February 15, 2021
Substance Misuse Risk Factors in Adolescents

If you had to sum up your adolescent years in one word, what would it be? Change? Pressure? For many of us, our teenage years were characterized by intense emotions, lingering insecurities and trying to fit in as best we could. But why are the teenage years so hard? Well, for starters, it’s a time when the brain undergoes considerable development.

The prefrontal cortex, which is involved in processing and decision-making, is undergoing changes in thickness, growth and dendritic structure. Because it’s not fully developed, the teenage brain is sensitive to reward and decreased ability to inhibit responses to stimulus, which limits decision-making ability and behavior control. The limbic system, which is responsible for emotional response, motivation, and reinforcing behaviors undergoes significant changes as well, further impacting one’s disposition to risky behaviors like drug use.

Most adults who have a substance use disorder first began using substances during their adolescence and early adult years. There’s no question that the experiences during this critical time of development can have long-lasting impacts on one’s health and well-being.

While anyone is susceptible to risk-seeking behavior such as substance use, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) say there are certain risk factors that categorize people as being at high-risk for substance abuse. Childhood maltreatment, including neglect and physical, sexual, and emotional abuse has been linked to an increased risk for substance abuse. Nearly 30% of children experiencing maltreatment participate in some level of substance abuse. One study has shown that a history of physical or sexual abuse increases the risk of substance use from two to four times. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is also associated with an increased likelihood of developing a substance use disorder.

Entry into deviant peer groups has been shown to be significantly associated with negative parent-child relationships as well as adolescent substance misuse. Adolescents who are either the victim or perpetrator of bullying are also at an increased risk for abusing substances. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these individuals are also more susceptible to mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety.

Other noteworthy risk factors according to the NIH include gang affiliation, family rejection of sexual orientation or gender identity, low academic achievement, lack of school connectedness, mental health issues and an attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) diagnosis.

Teen Substance Use Risk Factors

Download Teen Substance Use Risk Factors Infographic

Parents and caregivers play an important role in helping buffer their children from risky behaviors, including substance abuse. The Centers for Disease Control in its “Youth Risk Behavior Survey” says there are certain protective factors for high-risk substance use among adolescents, which include:

  • Parental and familial engagement.
  • Familial support.
  • Parent disapproval of substance use.
  • Parental monitoring.
  • School connectedness.

When parents and caregivers are actively and positively involved in their kids’ lives, it’s more likely the teens will share their parents’ values. And teens whose parents set clear rules and expectations surrounding drug use are less likely to use. Next time you find yourself asking, “Does my kid really care what I think?” – more than likely they really do care a great deal about what you think. So, take some time to sit down with your teen and engage with them on important topics such as drugs, sex and alcohol – just remember to listen and ask questions regarding their views.