Below, we break down stats and information on how and why teens use drugs as well as how to talk to teens about drug use.
Teen Drug Use Statistics
Drug use rates among adolescents are fairly high, according to the annual drug survey Monitoring the Future. However, rates have declined slightly in the past year or so.
In 2019, the rate of reported illicit drug use among teens was as high as 38 percent among 12th graders, 31 percent among 10th graders, and 15.6 percent among 8th graders.
According to that same survey, in more recent years, there has been a decrease in the rate of reported drug use. There was a sharp decrease reported in 2021, although how much of this can be attributed to a cultural shift versus the highly unusual circumstances teens living through the COVID-19 pandemic experienced isn’t clear.
The three most commonly reported drugs used by adolescents are marijuana, alcohol, and tobacco. By their senior year of high school, about 66 percent of students have tried alcohol, although it should be noted that “tried” and “intentionally abused” alcohol are two different levels of use, with a person having “tried” alcohol even if they only had a small sip of it.
Regardless, as much as one-tenth of alcohol consumed in the U.S. is estimated to have been consumed by people between the ages of 12 to 20. This is despite the fact that it is illegal for those under the age of 21 to drink alcohol (barring extremely limited circumstances, such as a small amount for certain religious ceremonies, which even then varies by state).
Teen Drug Use Risk Factors
Notable risk factors for teen drug use include the following:
- Low grades or academic failure
- Being a victim of bullying and similar harassment
- Poor self-esteem
- Overly permissive or absent parents
- Frequent drug use, including alcohol use, among family members
- Living in a community with a high tolerance for youth drug use
- Attending schools with inconsistent or lax enforcement of drug laws
- Misunderstanding or misbelief that drug use carries little risk
Many of these risk factors frequently overlap. For example, a teen who is bullied or failing in school will often also have low self-esteem.
Importantly, none of these risk factors guarantee that a teen will use drugs. With the right support, discussed in more detail later, an adult can help a teen avoid drug abuse or stop drug abuse if they’re currently engaging in it.
Additionally, one more obvious risk factor is how easily a teen may be able to access drugs. A teen can gain access to drugs through their family, friends, or even from stores that intentionally or accidentally sell drugs (most frequently alcohol or cigarettes) to minors.
Broadly speaking, the easier it is for a teen to acquire drugs, the more easily they can abuse drugs if they want to do so. Unfortunately, it can often be difficult even for vigilant guardians to block a teen’s access to drugs if the community has many avenues from which a teen can get drugs.
Why Do Teens Use Drugs?
When discussing why teens use drugs, it’s important to acknowledge that teens are individuals.
Their backgrounds and reasons for making certain choices can be quite diverse and that makes it difficult to make a “complete” list of why a teen might use illicit substances. However, a few broad reasons are generally accepted to be the primary reasons a teenager might use drugs. Here are some of them:
To Fit In
Adults shouldn’t underestimate the social pressures teens often feel to fit in with the group they perceive to be most cool or popular. If the groups a teen most identifies with and wants to belong in frequently engage in drug use, they’re going to feel pressured to also engage in drug use. They’ll also listen more closely to how those groups describe drug use, even if that information is inaccurate or heavily biased.
Teens often have less control over whom they can associate with. If they’re ostracized for not engaging in drug use, teens can’t necessarily stop interacting with those people. If the people making negative comments are in the same school as the teenager, for example, they may have no choice but to at least sometimes hear their comments, even if they still make the choice to avoid drugs.
To Feel Good
Many drugs create a sense of calm and euphoria in a user. This is true of alcohol, marijuana, opioids, and many other drugs.
Even if drug use has serious negative consequences, adults can’t ignore the reality that drug use can feel good in the moment. This is important because it’s one of the main arguments those in a teen’s social circle will likely make in favor of drug use.
In the moment, drug use can create a very positive experience. Adults should acknowledge this to teens. If they try to deny this reality, it’s unlikely the teen will trust anything else that is said.
Of course, the reality is that the long-term consequences of drug use can often be quite severe, especially for teens whose bodies and minds are still developing.
To Feel Better
Similar to the above, some teens abuse drugs as a way to cope with difficulties in their life. These difficulties can include anxiety and depression as a result of bullying or mental health issues related to severe situations, such as the lasting effects of trauma or loss.
These issues can put a teen at significant risk of drug abuse if ignored. Without proper treatment, trauma, loss, bullying, and grief can sharply reduce a person’s quality of life.
Similarly, depression and anxiety can be devastating without the right help. Therapy and potentially medication are recommended.
To Perform Better
Different from the other points discussed thus far, some teens use drugs to improve their performance in academic or sports activities. One of the most obvious examples is the use of substances such as steroids to improve one’s athletic performance. Other teens may use certain stimulants, believing it may make studying or test-taking easier (although the actual evidence these stimulants can help when used not as prescribed is limited).
