Sue Scheff: Teen Substance Abuse and Use is a continuous source of educational articles for parents of toddlers to teens. I check in with them regularly (browsing their extensive website), as they always have up-to-date information regarding today’s teens.  From helpful homework tips, to parents struggling with at risk teens – offers a wealth of information.  Visit and learn more!  Since I have received many calls this week from parents with the fear their teen (or sadly, tween) may be using drugs, this seems like a timely article as summer just begins.

NYUchildstudySubstance Use and Abuse in Teens

by Richard Gallagher, Ph.D.
Source: NYU Child Study Center

Teen substance use is a problem that persists, but communities, schools and parents can play a crucial role in a coordinated plan of deterrence. Parents need to stay informed of the risks that teens face. Several patterns highlight the issues adults need to address in assisting teens:

Three main substances account for the majority of substance use and abuse by youth

Tobacco (in the form of cigarettes), alcohol, and marijuana have been the most widely used substances by teens for several decades. During the last several years, the use of each of these substances has decreased significantly, but substantial minorities of teens try these substances and engage in current use.

Statistics show that the majority of youth have tried cigarettes and alcohol by the end of their teen years, and 1 in 5 teens indicate current substance use. Significantly, the order in which teens are likely to try substances starts with tobacco, shortly followed by alcohol, and then marijuana, with youngsters starting experimentation around 12 years of age. For many youngsters, tobacco experimentation is a gateway to other substance use. This data suggests that all parents need to be alert to the possibility that their children will try substances and may move on to regular use.

Use of other substances follow trends

Just as fashions change, so do the substances with which teens get involved. Cocaine, crack, heroin, and club drugs such as ecstasy have been prevalent at times. In the last years, young people are also using prescription drugs, most notably painkillers, but also some psychiatric medications used to treat Attention- Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder and anxiety and depressive disorders. Additionally, some kids seem ready to try any item or activity that can give them exciting sensations or an altered mental state. These latter items and activities include inhaling cleaning fluids or paint, self-induced oxygen deprivation by choking oneself for short periods of time or getting the breath squeezed out by someone else, and using pressurized air (used to clean electronic equipment) to knock out oxygen. All of these items or activities add a substance to the body that creates a changed mental status or deprive the brain of oxygen, which also creates a changed mental status. Informal contacts among teens and some Internet interchanges helps them find out about these trends and the “joys” associated with them.

Reasons teens turn to substances

In the early teen years, teens get involved in substances for two main reasons: curiosity and peer pressure. When the opportunity to try a substance presents itself, most kids are in small groups. Some in the group are likely to enjoy taking risks and seeking sensations that are exciting. These children are often the ones that seek out and obtain the substances from older teens or from supplies that they find at home or from relatives, in the case of tobacco and alcohol. Others may be there as part of the social cluster and get exposed through the actions of their sensation-seeking friends. The children motivated by curiosity often wish to find out what all the talk and fuss is about. They may want to know what it is like to feel high or drunk or what cigarettes taste like. Others in the group may feel pressured to participate either through direct request or because they do not wish to stand out as the only one not going along.

From first use, the brief altered states associated with substances often inspire teens to continue use. Youngsters often enjoy being high or drunk and will frequently seek out repeat experiences. Once youngsters are aware of these experiences, they sometimes continue to seek altered states as a way to escape problems and seek pleasure that they are not gaining elsewhere in their lives. In the case of tobacco, early experiences are rarely pleasant, so peer pressure or the belief that use is a status symbol often keeps teens involved. Soon after initial exposures, however, teens are very prone to addiction to tobacco, which occurs with greater speed than in adults.

Children most prone to get involved in substance use

As indicated above, many teens are prone to experiment with a single use of substances. Those that are involved with persistent use and current use are more likely to have some characteristics. First, teens are more prone to use if they have monetary resources. So, teens from well-off neighborhoods or those with jobs are more likely to use. Second, use is more likely if teens are facing tough challenges in school or are disconnected from school. Thus, students with learning disabilities or developmental disorders as well as kids who feel alienated from the life of their school are prone to use. Third, certain personality characteristics lead to greater risk. Those teens that are afflicted with social anxiety may find substances ease their tension, especially marijuana and alcohol. Children with Attention- Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder are also more susceptible to the use of tobacco, possibly as a means of improving their concentration, which nicotine does do. Finally, teens who have relatives that use or have had substance abuse disorders are at increased risk for use.

What Parents Can Do

A large collection of research suggests that parents need to take active steps to decrease the likelihood that their children will use substances. Several useful steps include:

  • Diminish the amount of uncontrolled exposure of children to substance use. When children observe substance use, they learn that use is an acceptable action. They need to have controlled exposure to learn the rules of acceptable use.
  • Parents need to be ready to comment on the substance use that their children observe. Parents need to make it clear how they want their children to handle substances.
  • Remember that children receive messages from what they see. So, if members of the family use legal substances, it is best that children observe responsible use. In the case of tobacco use, even legal use by adults should be accompanied by a clear statement of your expectations that you do not want your children to use these products, ever.
  • Provide comments on the use that your children observe in media and entertainment outlets. Tobacco use, alcohol use, and drug use are shown in movies, television shows, and music videos. Take advantage of these instances to indicate what you think and how you expect your children to behave.
  • Limit the access your children have to substances. Teens use substances that are available. They report that they take cigarettes from relatives, sneak alcohol from home stocks, and obtain marijuana from people that they know well.
  • Inform your children about the honest dangers that are associated with the main substances. Although teens are not highly influenced by such information, some discussion of negative consequences has some impact on the decisions that they make.
  • Clearly state what actions you expect your teen to take when confronted with substance use. Teens who know what their parents expect of them are much less likely to use substances.
  • Help your teen find leisure activities and places for leisure activities that are substance-free. Then, keep track of where, with whom, and what your teen is doing after school and other free times.
  • Keep informed by seeking out resources for parents available on the Internet, through schools, and at local libraries.

Prospects for Parents to Act to Prevent Substance Abuse

At the NYU Child Study Center, we are exploring further steps that parents can take to keep their teens substance-free. We are testing the impact that workshops for parents of middle school students have on improving parenting practices and what effect those practices have on the children’s substance use during their high school years. We have taken a preventative approach, believing that targeted efforts by parents, when their children are in the age range in which substance exposure occurs, will diminish the amount of experimentation and regular use their children will undertake. A full trial of the effort is underway with follow-up of parents and teens from over 400 families. The project, Thriving Teens: Parenting Practices for Positive Growth, should provide useful insight into how parents can help their teens avoid risky actions. Provision of Thriving Teens to parents’ organizations or school district anti-drug campaigns is possible by contacting the Child Study Center at 212-263-3663.

About the NYU Child Study Center

The NYU Child Study Center is dedicated to the research, prevention, and treatment of child and adolescent psychiatric issues. The Center offers evaluation and treatment for children and teenagers with mental health problems including anxiety, depression, learning or attention difficulties, and trauma and stress-related symptoms.

We offer a limited number of clinical studies at no cost for specific disorders and age groups. To see if your child would be appropriate for one of these studies, please call (212) 263-8916.

The NYU Child Study Center also offers workshops and lectures for parents, educators and mental health professionals on a variety of mental health and parenting topics. The Family Education Series consists of 13 informative workshops focused on child behavioral and attentional difficulties. To learn more or to request a speaker, please call (212) 263-8861.

For further information, guidelines and practical suggestions on child mental health and parenting issues, please visit the NYU Child Study Center’s website,

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