What Parents Fear Most

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“It’s in adolescence that the onset of substance use disorders occurs for most individuals,” Joel Swendsen, National Center of Scientific Research

According to a survey conducted of over 1500 American parents, fear of their children’s substance and alcohol use greatly overshadowed concerns around crime, terrorism, economic collapse, and war.[1]

It is common for teenagers to experiment with alcohol and other substances out of curiosity, pleasure-seeking, self-medication from painful feelings, or peer pressure. Nearly half of American teens have used illicit substances by the time they are in 12th grade, and one in three have used alcohol in the past month.[2]  However, adolescents rarely see that their choices today have consequences for the future.  We can all remember the indestructible feeling we had as teenagers, that sense that we are immune to danger and that health fears only pertain to adults.

Although not all teenagers will use substances, the latest statistics show that nearly 20% of high school students have been sold, given, or offered substances on school property in 2019.[3] 

The human brain is still developing during the adolescent years, which leads to acute effects from intoxicants as well as a vulnerability among teenagers for developing a dependency.[4] Research has also shown that this crucial stage of the brain’s development can lead to engagement in risky behaviors.

Teenagers often have access to a wide variety of both illegal and legal substances.  However, among adolescents, the three most widely used illegally obtained substances are alcohol, marijuana, and vaping products.  Teenagers may also use legally obtained substances such as prescribed medications, inhalants, and over-the-counter cold, sleep, and diet medications.

The most used illegal substances among the general population are marijuana, stimulants (cocaine, crack, amphetamine), MDMA, LSD, opiates, and designer substances (bath salts). In recent years, we have seen an increase in the use of illegal substances amongst our teenagers, with the average age of 14 for a teenager’s first experience of marijuana and first alcohol use occurring before age 12.[5]

The Monitoring the Future Report published in 2020 reported the following statistics related to youth substance misuse:[6]

  • 58.5% of 12th graders have tried alcohol
  • 6% drove after drinking
  • 16% rode in the car of someone who had been drinking
  • 16% of 12th graders have used marijuana in the past month
  • 10% of students misused amphetamine
  • 7% of high school seniors report misusing Adderall

We know that using alcohol, substances, and tobacco at a young age has adverse effects, including failure at school, poor judgment (which increases the risk of accidents or sexual promiscuity), increased risk of mental health disorders, suicide, and an increased risk of serious substance use later in life.  Nine out of ten adults who suffer from a Substance Use Disorder began using these substances before the age of 18.[7]

Some teens will experiment with substances and either stop or continue using them only occasionally. However, others will go on to create a dependency on the substance of choice.

Those most at risk for developing severe alcohol and substance problems include those:[8]

  • With a family history of substance use disorders
  • Who are suffering from depression or anxiety
  • Who have low self-esteem, or who feel like they don’t “fit in”
  • Who have suffered from child abuse or neglect

Signs to look out for

There are some warning signs for parents who are worried about their teenager using substances. It helps to be engaged with your teenager and aware of their life, their friends, activities, and any troubles they are facing. That way, if you notice a change in them, you can be more confident that you are interpreting the signs correctly instead of creating anxiety around normal teenage behaviors.

Warning signs of teenage alcohol and substance use may include:[9]

  • Physical Changes: Fatigue, bloodshot eyes, glazed eyes, poor hygiene, cough, low immune system/repeated health complaints, diminished personal appearance, and the smell of smoke or alcohol
  • Emotional Issues: Sudden mood changes, irritability, risk-taking behavior, low self-esteem, poor judgment, depression, anxiety, secretive behavior, and a general lack of interest
  • Social: Starting arguments, rule-breaking, withdrawing, declining grades at school, truancy, and discipline problems

If you suspect that your teen is experimenting with or using substances, it is crucial to intervene quickly and initiate a compassionate conversation.

