Celebrating 10 Years

Why Your Teen is Hardwired for Substance Abuse, Pt. 2

Why Your Teen is Hardwired for Substance AbuseAs I mentioned in my last blog, your teen is wired to engage in all kinds of risky behavior, including substance use. Your teen has three main issues separating them from adults and younger kids:

  • First, their Executive Functioning system is still developing. Unlike adults, whose Executive Functioning is, in general, fully developed, teens are often less able to accurately measure potential outcomes of their behaviors. That’s not to say teens don’t acknowledge driving too fast is dangerous, they just tend not to recognize as well as adults just how dangerous it is.
  • Secondly, teens are influenced by emotional rewards much more significantly than adults or even younger children. While younger kids have an even less developed Executive Functioning skill set, they are not as inclined toward excitement-seeking as teens, and not as likely to cave into peer pressure.
  • Thirdly, teens have a significantly greater amount of freedom and autonomy than do younger kids. Many teens spend a good portion of their free time unsupervised and, while this is a normal developmental process, we as parents need to remember they are not yet adults. This freedom, combined with still developing Executive Functioning, a propensity to seek excitement and engage peer approval, creates the perfect recipe for unnecessary risk taking.While this tendency to engage in risk-taking behavior results in most teens experimenting with alcohol and/or drugs at some point or another, most teens don’t develop serious problems with substance abuse. Why do some teens develop substance abuse problems, while their peers experimenting with the same substances don’t?  It can usually be traced back to their individual protective factors and risk factors. Some key protective and risk factors as listed by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), are listed here. This is by no means an exhaustive list.

Substance Abuse Protective and Risk Factors

  • Protective Factors:
    • strong and positive family bonds
    • parental monitoring of children’s activities and peer relationships
    • clear rules of conduct that are consistently enforced within the family
    • involvement of parents in the lives of their children
    • success in school performance
    • strong bonds with institutions, such as school and religious organizations
    • adoption of conventional norms about drug use
  • Risk factors:
    • chaotic home environments, particularly in which parents abuse substances or suffer from mental illnesses
    • ineffective parenting, especially with children with difficult temperaments or conduct disorders
    • lack of parent-child attachments and nurturing
    • inappropriately shy or aggressive behavior in the classroom
    • failure in school performance
    • poor social coping skills
    • affiliations with peers displaying deviant behaviors
    • perceptions of approval of drug-using behaviors in family, work, school, peer and community environments

Parental Involvement

Almost all of these protective factors are in one way or another directly related to parental involvement. This is not to say it’s the parents fault if a teen develops a substance abuse problem. It is merely saying that parents have significant influence over their teens, and effectively exercising this influence can minimize the risk of substance abuse. This same influence can be used to minimize other risky behavior, as well, such as risky driving.

Most adults have experienced, at least to some extent, the effects of alcohol, or other substances. Think about how quickly substances can change your feelings. This is actually at the heart of substance use. Substances change our feelings and change them quickly. For most people the experience is pleasurable, and it’s important to acknowledge this, if the experience of substance use was unpleasant, no one would repeat it. The truth is the pleasure of the experience typically outweighs any unpleasant side effects, so we are likely to repeat it.

Peer Pressure, Avoiding Feelings and Substance Abuse

Teens typically experience the pleasurable effects of substance use in the company of their peers. While this presents its own set of issues—i.e., greater risk taking in the pursuit of greater excitement—it also usually means they associate substance use as an activity done with peers, and not alone. Some teens discover their substance use does not just result in simply feeling good. Instead, they learn substance use can temporarily free them from feeling anxious, insecure, angry, or depressed. Some will learn substances are so effective at addressing negative feelings they may begin to no longer look at substance use as merely a fun activity, but, instead, as a way to manage their feelings. While they may not immediately recognize their motivation for substance use has begun to subtly shift, this is where recreational substance use can transition into substance abuse.

What is so wrong with using a chemical to ‘take the edge off’, uncomfortable feelings? After all, many adults use medication to manage things like blood pressure, cholesterol or allergies. For teens especially, this choice runs the risk of becoming the only way they learn to deal with strong negative feelings, preventing them from learning more effective coping mechanisms.

Healthy Coping Mechanisms

Our brains continue to develop well into our 20’s. Teens on a healthy trajectory mature emotionally as their executive functioning continues to develop. Those who begin using substances to manage strong feelings, however, may experience stunted emotional growth. Just as regularly exercising muscles results in muscle growth, regularly working to develop executive functioning results in cognitive growth. On the other hand, if one simply avoids emotional challenges through self-medication, emotional growth stops and remains stalled at the age substance abuse began. This is one of the reasons why middle-aged adults with a history of substance abuse issues often respond to emotional challenges like a teenager, with aggression, impulsivity or insensitivity.

A parent once told me just when she finally felt she had parenting figured out her kids turned into teenagers, and she felt like she had to start all over again. The reality is raising teenagers takes a much different skill set than raising younger children. For instance, teens no longer accept, “because I told you so”, as a reason for behaving. They are transitioning into a new social role as young adults, and, as they begin to step into their power, often think they know better than their parents.

New Parenting Strategies

This has consistently been the case, but, with the influence of the internet and social media, parents need a new way to help teens successfully navigate their adolescent years. Learning to communicate in a way that respects and validates their young adulthood, while still maintaining your role as a parent, is critical. By doing this, parents can model effective decision-making, helping teens develop healthy executive functioning.

Learning motivational intervention techniques can help parents shape their teens beliefs and attitudes, specifically around drug use. These strategies can raise awareness and create a level of inoculation for teens against high risk substance abuse. These techniques help teens process the pros and cons of substance use. Once teens believe for themselves the cons of substance use outweigh the pros, they tend to hang onto it. Their new beliefs about substance abuse are not easily changed, even in the face of powerful peer pressure.

In blog 3, I will discuss the drugs surrounding your teen. Teenagers were once limited primarily to alcohol and marijuana. Now, everything is readily available. Awareness is a vital tool for a parent to be able to actively help protect their teens.


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