Substance abuse in teenagers is dangerous for a number of reasons. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, teens are especially vulnerable to substance abuse. Seventy percent of teens will have tried alcohol or drugs by the time they reach their senior year of high school.1
There are several reasons why the teenage years are so vulnerable to substance abuse, but understanding why can help researchers and parents learn ways to prevent substance abuse in teenagers and to provide effective treatment for when they do.
The Adolescent Brain
Substance abuse is especially threatening to teens because their brains are still developing. During the adolescent years, the brain is still forming its neural network, and the prefrontal cortex is not fully developed. The prefrontal cortex is an area of the brain used for critical decision making, emotion and impulse control and assessing situations. This portion of the brain doesn’t fully mature until a person reaches their mid-20s.
Because some teens may have a less developed prefrontal cortex than adults, they can be susceptible to drinking or using drugs. Teens may follow their impulses for pleasure in relation to drinking or taking drugs, but they don’t yet have the full capability to assess the consequences associated with their behaviors.
Substance Abuse in Teenagers
When teens develop a pattern of binge drinking or drug abuse, they are at increased risk for developing an addiction to these substances. Substance abuse in teenagers can be life-threatening even if an addiction isn’t present. Drinking too much alcohol can lead to a deadly bout of alcohol poisoning, and taking too much of a drug can lead to overdose and death.
Many teens don’t have experience to gauge how much their body can handle when it comes to these substances. Because these substances are illegal for teens, they often abuse them in secret or at parties without adult supervision. Teens who repeatedly abuse drugs or alcohol in excess are at risk for overdose as well as addiction development.
Treating Teenage Substance Abuse
Many addiction treatment centers specialize in treating substance abuse in teenagers. Getting them treatment early on is critical because an unchecked substance abuse problem threatens their physical and mental health as well as their lives.2 During treatment, teens will learn about the dangers that drinking and drug use pose. They will also undergo therapy to unravel why they are abusing these addictive substances and to learn techniques to prevent relapse. Treatment will necessarily be customized because each individual is different, as are their life circumstances. Even so, counselors can help teens learn how to make better decisions and to refrain from using these substances that can compromise their health and their decision-making capabilities.
Although teens are vulnerable to substance abuse, they can learn to avoid these substances after treatment. A timely intervention can prevent teens from developing an addiction, which is a chronic disease that will affect their entire lives. Counseling and various addiction treatments can put teens back on a healthy path. Without treatment, substance abuse in teenagers can become more serious as well as more difficult to treat down the road.