Teen Drug Abuse Prevention: A Guide for Parents and Educators

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More schools are drug testing students who participate in sports or other extracurricular activities.While it is neither realistic nor possible to monitor everything the teenagers in your life do, it is possible to take measures to prevent and identify drug abuse. Being able to identify concerning behavior and handle issues relating to drug abuse appropriately is not just important information for parents to be aware of, but also for any adult who is a mentor to a teenager or teenagers.

In fact, people such as teachers, coaches, and counselors sometimes have unique opportunities to support the teenagers in their lives that parents do not, due to their role in the teenagers’ lives and the environment where they interact with them. In fact, a particularly ambitious individual may want to consider getting a degree in order to become a public health leader, which will give them in-depth knowledge on the topic of drug abuse prevention and support.

Substance Abuse & Public Health

According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), 19.7 million American adults suffered from a substance use disorder (SUD) in 2017. While already staggering, it is important to note that this is the number of Americans who have a substance use disorder. It is very much possible to abuse a drug without having a substance use disorder, which is defined by the Mayo Clinic as “[…] a disease that affects a person’s brain and behavior and leads to an inability to control the use of a legal or illegal drug or medication.”

With this in mind, the number of people who abuse drugs is even higher. In fact, in the same year, an estimated 20.7 million people were in a position where they likely should seek treatment for substance abuse. Furthermore, substance abuse is a notoriously under-reported statistic due to the taboo nature of the subject in conjunction with self-reporting. Perhaps as a result of this, as well as other factors, only 4 million Americans received substance abuse treatment in 2017, and only 2.5 million were treated in a specialized facility.

Receiving attention from health specialists and other professionals is an important or even vital part of the process for many who abuse drugs. Treating and preventing relapse for drug abuse and drug addiction is complex as a matter of necessity. Not every person or situation is the same, so the most effective means of helping a person who is abusing drugs is one that is unique to them. Because the factors involved are so complex and require long-term maintenance and adjustment, recovery is best handled by someone with education and experience on the matter who can monitor the situation. This may mean a trusted adult who has public health certification to handle such matters, or it may mean in-patient treatment with medical professionals.

What Is Drug Abuse?

Drug abuse, or drug misuse, is drug usage that exceeds the recommended dosage or is being used in an otherwise unhealthy manner. While drug abuse is not the same thing as drug addiction, the two often go hand-in-hand. A few common types of abused substances are hallucinogens, opioids, depressants, and stimulants.

Is Alcohol A Drug?

Alcohol is a type of drug. A drug is any substance that enters the body and elicits a change in its function. Drugs can be harmful or helpful, and that difference can depend on how they are used. Cocaine, tobacco, alcohol, oxycodone, ibuprofen, and caffeine are all examples of drugs.

Drug & Alcohol Abuse Statistics

Beyond the general prevalence of drug misuse, there are many more concerning statistics about drug misuse in America and its effects.

Social & Environmental Risk Factors For Teen Drug Use

Although drug misuse is a widespread issue throughout the United States, some demographics are at greater risk from drug misuse and addiction, such as teenagers.

Genetic Predisposition

There are many factors that can genetically pre-dispose a person toward drug misuse. Several studies of twins suggest that up to 50% of an individual’s risk of addiction stems from genetic factors. However, although there is significant evidence to support the theory of a genetic component, it is important to keep in mind that genes that play a role in a person’s likelihood of drug misuse and addiction are not found in one single allele. Rather, it is likely many alleles that affect many different factors that play into that likelihood.

Additionally, there are genetic factors that indirectly affect a person’s likelihood of drug misuse and addiction. For example, genetic factors influence the odds of a person inheriting mental illness, and the odds of drug misuse and addiction are increased in people who suffer from mental illness. Therefore, a person with a genetic predisposition to mental illness also has a genetic predisposition toward drug misuse.

Peer Pressure

Teenagers’ brains aren’t fully developed; the physical maturity of the human brain is not reached until approximately the age of 25. This is important to keep in mind when considering how teenagers view and interact with their environment. This cerebral adolescence has little impact on academic intelligence, but it has a very significant and measurable impact on critical thinking factors such as risk assessment and social independence.

As children, we develop social skills and internalize cultural norms through play-acting. This is the process of observing behaviors and acting them out through play. While this biological imperative seems to disappear as we age, it may be more accurate to view it as evolving with age as the brain continues to mature. Teenagers continue to observe their peers and idols and replicate their behavior; a tendency that can be observed in behavior such as teen statement fashion trends. This urge to emulate the behavior in order to learn how to engage with an environment or social group can also be demonstrated in actions.

The undeveloped brain is therefore susceptible to peer pressure and drug abuse in two major ways: a teenager may not be fully capable of assessing risk from drug abuse, and they may have an urge to emulate the behaviors of others who may be engaging in drug abuse.


