How to Prevent Substance Abuse in Teens

A national survey of adolescents (age 12-17) put out in 2019 by the Center on Addiction shows that parents are a very important influencer on whether teens will drink or use drugs. The survey did not ask teens directly about their own substance use, but asked about friends’ substance use—a risk factor for their own future use. Here are some of the findings of the report:

  • 55.8% of teens said they believe the most common reason some kids their age choose not to drink or use drugs is their parents – either because they think their parents would disapprove, or because they don’t want to get in trouble. This clearly indicates that parents have a major influence on a teen’s likelihood to try drugs.
  • 23.7% of teens said they have at least one friend who uses drugs.
  • As we would expect, there is a big jump in risk factors for substance use between middle school (ages 12 to 14) and high school (ages 15 to 17). Older teens are much more likely to drink or use drugs than middle schoolers.
  • Regardless of the number of risk factors a teen reported in their life, high levels of parental monitoring were associated with significantly reduced odds that teens would have friends who use drugs.


Risk factors for teens abusing substances include:

  • Having at least a few close friends who drink beer or other alcohol, smoke cigarettes or vape, use marijuana or misuse prescription drugs.
  • Personally knowing someone addicted to nicotine, alcohol, marijuana or prescription pain relievers.
  • Witnessing illegal drugs used in real life.
  • Being able to get illicit drugs like heroin, cocaine or methamphetamine within a day if they wanted to.
  • Relying on sources of information about drugs that can be considered unreliable, such as other teens, social media or the Internet.


Tips for Parents

“As teens get older, parents tend to think they should give their kids more independence, but there are ways to do that while still protecting them,” said Linda Richter, PhD, Director of Policy Research and Analysis at Center on Addiction, who authored the report. “It’s counterintuitive, but although older teens seem to resist input from their parents, it’s a time when they need parents the most.”

To reduce the risk of teen substance use, Dr. Richter recommends that parents:

  • Eat meals as a family as frequently as possible.
  • Remove distractions (such as smartphones) during meals and other family activities.
  • Take an interest in your teens’ interests.
  • Have frequent, open, and honest conversations about your teens’ friends, hopes and plans, concerns and fears.
  • Monitor your teens’ whereabouts, who they spend time with, what they do during their free time, and their social media account activity.
  • Be well informed and up-to-date about the types of addictive substances your teens might encounter.
  • Have frequent, open, and honest conversations with your teens about substance use and addiction.
  • Set clear and fair rules and stick to them.
  • Seek help early for any signs of risk or substance abuse from a trusted health professional.


Final Thoughts…

Even though teenagers begin to withdraw from their parents as they try to establish their own identities, parents still hold a huge amount of influence in their lives and decisions. And although it’s important for parents to allow their children more responsibility and independence as they grow older, the research shows that teens thrive when their parents are engaged, interested, and involved in their lives.

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