The Dangers of Adolescents Using Substances – Warning Signs and Treatment Options

Adolescent holding a marijuana cigarette

This is a guest post from Emma Leitzinger, PSY.D., Licensed Psychologist and Director of Adolescent Programming at SunCloud Health.

Many know the mental health crisis has worsened since the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic. It comes as no surprise, then, that teens and adolescents are included in the mix of individuals struggling with their mental health. Unfortunately, many teens turn to substance use, such as alcohol or drugs, as an escape from depressive feelings, intrusive thoughts, and other difficulties they are facing during such a transitional period in their lives. If left untreated, substance use can lead to serious addiction issues, alter a teen’s physical and mental development, and ultimately affect their ability to reach their full potential in the future.  

For parents and community members, it’s important to know the causes and warning signs of substance use in teens, as well as how to help guide them in their recovery journey. If your loved one is subject to a substance use disorder, learn how to support them and what treatment options may be available for them, below.

Why Adolescents Turn to Substance Use

While every adolescent is unique and is exposed to different environmental factors and social pressures, many teens turn to substances as a coping mechanism for other underlying issues. For example, oftentimes depression can cause a teen to try stimulant drugs so that they feel temporary relief, or a teen with anxiety may turn to using marijuana and related products to feel calmer throughout the day. What may have started as an attempt for quick relief from mental health symptoms slowly turns into a dependency, then an addiction.  

Other times, a teen with low self-esteem may convince themselves, or be convinced by external influences, that using substances elevates their social status. This gives a false sense of security and confidence and temporarily elevates self-image. Therefore, what started as experimentation to “fit in” may end up as an addiction that causes serious health problems.

To summarize, adolescents commonly begin using substances due to:

  • Environmental stressors
  • Self-medication and escape
  • Social pressures
  • Experimentation
  • Psychiatric problems such as mood disorders, anxiety, depression, trauma

 Warning Signs of Substance Use in Teens

As a parent, caregiver, or community member in a teen’s life, it can feel challenging to differentiate between worrisome substance use and more common behaviors attributed to growing up. Nonetheless, it’s crucial to know the warning signs and initiate a conversation if these signs are present:

  • Mood changes (irritability, defensiveness, temper outburst)
  • Academic problems (poor attendance, low grades, disciplinary action)
  • Physical or mental changes (memory lapses, poor concentration, lack of sleep, lack of appetite, lack of coordination, slurred speech, etc.)
  • Changes in behavior (pulling back from activities once enjoyed, disinterest in spending time with family, increased isolation)
  • Changes in interests, friends, or social groups

The Dangers of Teens Using Substances

During adolescence, the brain cycles through dynamic changes – conditioning itself for future experiences, pruning back the least-used cells, and strengthening those that are most engaged. The final area of the brain to develop is the prefrontal cortex, responsible for logical reasoning, decision-making, and regulating impulses. The prefrontal cortex is not fully developed until a teen reaches their early to mid-twenties, meaning a teenager does not have the full ability to make decisions or regulate impulses on their own until that age.

Thus, adolescence is a critical window for learning. Introducing harmful substances to the brain and body can significantly impact teens’ brain functions, brain development, and overall development into functioning adults while inhibiting the ability to make wise decisions.

This can lead to dangerous situations of teens harming themselves or others, such as overdosing or driving under the influence.

Driving yields a good example. Think of it like this: the brain of a teen has a fully functioning car accelerator, but the brakes have not been installed yet. Meanwhile, adult brains do have working brakes, and substances are powerful enough to alter their decision-making skills. What effect, then, would those same substances have in adolescents’ physical and mental functioning?

Over time, substance use can negatively impact many areas in a teen’s life. This can include academic performance, which determines one’s future successes; psychosocial difficulties, such as forming relationships with others and developing a healthy self-concept; neurocognitive deficits, or trouble remembering things; and an increased likelihood of developing a substance use disorder later in life, impacting their future functioning; which may lead to liver or lung damage. 

In addition to mental and health-related complications, teens who are participating in drug use may find themselves in unsafe environments or wrapped up in the violent world of drug buying and dealing. They are also more likely to steal money to afford drugs or to pay debts or dues. Even if this is not the severity of your teen’s situation, there is potential for injury and accidents that could be fatal.

Concern and Support from the Family Makes a Difference  

With all these risks and dangers top of mind, it is difficult for parents, caregivers, and family members of a teen using substances to know how to handle their circumstances. As you navigate treatment, remember that your teen’s substance use may not be your fault or related to your relationship with them at all.

First, try to offer a safe, validating, non-judgmental space to begin a conversation. There will likely be resistance, denial, and strong emotional reactions from your teen when this behavior is confronted. Try to remain calm and keep in mind your teen is likely hurting emotionally. Once a dialogue can begin around their substance use, the next step for addressing concerns can be identified, including therapy, substance use treatment, attending meetings, and changes in rules inside and outside the home (curfew, phone use, etc.).

There are ways to help teens with substance use issues at home before they are in programs for full treatment. Start by meeting your teen where they are. Right now, they need support and understanding. Reasonably, parents/guardians can feel confused, scared, angry, with a variety of other emotions. Be mindful that your teen is also experiencing a challenging time. Provide a space where transparency is prioritized and start asking questions, such as what led your teen to begin using substances in the first place, how long have they been using, and purpose for use. Be curious and offer understanding.

Additionally, providing a supportive drug and alcohol-free environment at home may help prevent continued use and/or relapses at home. Once a teen is in a program actively seeking recovery, consider attending family therapy programming, as skills learned in this programming and family support, prove to provide the best results for lasting healing and preventing relapse in teens.

If you are experiencing difficulty conversing with your teen about the risks of substance use, reference the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s Facts Sheet for Parents.

What You Should Consider about Treatment

There is hope for your adolescent. Many effective treatment programs and therapies are designed for teens struggling with substance use that provide whole healing, with various levels of care available depending on individual needs. The level of need can be determined by speaking with a pediatrician or a mental health care professional at SunCloud Health.

For severe cases of substance use and cases of co-occurring conditions, like anxiety, depression, and/or eating disorders, residential care may be the best solution for your teen. Residential treatment is the best place to start for severe cases, as the nature of this program removes the teen from access to substances and their usual environment. Programming provides evidence-based therapies, guided self-reflection, self-development resources, and supplemental holistic therapies that all lead to healing in a teen’s life. Residential care does not mean your teen is completely isolated from friends and family. Regular visits are welcomed and show crucial support and promote a more effective recovery.

Worried about Academic Needs?

For parents concerned about teens falling behind in school if they attend treatment, please know, this is a common question we get at SunCloud Health. We urge you to consider: what is most important right now for your teen and for their general future? Your teen may be unable to prioritize educational needs because they are struggling with mental health challenges. At SunCloud Health, we provide time in programming for adolescents to focus on their education, in a supportive, minimal pressure environment. With the support of school liaisons and teachers, teens can advocate for their educational needs while also prioritizing overall well-being.

Benefits Only Treatment Programs Can Provide

SunCloud Health offers many effective therapy solutions that work together to build adolescents back up to living a better life. Our primary focus is on group therapy, which is proven to be highly beneficial due to the importance of feedback and input from peers during such important developmental stages in life. Not only does the group dynamic assist teens in feeling a sense of universality and shared experience, but it also helps in navigating social interactions. For example, group therapy sessions help teens experience empathy and learn how to offer support to others, while also teaching them how to set appropriate and healthy boundaries with peers. It’s in group sessions that our adolescents learn to advocate for themselves and explore the power of peer pressure and other difficult social dynamics.

Finally, accountability is an important aspect of treatment, especially substance use treatment. Having an environment of peers to keep teens accountable can positively influence treatment outcomes.

SunCloud Health is Here for You

When learning about your teen’s substance use or mental health condition, remember you are not alone. Finding support is of the utmost importance, this could include individual therapy for yourself, family therapy, psychoeducation around substance use/abuse, parental support groups, and more. We provide ways for you to grow your support system, with programs offered by experts who have dedicated their careers to supporting families and their teens through this difficult time and to providing the professional care necessary for healing. Our specialists have had the honor of seeing many families find treatment success that allowed their teen to reclaim their story.

If you are considering getting mental health care for your teen struggling with substance use, addictions, eating disorders, or co-occurring conditions, contact SunCloud Health today to discuss what options are available to you: (844) 576- 0279.

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