Some teens may choose to do drugs just to experiment and experience something they haven’t before. Some drugs, such as psychedelics, are often used for this purpose, warping how a person perceives the world around them and creating experiences a person cannot experience sober.
This is one reason having a direct conversation about drugs is important with teens. You can reduce the mystique around them and make sure a teen gets accurate information on different substances they may eventually get access to.
If a teen feels the adults in their life are too controlling or refuse to pay attention to them, they may feel a strong desire to rebel. This may involve intentionally acting in ways they know those adults will disapprove of. This rebellion can take many forms, but drug abuse is one of them.
What to Do if You Suspect Your Teen Is Abusing Drugs
If you suspect your child is doing drugs, you may feel panicked. Here are some steps to take:
- Don’t act on your initial impulse. Your initial reaction may be anger, but it’s important to approach the situation rationally with your child’s best interests in mind. Take some deep breaths and even sleep on it before you act, provided there is no immediate danger.
- Educate yourself. Learn what you can about the nature of drug abuse, including why teens often experiment with drugs and how this can progress into serious issues. Review our resources section below to get accurate, useful information about drugs and teen drug use specifically.
- Call a professional. This is especially important if you believe they may be struggling with a substance use disorder (SUD). A reputable mental health professional can help them with any mental health problems you may not be equipped to handle.
Stick to addiction specialists, such as physicians and therapists. These professionals can help you assess the situation and determine next steps.
When possible, avoid calling law enforcement when working to stop a teen’s drug abuse. For example, if your child is a serious, active threat to your safety or the safety of other people, you may decide police intervention is necessary. However, this is a very rare necessity and will represent a fundamental and often permanent shift in your parent-child relationship.
The current American legal system is extremely limited in its ability to help people struggling with drug abuse, and the legal consequences of being caught with drugs can often be long-lasting and highly damaging. Your child will be better served by getting them into appropriate addiction treatment if necessary.
- Set an example. Serve as a positive role model for your teen by limiting your alcohol use and avoiding drug use. Rethink how any drugs are stored in your home, so your teen cannot easily access them. Safely dispose of any prescription drugs, especially opioids, once they are no longer needed.
- Start a conversation. The goal is to establish open, honest communication with your teen. It is important to come into these conversations informed and without judgment. Try to talk from a point of empathy and concern for their safety and healthy development rather than from any kind of moral judgment over their drug use. We offer tips on how to approach this conversation below.
- Set boundaries. While you don’t want to be overly confrontational, it is important to set reasonable boundaries. For example, it is reasonable not to allow a teenager to go to parties or hang out with friends you know give them access to drugs.
If you believe punishments may be necessary, such as a result of learning your child has stolen from you or broken an established rule, be sure to read up on healthy discipline strategies before choosing the consequences for their actions. This can help you make sure you don’t seriously damage your relationship with your teen and are instead guiding them toward healthier patterns of behavior.
How to Talk to Teens About Drugs
- Don’t lecture. This starts by developing a healthy line of communication rather than engaging in the stereotypical lecturing approach or by speaking so vaguely about drug use that you don’t meaningfully convey what a teen ought to know.
- Be very specific about your values and rules. Don’t say things like, “Do the right thing,” when discussing drug use. Explain exactly what you mean and what you expect out of them, such as telling them to assure you they won’t be drinking any alcohol when they go out with their friends. Be prepared to back up these rules with reasonable motivations.
Rather than saying, “It’s bad to use drugs,” or “Because I said so,” talk about the dangers drugs pose, give real anecdotes about teens who were harmed by drug use, and talk about how drugs can have both health and legal consequences. Make your expectations clear, and don’t leave room for ambiguity.
- Listen. Don’t just talk at your teen. Listen to what they have to say. Ask your teen questions like “What do you know about marijuana?” and then fill in any missed details you notice.
Encourage them to ask questions too. Try to be honest. Talk to them about any mistakes you’ve made regarding drug use and why you might regret those mistakes.
- Don’t pretend to know everything. You also admit when you don’t know something. Write down the question that came up, research the topic, and answer it in the next few days with a full, accurate answer.
- Stress the importance of honesty. Make it clear that your teen can talk to you if they break the rules you’ve set. You aren’t perfect, and you don’t expect them to be perfect either. The important part is that you keep the lines of communication open.
- Identify reasons for drug abuse. For teens you know or suspect have used drugs, the conversation can get complicated. Talk to them about why they engaged in drug use, but avoid signs of anger or judgment. Emphasize your concerns, and be specific about the effects drug use can have on their health, relationships, academics, and future.
