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Substance use can potentially lead to long-term social and health problems, injury, and even death for teens and adolescents. Research shows that a child’s growth, memory, development and learning abilities can be affected by tobacco, alcohol, and drugs. Teens and adolescents who abuse these substances may have trouble finding their identity, building relationship skills, and becoming emotionally stable. Continued use and abuse increases the risk of serious drug use later in life, school failure, and poor judgment that may put teens at risk for accidents, violence, unplanned and unsafe sex, and suicide. They also may have trouble preparing for their future.

Unfortunately, teens and adolescents don’t often see the link between their actions today and the consequences tomorrow. They also have a tendency to feel indestructible and immune to the problems that others experience. The reality is that substance experimentation can grow very quickly into abuse and addiction, specifically for teens or adolescents at risk. Teenagers who are at risk for developing serious alcohol and drug problems include:

  • Those who feel like they don’t fit in or are out of the mainstream
  • Those with a family history of substance abuse Those who are depressed
  • Those who have low self-esteem


A variety of drugs, both legal and illegal are commonly experimented with or abused by teens and adolescents. Legally available drugs more often used include alcohol, prescribed medications, inhalants (fumes from glues, aerosols, and solvents) and over-the-counter cough, cold, sleep, and diet medications. The most commonly used illegal drugs are marijuana (pot), stimulants (cocaine, crack, and speed), LSD, PCP, opiates, heroin, and designer drugs (Ecstasy). The use of illegal drugs is increasing at a very high rate, especially among young teens. The average age of first marijuana use is 14, and alcohol use can typically start before age 12.


The following are a few red flags of potential signs of abuse:

  • Physical – fatigue, repeated health complaints, red and glazed eyes, and a lasting cough
  • Emotional – personality changes, sudden mood changes, irritability, irresponsible behavior, low self-esteem, poor judgment, depression, and a general lack of interest
  • Family – starting arguments, breaking the rules, or withdrawing from the family
  • School – decreased interests, frequent & prolonged negative attitude, a drop in grades, many absences, truancy, and discipline problems
  • Social problems – making new “friends” who are less interested in typical home and school activities, problems with the law, and changes to less conventional styles in dress and music

Parents can potentially prevent children from using drugs by talking to them about drugs, creating an open communication, role modeling of responsible behavior, and recognizing if problems are developing.

If you have concerns you may want to consult a physician to rule out physical causes of the warning signs. It is advised to follow up with a comprehensive evaluation by a child and adolescent psychiatrist or mental health professional.


A variety of programs are available. The programs usually provide education and individual, family, and group counseling. They are often based on the principles of Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous.

Another type of inpatient program is the therapeutic community. Wilderness treatment programs like Pacific Quest combine a wilderness experience and some form of treatment. Based on experience, Pacific Quest recommends the Sustainable Growth Wilderness Therapy Model for the most comprehensive approach to addictions and related issues. This model incorporates many of the treatment options outlined above to help teens achieve lasting change in terms of both behavior and overall physical and emotional well-being.