A study from the U.S. National Library of Medicine found a significant correlation between childhood trauma and eventual substance abuse in the victim. This was especially true of subjects who suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). This may also be a root or compounding factor for those who are already predisposed toward drug abuse due to mental illness. Traumatic events are known to cause or worsen mental health issues.

Behaviors & Signs Your Teen Is Doing Drugs

As previously stated, it is important that not only parents, but educators, counselors, coaches, and other adults who are responsible for the care of children are aware of signs of drug use in youth. However, few of these concerning signs necessarily indicate a strong likelihood of drug misuse individually. One must also account for the personality of the teen and the environmental and biological factors which can strongly affect teens, such as hormonal changes and increases in responsibilities. There is a greater cause for concern if several of these behaviors are demonstrated, especially if they are atypical for the person and/or arise suddenly.

Additionally, any of these behaviors can be co-symptomatic with drug use, that is to say that these and drug abuse can collectively be caused by an underlying issue, rather than drug abuse being the sole root cause.


Again, while it is often a warning sign, a teen who is socially withdrawn is not necessarily engaging in drug misuse. However, unusual, sudden, or apparently unprompted social withdrawal can be a cause for concern, especially if it accompanies other warning signs. Withdrawal can indicate a need to be secretive or a significant change in mood.

Poor Academic Performance

Drug abuse has long shown a strong correlation with poor academic performance. In addition to potential harm for actual cognitive function — both short and long term — drug abuse can alter a person’s mood, their priorities, and their schedule. Making time for drug misuse and recovery takes a toll on both health and time management. Teenagers in the United States already have notoriously busy schedules without throwing extra wrenches in the mix. On the other hand, however, sometimes stress from a busy schedule can be a contributing factor for the development of unhealthy coping mechanisms.

Increased Illegal Activity

Drug abuse has shown a positive correlation with other illegal activity. In fact, not only does it co-occur, but there is also evidence that those who abuse drugs in their youth often have an increased likelihood of going on to abuse drugs later in life as well.

Defiant Behavior

A teen who is abusing drugs may experience significant changes in their behavior, such as depression, aggression, or defiance. Defiant behavior in a teen who is abusing drugs may be a general attitude that led them to drug abuse, the result of mood changes brought on by drugs, and/or a defensive response.

Change in Social Circle & Friends

This is another sign that could be either cause or effect, or both. A change in friend groups could introduce drug use into the teen’s life, or the teen may transition to a different peer group that is more accepting of their dangerous habits. Drug use in a teenager’s group of friends has shown a strong correlation with drug abuse in the individual. Additionally, friends’ use of drugs is also correlated with an increase in the frequency of drug use in teens who already use substances recreationally.

Health Effects of Teen Drug Abuse

Drug misuse (or drug abuse), by definition, is the unhealthy use of drugs and can have a variety of negative health effects in both the long and short term. Not only can these health effects serve as a red flag for adults in a teenager’s life, but it is important to note the severity of many of these potential health problems. For example, the abuse of alcohol can be life-threatening in both the short and long term. Long-term, alcohol abuse can cause a variety of serious issues such as cirrhosis of the liver, but alcohol poisoning is also deadly and can occur in one session of binge drinking with no prior use of alcohol in the person’s lifetime.

Appetite Changes

Drug abuse can cause a change in appetite, usually a loss of appetite. However, depending on the individual and the drug being abused, appetite can also be increased (as is often reported with cannabis use). Appetite changes may be especially notable in teens, as well as more damaging. Their bodies have often not yet finished developing, meaning they especially are in need of appropriate nutrients.

Sleep Disturbances

Drug abuse can alter sleeping patterns in a variety of ways. The most obvious way that sleep can be disturbed is through the direct result of increased hyperactivity or fatigue while under the effects of the drug. However, the after-effects of drugs can also affect the body after the psychological effects have worn off. In many cases, after-effects such as “hangovers” can negatively affect sleep patterns — often producing fatigue.

Meanwhile, in the long term, drug abuse can cause or aggravate sleep disorders. Some studies demonstrate that subjects who engage in substance abuse have a 5-to-10-fold increase in likelihood to have a sleep disorder. In turn, sleep disorders can have many negative effects on health, such as the development of cardiovascular issues as a result of sleep apnea.


Seizures are a serious possible short-term consequence of drug abuse; up to 9% of seizures are caused by a drug or poison. Seizures can cause many serious health effects including death. Blunt force trauma, coma, suffocation, and hypoxia are just a few health risks associated with seizures. Seizures can be experienced by anyone, even if they have no prior history of seizures.

However, drug abuse is particularly dangerous for those who are epileptic or have an existing history of epilepsy. Furthermore, it is very possible for an epileptic to show no symptoms of their condition until later in life. Many types of drugs are known to trigger seizures in those who suffer from epilepsy. For example, the consumption of alcohol is a well-known seizure trigger for people with epilepsy, due to dehydration of the brain and sleep disturbance.

