Addiction is a disease of the brain that impairs cognition and behavior and the inability to quit using the substance despite the resulting negative consequences.1 Without receiving the substance, the body feels a craving for the substance, causing a dependency—a physiological tolerance to a substance. Once a dependency is developed, consequences may arise.
What Makes Teenagers Vulnerable to Addiction?
In 2020, drugabusestatistics.org reported that 50% of teenagers will have used drugs by the time they graduate from high school.2 Teenagers are especially vulnerable to addiction because this is a time when friends become the focus and risky behavior starts to occur. As they are focused on gaining independence from their parents, peer influence can trump concerns from parents.
Teenagers’ brains are also still developing. The prefrontal cortex, associated with decision making and judgment, does not finish developing until someone is 24-26.3 As a result, there is a much higher chance of teens experimenting with drugs and engaging in other harmful or risky activities.3
Teenage Substance Abuse: Common Types of Physical Addictions
The most commonly used substances by teenagers are those that are most easily accessible: Alcohol, marijuana, and nicotine are the top three on the leader board.4 One study shows that teens who use drugs before the age of 13 have a 70% higher chance of developing an addiction. That rate decreases to 27% if a person uses after the age of 17.4
Alcohol is the most widely-used substance by teens. Every year, 11% of the total amount of alcohol drank in the US will be by teens binge drinking.2 Binge drinking is defined as consuming 5-6 drinks within 2 hours.5 The major effects that alcohol has on the adolescent brain is in memory and learning.3 Also, alcohol is one of the three leading causes of deaths among teens.2
Marijuana is the second most commonly used substance by teens. A total of 36% of high schoolers use marijuana every year.2 Since the introduction of vaping, using THC has become increasingly popular and easier for teens to hide. The term “dabs” typically refers to the highly concentrated THC that is used in a vaping device and includes other harmful chemicals. As of February 2020, 2,807 teens and young adults have died as a result of using dabs contaminated with Vitamin E acetate.9
Marijuana can have a significant impact on the livelihood of teens. Those who begin using at a young age have a higher chance of developing mental health issues later in life.1 Despite popular belief, THC is an addictive drug in that it can cause a dependency on the substance, making the individual feel it is necessary to use in order to achieve a specific feeling.
The rate of nicotine use in teens was rapidly declining until the introduction of electronic cigarettes or “vapes.” Out of every 5 students, 2 are regularly using these devices to ingest nicotine.6 Nicotine is a highly addictive chemical that interferes with brain development, especially in regards to attention, learning, mood, and impulse control.7
Vaping devices contain toxic substances such as ultra fine particles, diacetyl, volatile organic compounds, cancer-causing chemicals, and heavy metals.7 Compared to cigarettes, vapes present less exposure to harmful chemicals but that doesn’t mean they’re safe. Plus, most teens who use electronic devices also use cigarettes at some point or end up becoming a regular user.7
Symptoms of Addiction
Being addicted to a substance can feel like many things. For example, being addicted to marijuana can cause a person to feel quite uncomfortable if not used. This can cause anxiety, depression, inability to sleep, loss of appetite, loss of motivation, fatigue, to name a few. If regular use occurs, a tolerance is built up, meaning that one needs to use more of the substance to achieve a particular result.
Addiction to alcohol is also based on tolerance. If one regularly uses alcohol, they will need to increase the amount they use in order to feel the desired effects. Then after a dependency is developed and one goes without alcohol, a person may feel shaky, irritable, restless, anxious, nauseous, tired, foggy, and lack appetite.
Nicotine addiction does not have as many severe symptoms or consequences as other substances, but it is the most addictive by far because of the short-acting effects on the brain. When nicotine is ingested, whether orally or through inhalation, nicotine quickly reaches the brain releasing a surge of the drug’s pleasurable effects and enhancing cognition. This feeling goes away within seconds, causing the user to ingest often in order to maintain the feeling.2 This is the process of withdrawal.
Withdrawal is the physiological state the body goes through when the substance begins the process of leaving the body. All substances have a withdrawal period, just like medications. Some withdrawals are harder than others, such as heroin, that can be so painful it makes it hard for people to stop. Overall, all substances have the potential to create a dependency, and in order to avoid the unwanted effects of withdrawal symptoms, one must continue using.
