Why do teens drink and use substances, and is it "normal"?


We immunize. We require seat belts in the car and helmets while biking. We insist on sunscreen. We do just about everything we can to ensure that our kids are healthy, safe and primed for success. But when it comes to drinking alcohol or even smoking marijuana, why does it seem so easy to shrug it off as “a rite of passage” or “just experimenting"?

Why do teens drink and use substances, and is it "normal"?

From mood swings to rebellion, many types of challenging behavior are normal during the teen years, but experimenting with substance use isn’t one of them. We also need to rethink our perception of norms. It’s not true that “everyone vapes” or “everyone drinks.”

That said, a variety of common teen experiences can become an excuse or reason for substance use. Understanding why some teens drink or use substances is a valuable step toward keeping them healthy and safe.

Fitting in

Feelings of being an outsider and longing to be included and liked by others are pretty pronounced during the teen years. If the kids your teen wants to be friends with, or is hanging out with, are drinking or using substances, they may feel that they need to participate as well or risk being left out. Some teens see substance use as an easy path to making friends, fitting in or being accepted with the “right” crowd.

What parents can do:

Socializing

Some teens use drugs and alcohol to overcome insecurities, let their guard down and feel socially confident. Substance use may make them feel like they are really open and connecting with others. In addition to more obvious risks, this can lead teens to feel like substance use is necessary to achieve a certain level of interaction.

What parents can do:

Life transitions

Periods of transition in teens’ lives — like moving, divorce, puberty, changing schools, an illness or death in the family — can become a time of upheaval, leading some to attempt to find solace in alcohol or drugs.

What Parents Can Do:

Emotional and psychological pain

Whether it’s the pressure of everyday teen drama or the emotional toll of family problems, stress or trauma, some teens use substances to dull the very real pain in their lives. Loneliness, low self-esteem, depression, anxiety disorder and other mental health issues are commonly associated with teen substance use. Furthermore, many of these issues occur in combination with one another, each compounding the intensity of the others.

What parents can do: