beverly Hills, Los Angeles California. Dr. Aminzadeh is a fellow of the American Society of Addiction Medicine and a fellow of the American Psychiatric Association. A well-respected leader in the field, he also holds an adjunct faculty position at the University of Southern California, Keck.