Positive Communication

The sooner you start talking to your children about the dangers of substance and alcohol use, the higher the chance you have of positively influencing their decisions. For example, a 2021 report from SAMHSA stated that 10% of 12-year-olds say they have tried alcohol. However, that figure leaps to 50% by the time they are 15 years old. This figure jumps again to 70% for high school seniors.[10]  Statistics show similarities between the escalation of first-time alcohol use with age as with marijuana or amphetamine use.   NOTE: I’m not sure what the intended meaning of this sentence is.

Though it may not feel like it to parents, most teenagers hear and appreciate their parents’ concerns. One of the most influential factors of childhood is the relationship established between the child and caregiver. A strong, open, nurturing relationship will foster honest communication and help adolescents make better decisions. If offered a positive parent-child dynamic, your teenager will also be likely to respect your house rules and advice. This will, therefore, protect your children from many of the high-risk behaviors associated with using substances.

Asking questions is the best way to get a teen to communicate about substance use. Questions should be straightforward and spoken in a compassionate tone, without anxiety or exaggerated concern. Simply asking “has anyone offered you substances recently?” is likely to illicit an honest answer and start a dialogue.

If your teen admits to taking substances, mark this as a sign of great progress for your relationship rather than as a chance to impose your authority or react angrily. Overreacting is likely to prevent a teen from opening up further, and they are unlikely to broach the subject again. By speaking transparently and calmly, you can determine if it is a one-off experience or a whether they are developing a dependency.  Similarly, if you are concerned that your teen is lying, the best tactic is to stay calm and reassure the teenager you are there for them if needed. These conditions must be met without judgment, and the child needs to know that they can trust you to help them.

If you think that your adolescent has developed a substance use problem, then intervention, assistance and treatment are likely to be required.  If you are concerned about any issues discussed in this blog, please contact Heather R. Hayes & Associates.  Call 800-335-0316 or email info@heatherhayes.com today.


[1] Co., Parent. “Addiction Trends In America And How They Impact Families”. Parent Co., 2018, https://www.parent.com/blogs/conversations/addiction-trends-in-america-and-how-they-impact-families.

[2] “Stats & Trends In Teen Drug Use With Interactive Chart | NIDA For Teens”. NIDA For Teens, 2021, https://teens.drugabuse.gov/teachers/stats-trends-teen-drug-use.

[3]“Youth Online Report”. Nccd.Cdc.Gov, 2021, https://nccd.cdc.gov/youthonline/App/Results.aspx. x

[4] Winters, Ken C, and Amelia Arria. “Adolescent Brain Development and Drugs.” The prevention researcher vol. 18,2 (2011): 21-24.

[5] Statistics, Drug et al. “Teenage Drug Use Statistics [2021]: Data & Trends On Abuse”. NCDAS, 2021, https://drugabusestatistics.org/teen-drug-use/.

[6] Stats & Trends In Teen Drug Use With Interactive Chart | NIDA For Teens”. NIDA For Teens, 2021, https://teens.drugabuse.gov/teachers/stats-trends-teen-drug-use.

[7] Statistics, Drug et al. “Teenage Drug Use Statistics [2021]: Data & Trends On Abuse”. NCDAS, 2021, https://drugabusestatistics.org/teen-drug-use/.

[8] Teens: Alcohol And Other Drugs”. Aacap.Org, 2021, https://www.aacap.org/AACAP/Families_and_Youth/Facts_for_Families/FFF-Guide/Teens-Alcohol-And-Other-Drugs-003.aspx.

[9] Teens: Alcohol And Other Drugs”. Aacap.Org, 2021, https://www.aacap.org/AACAP/Families_and_Youth/Facts_for_Families/FFF-Guide/Teens-Alcohol-And-Other-Drugs-003.aspx.

[10] “Why You Should Talk With Your Child About Alcohol And Other Drugs”. Samhsa.Gov, 2021, https://www.samhsa.gov/underage-drinking/parent-resources/why-you-should-talk-your-child.

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