Questions & Answers

How common is substance abuse among teenagers?

Drug abuse remains a common problem among teenagers. The National Institute on Drug Abuse, in an annual survey of 8th, 10th and 12th graders found that alcohol use continues to decline, but remains alarmingly high at 41% of high school seniors reporting past-month use and 23% reporting binge drinking (defined as five or more drinks in a row in the past two weeks). Daily marijuana use increased among all age groups and is at its highest point since the early 1980's at 6.1%. Abuse of common household medications, such as dextromethorphan (cough medicine), and prescription medications continues to rise. Additionally, after several years in decline, ecstasy use is on the rise. For a full summary of their annual report, please visit the National Institute on Drug Abuse here.

How can parents encourage their teen to stay away from drugs and alcohol?

Parents should talk to their kids, listen, and ask questions. Talking about drugs and alcohol does not put ideas in a child's head. Parent involvement is absolutely necessary in prevention, as teenagers are about 50% less likely to try drugs if their parents have addressed the issue of drug and alcohol abuse all along.

I'm a teacher in middle school, and my students come from a risky, urban environment. They have all kinds of life-stressors. Street drugs are everywhere. What can I do to help?

Educate your students on the risks and dangers of alcohol and drug use. Arm them with facts and knowledge. Studies show that early education about drugs, open communication, and positive role models can reduce the odds that teenagers will abuse substances. If you earn their respect with open communication channels, you can be a positive role model. Include and involve parents in education programs whenever possible as it has been shown that parental involvement is a protective factor. Teach your students constructive ways to manage their leisure time. And if you're concerned about an individual student, it's time to investigate the substance-use facilities/programs your school system offers.

Since kids are going to drink anyway, isn't better to let them drink at home where it's safe?

Teenagers and drinking is never a safe combination. Serving alcohol to teens sends the wrong message and can lead to disaster. Instead, help your teenager organize alcohol-free celebrations for events such as a prom or graduation. Practice what he/she can say if someone asks them to drink. For instance, "No thanks, I'm really not into that" or "I tried it once, and I really didn't like it." A friendly, but firm response, repeated as many times as is necessary is best. If the other kids won't take no for an answer, encourage your child to leave.

My teenage son began high school this year. He has a new set of friends, he listens to heavy rock music, and he's often moody. How can I tell if he's abusing drugs?

High school is an exciting, socially challenging time. Some of these changes may reflect his need for independence. But not all changes indicate a teen is using drugs. You may want to open a discussion with him about the risks and dangers of substance use. Encourage him to trust you, so try not to jump to conclusions. On the other hand, if warning signs seem to cluster, or there is a change in performance in school, or in following rules, a consultation with a mental health professional may be warranted.

What are some warning signs of teen substance abuse?

Parents should look for warning signs such as:

  • Change in the child's choice of friends, grooming, or sleep patterns
  • Loss of interest in favorite activities
  • Extreme mood swings
  • Decline in grades
  • Frequent arguments or violent actions
  • Smell of alcohol on breath (or strong mints or perfumes to cover up)
  • Skipping school, running away or other delinquency
  • Increased secrecy or withdrawal from the family
  • Abrupt changes in behavior or attitude


Every weekend during football season, my teenage son comes home "smashed" from beer keg parties. He says his friends do it, too. His father says this is normal socializing. Should I be worried?

Your son's behavior fits the description of "binge" drinking, a form of Substance Abuse. Keep in mind that any alcohol use in underage youth should be considered potentially harmful and is illegal. The question is, how much, how often? If he's drinking excessive amounts on multiple occasions, he has a problem. Teenagers with substance disorders often show poor judgment. If he's driving while intoxicated, he's endangering himself and others. And he may be engaging in other risky behaviors, as well. The first step may be for the family to sit down and have an open discussion. Family dynamics and expectations are important. You might consider consulting with a family counselor.

I found "speed" pills hidden in my 15-year-old daughter's school backpack. She claims the pills help her study. She's an honor roll student. Should I be concerned, and what should I do?

"Speed" is the street name for amphetamines, a type of stimulant. Teenagers with substance-use disorders often have other underlying problems. Because she says that stimulants help her study, this may be a sign that she also has an attention, learning or a mental health problem. Stimulants are prescribed to treat ADHD, and she may be self-medicating her symptoms. A medical evaluation, with a specific assessment for ADHD may be helpful. Studies show that teenagers with ADHD who receive treatment are less likely to abuse drugs than those who go untreated.

What are some treatment options for teen substance abuse?

First, get a thorough evaluation. Drug addiction is treatable, and a professional evaluation can determine which type of treatment is most appropriate. Treatments range from outpatient individual and group therapies to inpatient care with 24-hour medical monitoring. Intermediate levels include intensive outpatient (usually three days per week for 3-4 hours each day while still living at home) and residential care in which a teen lives in a group setting and receives intensive treatment.