Youth and Substance Abuse: Studies, Risk Factors and Prevention

j0178822Teenagers and substance abuse are not a great mix. Parents, teachers, law enforcement and other community members often strive to prevent children from experimenting with drugs and alcohol. In the hope of educating the public, Middle Earth has compiled some interesting information from a variety of sources on this topic.

Is there really a problem?

There are numerous studies and reports that demonstrate there is a problem of drug use among teenagers. Consider these three recent studies:

A survey of more than 12,000 high school seniors found that 12.3 percent said they had used prescription drugs for non-medical purposes. Reasons that students gave for using the drugs were to relax, relieve tension, get high, experiment, relieve pain, or have a good time with their friends. The study was published in the August 2009 issue of the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine.

In the National Survey of American Attitudes on Substance Abuse XIV, about one in three American teenagers, aged 12- to 17-year-olds, said they had consumed alcohol. Of those children, about one in four said they had a drink within the previous 30 days, and of these teens, one-third said that they typically drank to get drunk, and 65 percent said they had gotten drunk at least once during the past month.

In the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University’s 14th annual Teen Survey, 23% of teens said they can get marijuana within an hour and that prescription drugs are easier to obtain than beer, an increase of 37% over the previous year. Two-thirds of teens surveyed said drugs are used, kept or sold in their high school.

Who is at risk for drug problems?

Although there is no perfect predictor of drug abuse, there are risk factors. The National Institute on Drug Abuse indicated that children who exhibit the following behaviors are more likely to abuse drugs:

  • inappropriate classroom behavior, such as aggression and impulsivity;
  • academic failure;
  • poor social behavior and/or coping skills;
  • association with peers with problem behaviors.

Also children that do not have positive family environments are more at risk to abuse drugs. Be aware if a child’s family suffers from:

  • lack of mutual attachment and nurturing by parents or caregivers;
  • ineffective parenting;
  • a chaotic home environment;
  • lack of a significant relationship with a caring adult; and
  • a caregiver who abuses substances, suffers from mental illness, or engages in criminal behavior.

What can be done to prevent drug problems among teenagers?

The National Institute on Drug Abuse ( has published a book entitled “Preventing Drug Abuse among Children and Adolescents: A Research-Based Guide for Parents, Educators, and Community Leaders.” The book is free and available for download at and is filled with great information. We have summarized some of their suggestions here.

At Home

The best way for parents to protect their children from abusing drugs is to improve family communication skills, enforce age-appropriate discipline, provide firm and consistent rule enforcement, and increase their support. Research confirms the benefit of parents taking a more active role in their children’s lives, by talking with them about drugs, monitoring their activities, getting to know their friends, understanding their problems and concerns, providing consistent rules and discipline, and being involved in their learning and education.

At School

There are a variety of ways that schools can impact a child’s likelihood of experimenting with drugs. Working to enhance academic performance, which is also in alignment with their primary goal, is an important element since school failure is strongly associated with substance abuse. Other areas of focus should include improving children’s social skills, self-control, coping skills, social behaviors, and drug offer refusal skills.

In the Community

Communities should work to coordinate prevention efforts across settings to communicate consistent messages through school, work, religious institutions, and the media. Research has shown that programs that reach youth through multiple sources can strongly impact community norms. Examples of other community efforts that reduce substance abuse among adolescents include establishing youth curfew, having advertising restrictions, reducing the density of alcohol outlets in the community, raising cigarette prices, and creating drug-free school zones.

Where do I get help if I suspect a problem?

Local Resources in Somerset County, New Jersey

National Resources

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