Nine out of 10 Americans who get addicted to drinking, smoking or using drugs started experimenting with drugs and/or alcohol in their teens. That data makes substance abuse “our nation’s number one public health problem,” according to a 2011 report by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA).
The same CASA study reported that:
- 75 percent of all high school students had used addictive substances including tobacco, alcohol, marijuana, or cocaine.
- 46 percent currently were using an addictive substance, meaning that one in three of them met the medical criteria for addiction.
Since 2011, teen substance abuse has largely been on the decline, but the painful reality remains that teen experimentation with drugs or alcohol is rarely harmless and can be a wake-up call that your child needs help for a substance abuse problem.
Parents can better protect their children from substance abuse when they know what the risk factors are for teens experimenting with drugs and alcohol. As a way to increase parental awareness and support the prevention of teen substance abuse, this article will:
- Outline the key risk factors generally associated with teen experimentation with drugs, especially the three major “gateway drugs” (alcohol tobacco, and marijuana)
- Recommend what to do if your teen is at risk of experimenting with drugs and alcohol
General Risk Factors for Experimentation with Gateway Drugs
There are a number of risk factors that help to predict whether someone in adolescence is more likely to experiment with one of the three major gateway drugs (alcohol, tobacco or marijuana) or other substances, such as prescription painkillers. These risk factors fall into at least three categories—(and you can find them in a handy chart provided by the government website, youth.GOV): Individual risk factors; Family; and School, peers and community.
During middle school and adolescence, then, monitor your child for the following individual risk factors:
- Poor impulse control
- Low harm avoidance
- Sensation seeking
- Poor behavioral self-regulation
- Antisocial behavior
- Social disengagement
- Conduct disorder
- Favorable attitudes towards drugs and alcohol
- Negative emotionality
In addition, be mindful that the following family factors can put your child at greater risk of drug and alcohol experimentation:
- Permissive parenting
- Parent-child conflict
- Poor supervision and monitoring
- Low parental warmth or hostile parenting
- Lack of consistent discipline
- Harsh discipline
- Parental abuse
- Low parental aspirations for child
- Parental substance use
- Favorable parental attitudes towards substance use
- Poor attachment with parents
Finally, your child’s school and peer environment is another potential contributor to recreational drug or alcohol use. These community factors may increase the likelihood that your teen will experiment with drugs and/or alcohol:
- School failure
- Low commitment to school
- Accessibility/availability of drugs or alcohol
- Peer rejection
- Laws that are favorable to substance use
- Peer attitudes towards drugs
- Interpersonal alienation
- Extreme poverty
Risk Factors for Underaged Drinking
Because of its wide accessibility and the fact that it is legal, alcohol is reportedly the biggest teen “gateway drug,” as a steppingstone to other substances like marijuana. The presence of one or more of the following risk factors may mean your teen is more susceptible to engaging in underaged drinking and experimentation with alcohol:
- Age – Research cited by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) found that children in the 13 to 15-year-old age window are at “high risk” to begin drinking.
- Gender – The same NIAAA research reports that boys exhibit higher rates of daily drinking and binge drinking than girls, but is quick to point out that in recent years this gender gap has been closing as rates of drinking among girls continue to rise.
- Lack of parental support, monitoring and communication
Other risk factors associated with adolescent alcohol use, abuse and dependence, according to the same NIAAA report, include:
- Genetic and biological risk factors – Children of alcoholics are much more likely than children of non-alcoholics to initiate drinking during adolescence. Animal studies have also demonstrated that the brains of children of alcoholics exhibit a particular biological marker for addiction (namely, a lower brain wave amplitude that makes them more susceptible to trying alcohol and getting hooked).
- Childhood behavior – Teens characterized in earlier childhood as impulsive, restless and prone to distraction are also at greater risk of experimenting with drugs or alcohol.
- Psychiatric disorders – A diagnosis of ADHD, conduct disorder, or depression or anxiety raises the chances that a child may experiment with drugs or alcohol during adolescence. Suicidal behavior is another big predictor.
Risk Factors for Teen Smoking and Marijuana Use
All of the risk factors mentioned above also put your teen at greater risk of smoking and marijuana use. Strikingly, smoking is a risk factor for marijuana use, and vice versa (marijuana use can predict tobacco experimentation). If you have reason to believe that your child may be more vulnerable to marijuana experimentation, consult this guide by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) for more information, including key protective factors that can help to insulate your child from the dangers of marijuana.
In addition to the above risk factors already mentioned, teen experimentation with cigarettes is reportedly more likely to happen when your teen:
- Is an older adolescent
- Is male
- Is multi-ethnic or white
- Does not have college plans
- Has parents who are not college-educated
- Is experiencing high stress
- Perceives that smoking won’t be a big health risk
What to Remember
Parents need to remember that no child, no matter how few their risk factors, is completely immune to experimenting with drugs or alcohol. Even a child who remarkably has no risk factor to contend with during their adolescent years may go on to drink, smoke or use marijuana or other prescription drugs. Then there are teens who face an overwhelming number of risk factors that may predispose them to drug or alcohol experimentation— and who go on to successfully avoid the temptation to use drugs or alcohol.
As parents, then, aim for doing your best to provide a home, school and community environment characterized by the following protective factors:
- Little to no use of alcohol, tobacco, marijuana or other addictive substances
- Negative views of drug and alcohol use
- Close monitoring of your child
- Open and supportive communication with your child
- Close family relationships
- A healthy peer group
- A good school
- Regular involvement in a church or faith tradition
If you have reason to suspect that your child is experimenting with drugs or alcohol, intervene quickly, by contacting a counselor who can advise you about next steps. The quicker the intervention, the better your child’s chances of avoiding a full-blown addiction.
For more helpful tips, check out our other articles about how to talk about the dangers of alcohol and drugs: