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Triple Divide Lodge

substance abuse in teens

The Scary Truth About Drug & Alcohol Abuse in Teenagers

For many teenagers partaking in drug or alcohol use is a way to “fit in” or be cool to their peers.  Many teens begin using substances as a result of peer pressure or curiosity and are not as concerned with the potential risks of these substances. Some teens may try these substances a few times and stop, but others may decide they want to continue experimenting with substances.  

Drug and alcohol abuse in teens has become a high-profile public health issue, with roughly 50 percent of teens having misused illicit drugs or alcohol at least once.  This misuse far too often turns into abuse, in fact, it is estimated that at least 1 in every 8 teenagers abused an illicit substance within the past year.  Drug and alcohol abuse poses a serious threat to the youth of our nation, and it is important that we work to prevent, provide solutions, and educate our youth on the subject of substance abuse.

Substance abuse vs. misuse

Substance abuse and misuse are terms that are often used interchangeably but have some key differences in definition.  Substance misuse includes the use of illegal drugs and inappropriate use of legal substances, such as alcohol or tobacco.  Substance misuse can be risky and harmful to your health; however, it does not indicate a drug dependence of any kind.  Substance abuse refers to the excessive use of a substance, typically drugs or alcohol, and is typically categorized by overindulgence or dependence on one or more substances.

Substance abuse and misuse can happen at any point in your life, so why is it so important to focus on substance abuse in our youth population?  According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, people are most likely to begin abusing drugs in adolescence.  Notably, 15.2 percent of people who begin drinking at age 14 develop an alcohol abuse disorder as compared to the 2.1% who develop a disorder after waiting until they are 21 years or older to begin drinking.  Teenagers are highly motivated by pleasure, but their judgment and decision-making skills are still not fully developed, impairing their ability to accurately assess risks.  

How does drug use progress into addiction?

Abusing drugs or alcohol before the brain is fully developed can increase the odds of becoming addicted to these substances.  How does substance misuse turn into dependence, and why do some teens develop addictions while others don’t?  The answer may be different for everyone, but addictions don’t typically develop overnight.  The progression of addictions can be modeled by these 4 stages:

  • Experimentation.  During this initial phase, a person voluntarily begins experimenting with drugs and alcohol.  Typically, experimentation begins in a group or social setting.  During this phase use is irregular and mainly occurs in social settings.
  • Regular use.  At this phase, alcohol or drug use has begun to make its way into the user’s everyday life.  Oftentimes this occurs when the individual is attempting to use the substance as a coping mechanism. 
  • Dependance.  This phase is when serious addiction begins forming.  Dependence occurs when a person becomes more and more reliant on their drug to solve outward problems.  Their drug becomes a way of dealing with stress, mental health, or other issues.  At this point, the substance becomes a very important component of the individual’s life, and they may struggle to experience pleasure without it.  Dependent users often resist quitting, cutting back, or making changes to their behavior despite negative consequences.
  • Addiction.  When addiction is fully developed, the brain is so severely dependent on the substance that the user is often powerless to stop without help.  Typically, the user experiences severe cravings and withdrawals associated with the substance.   

Risks & symptoms of substance abuse disorders

Being aware of the risks and symptoms of substance abuse in teens is essential to helping teens prevent or overcome their problems.  Substance abuse comes in many different forms and severities, so it may be difficult to identify in your teen, however, there are some common red flags to look out for.  If you are noticing changes in your adolescent’s behavior or in their day-to-day habits they may be signs of a substance abuse problem.  The following are common signs of substance abuse or misuse in adolescents.

  • Change in peer group
  • Lack/carelessness with grooming or personal hygiene
  • A decline in academic performance
  • Skipping school, sports, or club meetings
  • Loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities
  • Changes in eating or sleeping habits
  • Problems in relationships with friends or family 

The most commonly abused drugs in teens are alcohol and tobacco, however recently there has been an increase in illicit drug use in teenagers, most commonly marijuana and nonmedical use of prescription psychotherapeutic drugs.  These drugs may present signs specific to the substance being used and should be paid attention to if you suspect your teen may be using drugs or alcohol.  

Signs of alcohol intoxication include:

  • Slurred speech
  • Bloodshot eyes
  • Lack of coordination
  • Rambling or repetitive statements
  • Agitation or anxiety
  • Glassy or blank stares
  • Disorientation 
  • Difficulty walking or standing up

Signs of tobacco or nicotine use include:

  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Anxiety or panic attacks
  • Depression
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Irritability
  • Changes in appetite or weight 

Signs of marijuana use include:

  • Bloodshot eyes
  • Increased appetite and weight gain
  • Lack of motivation
  • Nervous or paranoid behavior
  • Impaired coordination
  • Relaxed state or sleepiness
  • Memory impairment

Signs of non-medical prescription drug use include: 

  • Mood swings 
  • Hostility
  • Changes in sleeping and eating patterns
  • “Losing” multiple prescriptions
  • Stealing or “borrowing” without permission from others
  • Confusion
  • Excessive sweating
  • Impaired judgment and coordination
  • Lethargy and drowsiness
  • Difficulty concentrating

Methods for prevention

There are several methods for substance abuse prevention as well as actions you can take on a personal level as a parent to prevent substance abuse problems.  Some of the most successful prevention methods that you can take include:

  • Education.  Educating youth and society as a whole on the dangers and risks of drugs and alcohol empowers and encourages making better choices.  Youth-focused prevention initiatives include education and skills training for both parents and children on the seriousness of substance abuse. These programs are typically in a school setting and have shown to be very effective in both educating youth and equipping parents with the skills they need to handle situations regarding substance abuse.
  • Monitoring prescription use.  It is important to ask your child’s doctor about the potential harms and risks of medications prescribed to your child.  In addition to knowing the risk, it is important to monitor your child’s dose as well as the frequency of refills.  
  • Therapy.  Oftentimes people use substances as a form of self-medication or a way to cope with life’s struggles. Substances are commonly abused as a result of an underlying mental health condition; therapy may be a good outlet or teach better outlets for relief from mental or emotional struggles.
  • Exercise and positive habits.  Exercise releases dopamine and other natural “feel good” chemicals into the body which can help improve mental health and manage stress, two major factors that contribute to substance abuse.   

How to help someone struggling with substance abuse     

If your teen is struggling with a serious substance abuse disorder and has attempted to but failed at controlling their behavior, it may be time to consider treatment options.  Behavioral treatment programs are hands-on approaches for treating substance abuse disorders and the underlying mental health conditions that may accompany the substance use.  These programs teach communication skills, healthy coping strategies, and involve lots of family-focused treatment.  These programs can include both residential and outpatient rehab facilities. 

In addition to behavioral treatment programs, family-based approaches have proven to be very effective in intervening with teenage substance abuse.  These approaches highlight the importance of involving close family members, loved ones, and even in some cases peers, in the individual’s recovery process.  These approaches are meant to strengthen familial bonds, work through potential issues in the household, and provide families with strategies for aftercare.  

12 step programs are conventional methods for substance abuse treatment, which involve creating a spiritual foundation to individual recovery.  This essentially means that patients work on gaining inner insight on their struggles and establish the inner strength as well as the confidence they need to continue on their recovery journey.  Addiction may be overcome but it is still a lifelong struggle. 12 step programs provide individuals with foundational principles of recovery to help sustain life-long results.         

Triple Divide Lodge Can Help 

At Triple Divide Lodge we specialize in the treatment of substance abuse in teens.  We believe addiction is a primary illness that oftentimes is accompanied by other co-occurring issues that need to be treated together.  Substance abuse disorders can be problematic and very difficult to resolve without help.  Adolescents are particularly vulnerable to substance abuse disorders as their brains are still developing and malleable.  Our program gives teens the opportunity to turn their lives around and learn how to live a sober and healthy life into adulthood.  

For more information about how Triple Divide Lodge can help adolescents struggling with substance abuse, please call us at 406-296-5776.

Patrick Hawkins is a Licensed Addictions Counselor. Since 1995 he has been dedicated to working with adolescents and young adults. He began working in this type of model in 1996 and has become a nationally trusted name utilizing the outdoors as a part of substance abuse treatment. He has led over 50 expeditions, accumulated over 1,100 days in the backcountry treating clients, and helped hundreds of young men and their families work toward recovery. Patrick helped teens with substance use disorders during his time as the Clinical Director of a wilderness therapy program for young men with drug and alcohol addictions. An expert in the field of experiential therapy, Patrick has led hundreds of clients on wilderness expeditions and supported their sobriety. Contact him at (406) 296-5776


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