Risk Factors for Substance Use

Discovering that your child's friends are getting into vaping, drinking, or trying other substances, or maybe even your own child has started experimenting, can make you wonder: Is this just a normal phase of growing up, or could it lead to serious problems? Instead of leaving things to chance, let's dive into what you need to know about risk factors.

What makes some people more likely to become addicted?

Certain conditions and circumstances make some people more likely to have substance use lead to a substance use disorder (in its severe form referred to as addiction) than others. These risk factors do not determine one’s destiny — rather, they are useful in assessing the potential for a problem to develop.

Risk factors for substance use

Think of risk factors like the warning signs for heart disease, such as family history, being overweight, or having high blood pressure. Similarly, there are risk factors for substance use that can help us understand the chances of these behaviors becoming bigger issues.

One risk factor to better understand is early use. The brain keeps developing from around age 10 to the mid-20s. During this time, the brain is like a construction site for important skills such as controlling impulses, dealing with emotions, solving problems, and understanding consequences. However, using alcohol, nicotine, or other substances during this period can mess up a kid’s construction site. It can actually change how the brain works and increase the chances of serious problems developing including addiction.

You might be curious about other risk factors besides early substance use. For more insights, we teamed up with Kaiser Permanente, a large healthcare provider on the west coast. Their researchers studied over 41,000 kids’ health records from when they were born until age 18. They identified several factors that predicted substance use issues. Many of these were linked to mental health, like self-harm, depression, bipolar disorder, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), as well as experiences of trauma and stress.

We also found other important risk factors through additional research. These included a family history of addiction, how connected kids feel to school, whether there’s a lot of conflict at home, and whether they have friends who use substances, to name a few.

The Risk Assessment Tool

All these risk factors were brought together to create a risk assessment tool that you can use for free and in confidence. It’s available here. Simply answer a series of questions to the best of your ability to find out what risk factors, if any, your child may face. It usually takes people about 5 to 6 minutes to answer all of the questions.  After you submit your answers, you’ll receive a report that shows the factors you’ve identified, along with suggestions on how to lower these risks.

Remember, the tool won’t provide a diagnosis or a score. Generally speaking, if more risk factors show up, the situation is more concerning. Should you need more help understanding the report or creating a plan to help your child, don’t hesitate to reach out for support.

Changes to risk over time

Preventing and delaying substance use for as long as possible, along with addressing any underlying risk factors, are important to reducing the chances of problems developing. Helping your child strengthen coping skills, maintain their mental and physical well-being, and grow healthy relationships, along with keeping them safe, can serve as protective factors.

As people become adults, risk factors for substance use and addiction may change. At each stage of life, new and different circumstances can create stress and added pressure, that may lead to substance use disorders. Your support in building a healthy foundation as they grow can help them successfully weather life’s curveballs and avoid substance use disorders.