- Get help. If this isn’t the first conversation with your teen and they have repeatedly used drugs, it’s likely time to see help. A therapist, physician, interventionist, or addiction specialist can help you create a plan for how to help your teen get the care they need to get well.
Drug Abuse Treatment Options for Teens
Teens who are abusing drugs can benefit from a variety of mental health treatment options. It’s important to remember that these aren’t “punishments” for a teen and should never be framed as such.
- Mental health care: If a teen might benefit from talking to a mental health professional, they should be encouraged to at least try it. Highlight that even mentally healthy people benefit from therapy. Talking to a mental health professional can help them better resist stressors and identify potential issues before they start to significantly impact their life.
- Family therapy: In family therapy, your family goes to therapy together to talk to a professional. This can strengthen and heal relationships between family members that a teen’s drug abuse may have strained. It can also teach everyone in the family important skills that help them to treat each other better and react to situations in a healthier way.
A potential disadvantage is a teen may not feel they can discuss everything they want to in this environment, as they may have issues they’re struggling with but would prefer to keep private. Because of this, most teens benefit from a combination of family and individual therapy.
- Inpatient drug abuse treatment: If a teen is in crisis, such as having recently experienced a severe trauma or significant health effects from drug abuse that they cannot stop on their own even if they want to, they will likely benefit from inpatient treatment or rehab. With this form of treatment, the teen will live in a specialized facility that can help them recover from their drug abuse in a supportive, controlled environment.
Inpatient programs generally take at least a few weeks. With comprehensive care, these programs can help a teen physically and mentally recover to the point where they can better resist drug use once they leave. Through individual, group, and alternative therapies, they’ll build a strong foundation in recovery.
Useful Drug Abuse Resources for Teens
These resources can help you learn more about teen drug abuse and how to prevent it:
- Get Smart About Drugs: The DEA created this website, which offers a number of valuable resources about helping your family avoid drug abuse. You’ll find a list of pages that can help you access a pool of valuable mental health resources, including those specifically aimed at helping adults and teens with a substance abuse problem.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: The CDC also offers a number of useful resources for adults looking to research teen drug use. If you want to learn about the specifics of a given drug, they also have several pages explaining how different substances can affect the body.
These government resources make an excellent starting point as the information they contain is generally up-to-date and accurate, often accompanied by various stats and important details cited directly from pieces of reputable academic and scientific research.
- SAMHSA Helpline: For adults or teens who feel lost about what to do about their own or a loved one’s drug use, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services (SAMHSA) Helpline can be a good starting point. Available at 1-800-662-HELP (4357), this is a free and confidential helpline meant to provide people with access to resources on mental health and substance use disorders. It’s a 24/7 line, and it’s available in both English and Spanish.
Supporting Your Teen
Whether your teen is actively abusing drugs or you’re just starting the conversation in hopes of preventing future drug abuse, your support and communication are essential to your teen’s long-term health and well-being.
Continue to keep the conversation open with your teen, so they know they can come to you if a problem arises. This accessibility will serve them in all tenants of life, not just substance abuse prevention and recovery.
- Monitoring the Future 2021 Survey Results. (December 2021). National Institute on Drug Abuse.
- 6 Things to Know About Study Drugs. The University of Colorado.
- Self-Esteem and Alcohol Use Among Youths. (June 2017). Journal of Child & Adolescent Substance Abuse.
- Adolescent Alcohol Use: Protective and Predictive Parent, Peer, and Self-Related Factors. (April 2018). Prevention Science.
- The Factor Structure of Self Esteem and Its Association with Alcohol Use in American Indian Adolescents. (August 2021). American Journal of Orthopsychiatry.
- Easy Access to Drugs or Alcohol in Teen Years May Increase Risk of Later Substance Use. (August 2016). Partnership to End Addiction.
- Research Review: What Have We Learned About Adolescent Substance Use? (June 2018). Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.
- Interventions for Adolescent Substance Abuse: An Overview of Systematic Reviews. (October 2016). The Journal of Adolescent Health.
- Discipline Strategies for Pre-teens and Teenagers. (May 2021). RaisingChildren.net.
- Drug Basics. (May 2022). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
- High-Risk Substance Use Among Youth. (October 2020). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
- Monitoring the Future 2021 Survey Result. (December 2021). National Institute on Drug Abuse.
- Online Mental Health Resources. (March 2022). Get Smart About Drugs.
- Teen Substance Use & Risks. (February 2020). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
- Why Do Adolescents Take Drugs? (January 2014). National Institute on Drug Abuse.
- Why Do Teens Use Drugs? (December 2021). Get Smart About Drugs.
- Listening to Youth: Adolescents’ Reasons for Substance Use as a Unique Predictor of Treatment Response and Outcome. (December 2013). Psychology of Addictive Behaviors.
- Adolescent Brain Development and Drugs. (July 2012). Prevention Research.