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Adolescence is a developmental period of growth and great potential, but it is also a time of risk-taking and experimentation including the use of alcohol and other drugs. While alcohol and drug use is a normative behavior among American teenagers, and in many ways a rite of passage to adulthood, not all youth emerge from experimentation unharmed. Currently there are 1.7 million youth in this country struggling with a diagnosable substance use disorder (SUD). At no other time in an individual’s development are the stakes of drug experimentation so high: adolescence and the teenage years are the at risk period for developing a substance use disorder or addiction. And unfortunately, the number of teenagers choosing to experiment is on the rise. The most recent 5-year alcohol and drug use trends among teenagers have shown increases in current and past year substance use.There is a price to pay for not providing effective preventive care or for not intervening early — an inevitable increase in the need for addiction treatment and an inescapable solidification of a pipeline to adult treatment services.

Research has clearly demonstrated that substance use disorders are chronic medical illnesses, with biological, social and behavioral components. And like other chronic medical illnesses (i.e. Type-II Diabetes) substance use disorders and symptoms are best managed with an appropriate combination of clinically-proven approaches that include prevention, early intervention, treatment, relapse prevention and continuing care.

Symptoms and Effects of Drug and Alcohol Abuse

Alcohol and marijuana are not benign substances, particularly on the developing adolescent brain. At a most basic level, the adolescent brain is more susceptible to the addictive effects of substances making use in and of itself a risky proposition. Marijuana, alcohol and all other drugs of abuse show diverse neurotoxic effects, adversely affecting brain development and maturation in the areas related to motivation, memory and learning, and inhibition.

Alcohol has more significant and more enduring effects on memory among adolescents than in adults. Adolescents show reduced sensitivity to alcohol’s motor-impairing and sedative effects. This reduced sensitivity impacts alcohol consumption (e.g., when a person does not stop drinking voluntarily, eventually they will become so incapacitated that they cannot continue to drink even if they want to).

Not surprisingly, adolescents frequently achieve higher blood alcohol concentrations in the process which increases the risk of alcohol poisoning. Frequent, heavy alcohol consumption, reduced sensitivity to the physiological processes that help to limit drinking, and increased vulnerability of the developing brain to alcohol’s many harmful effects are just three of many factors that can combine to result in cognitive deficits and other problems that persist far beyond adolescence, or even death.

In terms of marijuana, adolescent and teenage marijuana use significantly increases the risks for impaired respiratory function, cardiovascular disease, precancerous cells and psychotic symptoms. This latter finding is alarming, for there is some evidence to suggest a causal link between early marijuana use and the onset of schizophrenia. The neurotoxic effect of cannabis on the adolescent brain was recently reported to contribute to IQ decline with no evidence to suggest the relationship was confounded by personality differences or socioeconomic status.

Substance use directly contributes to the development of a host of chronic medical conditions including but not limited to asthma, depression, sexually transmitted infections and HIV, and increases the risk for psychosis. Substance use disorder’s association with these and other medical conditions such as liver problems and breast disease leads to early mortality. In addition to these medical and psychiatric consequences, substance use disorder itself, as well as its sequelae, results in multiple short- and long-term functional deficits across numerous life domains (e.g., relational, educational, vocational, financial).

Meyers, K, et al., Paving the Way to Change: Advancing Interventions for adolescents who use, abuse or are dependent upon alcohol and other drugs. 2014.

Signs of Drug or Alcohol Use

If you’re concerned that your adolescent is using drugs or alcohol, trust your gut and address it. The earlier a teenager receives support in reducing or stopping drug or alcohol misuse, the better their chances will be to overcome the issue. There are a number of research-derived, effective and practical interventions that can reduce not only the rates of addiction but also the more prevalent rates of substance use-related car accidents, unwanted pregnancies, infectious disease and school drop-out.

Clear warning signs of an emerging substance use problem include binge drinking and drug use pictures posted on social media, drop in grades, change in friends, etc.  One of the prevention resources found on this site, “I Think My Child Is Using”, provides more information about the signs you can look for if you think your teenage child or young adult child is using drugs or alcohol.

There are also a number of different drug and alcohol intervention, substance use and addiction treatment and recovery resources available to help parents address adolescent and young adult substance use.