Causes of Teenage Addiction
The causes of teenage addiction can be derived from many factors. For each individual, it could be a combination of factors, but the primary reason is because addiction is a brain disease.8 Addiction used to be viewed as a moral failing or weakness, but modern science today classifies addiction as a disease of the brain with underlying neurobiological adaptation that reduces one’s ability to change behavior.
Deciding to use a substance is voluntary in most cases, but over time with consistent use, “the choice” to use becomes irrelevant and can then become “the only choice.” Drugs can become a way to seek relief for different reasons. Once drug use becomes a way to cope with life stressors, that reinforces the behavior.
Addiction & Brain Chemistry
Neurotransmitters such as dopamine, serotonin, and glutamate are the primary chemicals responsible for the disease of addiction. When a substance enters the body, a rush of chemicals are released in the midbrain, the part of the brain responsible for reward and motivation. The amount of chemicals released is far greater than what would normally be released when doing other pleasurable activities, such as eating. This is why the reinforcement to use is so high.
A person begins to crave the feelings it produces and this creates a vicious cycle wherein use becomes more frequent in efforts to achieve the same feeling. A tolerance will slowly build, causing one to use more and more. The reward center in the brain is then hijacked by the substance.
Environmental & Genetic Factors
Other factors that contribute to teenage addiction are the environment and genetics. If a child is exposed to tough circumstances and never appropriately addressed, seeking temporary relief in drugs can easily become an easy escape. Childhood trauma can result in developmental damage and difficulty regulating emotions. Drugs provide instant temporary relief and outweigh the consequences of drug use.
Social situations in teenage years are when most people are exposed to drugs of some kind. Peer influence can be a major factor in why a teen decides to try drugs. The most common age for a teen with addiction starts using is 13 years old. The younger a person starts to use, the greater the chances of them developing an issue becomes.
Genetics can also predispose one’s chances of developing addiction. If parents or grandparents have experienced addiction, there is a 50% chance the child will develop one.8 If the gene is activated either by use or adverse experiences, the person has a greater chance of developing an issue.
Treatment for Teens Dealing With Addiction
Addressing substance use in teens is crucial for their development and safety. If drug use occurs, a parent should have their child evaluated by a professional as the first step. The earlier the intervention takes place, the better. Setting strict conditions for continued use and gaining help from a professional with experience working with teen addiction are primary.
More than likely, these conditions will deter continued use. Sometimes, however, it can be more complicated than that, especially if any of the aforementioned conditions are involved. If the substance use has progressed to a certain point, the professional who evaluated the teen will give a recommendation for treatment.
Treatment has different levels of intensity. The lowest-intensity type of treatment is individual counseling or a small therapy group that usually takes place 1-2 times a week. Above that would be what is referred to as an intensive outpatient program. This is group therapy that would take place several times a week for multiple hours. This level is often used when a teen needs more structure and support. Beyond that would be residential treatment, which is the most intensive and structured form of treatment. This is when the addiction has progressed to the point that the only way to control use is to be removed from the current environment for a certain period of time until stabilized.
Getting Help for Your Teen
Learning how to help an alcoholic or an addict can be overwhelming if you have just discovered that it is your child that is using substances. In a time of what feels like a crisis, it can be difficult to know what is the first step to take. One suggestion would be to take the teen to a pediatrician—they would be able to refer you to someone in the local area with education and experience in addiction.
If this is not an option, find a local therapist with a background in addiction who has the ability to evaluate the teen for the appropriate level of care. A google search or browsing a directory could provide a list of results in your area after filtering for the criteria that include “addiction” and “adolescence.” If your teen has experienced issues with the justice system due to their addiction, it may be helpful to search for a therapist specializing in multisystemic therapy, an intense form of treatment geared towards youth.
After you find the correct person to do an evaluation or assessment on your teen, this person should also be able to provide you with resources in your local area that will compliment the treatment the teen will be receiving.
How to Support Yourself While Helping Your Teen
Make sure to inquire, as a caretaker, about resources that you can access for support as well. This may be things like Al-anon or Nar-Anon, support groups for families of people experiencing addiction. There may be other types of support groups depending on where you live.
It is so important to get support from others experiencing the same thing because knowing you are not alone and finding out how others made it through the difficult times can be so helpful. Education is the best way to understand addiction. It is a complicated disease that brings up a lot of feelings. By having a greater understanding of how addiction affects people and learning how to react and take care of yourself, will make the experience much easier to handle.