“I’m bored, curious, stressed, depressed, can’t sleep, want to fit in, want to seem older…” There is no single reason why teenagers use substances but here are some of the more common ones. It’s important that you, as a parent or other caregiver, understand the “why” behind teen substance use. You can be on the lookout for what might tempt your child to try alcohol or other drugs and intervene if necessary.
1. Other people
Teenagers see lots of people consuming various substances. They see their parents and other adults drinking alcohol, smoking or vaping and sometimes, trying other substances. Also, a teenager’s social scene may revolve around drinking and using marijuana. Sometimes friends urge one another to have a drink or smoke marijuana, but it’s just as common for teens to start trying a substance because it’s readily available and they see some of their friends enjoying it. In their minds, substance use is a part of the normal teenage experience.
2. Popular media
Forty-five percent of teens agree with the statement: “The music that teens listen to makes marijuana seem cool.” And 45 percent of teens agree with the statement “Movies and TV shows make drugs seem like an ok thing to do.” (PATS 2012) So be aware of the media that your son or daughter is consuming and talk to them about it.
3. Escape and self-medication
When teens are unhappy and can’t find a healthy outlet for their frustrations or a trusted friend, they may turn to substances for relief. Depending on which one they try, they may feel wonderfully happy or energized and confident.
The often rough teen years can take an emotional toll, sometimes causing depression, so when teens are given a chance to take something to make them feel better, many can’t resist. For example, some teens misuse prescription medicine to manage stress or anxiety. Sometimes they misuse prescription stimulants (used to treat Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, ADHD) to provide additional energy and the ability to focus when they’re studying or taking tests. Others misuse prescription pain relievers and tranquilizers to cope with the pressures of school, their social lives or to handle emotional stress.
Teens who can’t deal with being alone, have trouble keeping themselves occupied or crave excitement are prime candidates for substance use. Not only do alcohol and marijuana give them something to do, but those substances help fill the emptiness they feel. Further, they provide a common ground for socializing with like-minded teens, a way to instantly bond with a group of kids.
Different teens choose different substances to use based on their needs. Alcohol may be used by an angry teenager because it can make it easier to act out. Hallucinogens (ex. mushrooms, LSD) are also escape drugs, often used by young people who feel misunderstood. They may long to escape to a more idealistic, kind world. Smoking cigarettes or vaping can be a form of rebellion to show their independence. The reasons for teenage substance use are as complex as teenagers themselves.
6. Instant gratification
Alcohol and other drugs work quickly. The initial effects can feel really good. Teenagers may turn to substance use because they see it as a shortcut to relieve negative emotions like feeling anxious, depressed, upset or bored.
Lack of confidence
Many shy teenagers who lack confidence report that they’ll do things under the influence of substances that they might not otherwise. This is part of the appeal even for more confident teens; you have the courage to dance if you’re a bad dancer, or sing at the top of your lungs even if you have a terrible voice, or kiss the person you’re attracted to. Substances tend not only to loosen inhibitions but also lower social anxiety. Not only do you have something in common with the other people around you, but there’s the idea that if you do anything or say anything stupid, everyone will just think you had too many drinks or smoked too much weed.
Perhaps the most avoidable cause of substance use is inaccurate information. Nearly every teenager has friends who claim to be experts on various recreational substances, and they’re happy to say that the risks are minimal. Educate your teenagers about substance use, so they get the real facts about the dangers of drug use.
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