Weight Loss/Gain

Drug abuse can also cause changes in weight. Whether that change is loss or gain depends largely on the substance and the individual. Drugs such as opiates and stimulants often cause weight loss, while drugs like alcohol can cause weight gain. These changes can be due to mental effects (such as forgetting to eat) or physical changes to the body (such as altering the metabolism).

Drugs & Mental Health

Physical effects are not the only red flags and concerns associated with teen drug abuse. Mental effects are also a significant indicator, even when the teen is not actively under the influence of a substance. Mental effects may be more difficult to perceive, but they do often manifest in observable ways.

Memory Problems

A teenager who is abusing drugs may show signs of memory loss, both in the short and long term. Individual sessions of drug use can cause short-term memory loss, such as a so-called “blackout” in the case of heavy drinking. However, ongoing drug abuse can also cause memory loss, especially in individuals who suffer from addiction. Studies have found that the brains of individuals suffering from addiction often demonstrate unusual changes in areas such as the striatum, prefrontal cortex, hippocampus, and amygdala — all of which are part of the system by which declarative memory is processed and stored.

Slurred or Rapid Fire Speech

Speech differences as a result of drug abuse will be most evident while the person is actively under the influence of a substance. Their speech may be faster or slower than usual, or may be slurred. The speed of speech will often mimic the effects of the drug (both stimulants and depressants are commonly abused). Slurred speech is often caused by overproduction of GABA, which in turn impairs the brain’s ability to process information. In fact, long-term substance abuse can result in slurred speech even when the individual is not under the influence.


Depressants such as alcohol and opioids are popularly abused drugs. This category of drug slows brain activity, often resulting in sleepiness. Additionally, drugs may cause a glazed demeanor as a result of hallucinations or other sensations.


Paranoia can be caused while under the influence of substances such as hallucinogens. Long-term paranoia can also result from chronic drug abuse, such as in cases of Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome.


As previously stated, drug use can result in lethargy and other mood swings. However, it can also worsen or possibly even cause clinical depression. Although the precise components involved are still uncertain, there is evidence that drug use can cause depression due to alterations in brain chemistry. As for existing depression in an individual, depression can be a cause of substance abuse, and in turn, worsen as a result of it.


Anxiety also shows a strong propensity for comorbidity with substance abuse. Approximately 20% of Americans with an anxiety or mood disorder also have a substance use disorder (SUD). Furthermore, drugs such as stimulants are known to both create and exacerbate anxiety.

Bipolar Disorder

According to the DSM, bipolar disorder (BD) has the highest rate of comorbidity with substance use disorder (SUD) of any mental illness. Individuals suffering from both bipolar disorder and substance use disorder demonstrate worse symptoms, as well as worse long term side effects. Bipolar disorder in teens is marked by fluctuations in mood between manic and depressive episodes. Manic episodes are largely marked by high energy and short temper, while depressive moods are marked by low energy and listlessness. However, there is a wide range of common symptoms that may depend on the individual.

How Parents & Educators Can Help if They Suspect A Teen Using Drugs

Recognizing signs and risk factors of teen drug abuse is a crucial first step, but this knowledge is not particularly helpful if it is utilized improperly. People with a substance use disorder already have a tendency to be defensive and secretive. A teen who is misusing drugs will often be even more so. Therefore, it is important to know how to approach the situation carefully and effectively.


A great first step for a concerned teacher is to build rapport with the student they suspect may be at risk. Teachers do not always take on the role of confidante, so it will be helpful for a teacher to show that they believe in the potential of the student and that they are available and willing to lend an ear if need be. If the student is continually recalcitrant, or if the suspected behavior is a potentially serious danger to the student or others, it may be best to reach out to a guardian and/or someone in the public health or school administration.


Many states require guidance counselors in public schools. A concerned school counselor has some unique opportunities if they are worried about a student. They have the opportunity to request a meeting with a particular student, and they may feel more trustworthy to the student due to their ethical and legal constraints in terms of confidentiality.

It may be helpful to approach a student first, even if it is just to make a friendly introduction. Going to a counselor can be an uncomfortable experience, and not knowing them or having to ask around makes that issue even worse. Counselors may also want to consider pursuing a Master’s of Public Health (MPH) in order to more effectively identify and counsel troubled teenagers.


Like teachers, a coach’s first step should be to build trust with the teen they are concerned about, and make it apparent that they are safe to talk to. Meanwhile, it may be helpful to emphasize health and performance as a way to positively reinforce better behavior; however, don’t make this too pointed. If this approach fails and the behavior escalates, try discussing the situation with the teen’s guardian.


Parents often have a more difficult role to play in teenage drug prevention and abuse support. Parents are often who the teen will be most secretive with and defensive against. Furthermore, although being understanding and open to discussion is the most effective tactic, this method won’t always be effective.

Often, the best option is to get medical professionals involved. A family physician can test for drug use and provide advice or any necessary prescriptions, a mental health professional can help the individual build healthier habits and coping strategies, and a health educator can create and track health goals. In serious or persistent cases, it will be in the best interest of the individual to be monitored by a specialist.