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Why Do Teens Get High?

Adolescence: Novelty Seeking, Identity Formation, Social Networks

 Parents know teens experiment with drinking and drugs during adolescence.

The most common drugs teens try during high school are alcohol, marijuana, and tobacco – in that order – although marijuana and tobacco are almost tied, percentage-wise, for the second most commonly used drug among teens during their high school years.

Not all teens experiment with intoxicants, of course. But by the end of high school, most teens try alcohol at least once, and a significant percentage of teens try marijuana and tobacco at least once. We don’t say that casually, offhand, or anecdotally: we have data to support that assertion.

Before we get to the data, though, we should address the question posed in the title of this article.

Why Teens Get High: Risk Factors                         

There are at least four major factors at play:

  1. Availability: Teens are more likely to try drugs if they’re easy to get
  2. Environment: Alcohol and drug use in the family or the neighborhood increases the likelihood of alcohol and drug use
  3. Genetics: A family history of alcohol or substance use disorder increases the likelihood of alcohol and drug use among teens
  4. Mental Health: The presence of a mental health disorder such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, and attention/impulse control disorders increase the likelihood of alcohol and drug use among teens

However, these four factors – known as risk factors – are all enhanced by a fundamental characteristic of adolescence: curiosity.

Why Teens Get High: Developmental Factors

You read that right.

A primary characteristic of human adolescence is what’s known as novelty seeking. And it’s not just humans: all adolescent mammals have the same trait. They seek what’s new. They seek what they don’t know about, what catches their attention, and the excitement that comes with new knowledge.

However, this intense, inborn drive to seek what’s new comes with a catch – and it’s a big one. Although the adolescent brain generates powerful impulses to seek what’s new, that same brain does not yet generate adequate control to keep those impulses in check. In other words, the part of the brain that creates these drives – i.e. the part that generates emotions – develops before the part that can regulate them –i.e.  the part responsible for rational decision making.

Here’s how the experts at the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) describe this situation:

“The adolescent brain is often likened to a car with a fully functional gas pedal (the reward system/emotional center) but weak brakes (the prefrontal cortex/impulse control center).”

That explains a lot: teens have the drive to seek new things and experiences, which, in some cases, mean alcohol and drugs, but they don’t have the brain mechanisms in place to regulate that drive.

With that said, we’ll move on to an important question. We know teens experiment with drugs, and that can be a problem.

But how big is the problem, really?

How Many Teens Try Drugs?

The following figures come from the 2020 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), published by the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research in their annual Monitoring the Future (MTF) Survey. The MTF Survey is published every year to analyze teen drinking and drug use and predict long-term trends.

Here are the latest figures. Numbers indicate the percentage of teens who answered “Yes” to the question “Have you ever used… [alcohol, marijuana, tobacco]?”

Alcohol

  • 8th graders: 25.6%.
  • 10th graders: 46.4%
  • 12thgraders: 61.5%.

Marijuana

  • 8th graders: 14.8%
  • 10th graders: 33.3%
  • 12thgraders: 43.7%

Tobacco

  • Vaping Nicotine:
    • 8th graders: 22.7%
    • 10th graders: 38.7%
    • 12thgraders: 44.3%
  • Smoking Cigarettes:
    • 8th graders: 11.5 %
    • 10th graders: 13.9%
    • 12thgraders: 24.0%

As you can see, by the time they graduate from high school, over half of teens say they tried alcohol, almost half say they tried marijuana, and almost half say they tried vaping nicotine. Those numbers are the reality as of 2021: alcohol and drug use are common, with alcohol and marijuana use leading the way.

The dangers of experimenting with intoxicants are well-known and well-publicized.

Evidence from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) indicates that among people who develop an alcohol or substance use disorder (AUD or SUD) – a.k.a. addiction – most begin experimentation early in high school and show signs of disordered use during adolescence or early adulthood.

That’s why it’s important for parents to keep an eye on their teens when they suspect they’re experimenting with alcohol and drugs, even if they think their teen is not at risk of developing a problem.

Let’s get right to a question many parents ask themselves.

What Drugs Do Teens Try First?

The first drugs teens try – most often – are the things that are close at hand and easy to get. Parents understand this concept. At first, with anything new, most teens default to the path of least resistance. That means the drugs they try first are the things they find around their home or their friends’ homes. A typical first attempt to experiment with intoxicants – i.e. get high – might include things like:

Alcohol

This can be from the fridge, kitchen cabinet, liquor cabinet, or the basement/entertainment cave minifridge. This could include beer, liquor, liqueur, or anything that looks like an alcoholic beverage to a teen.

Marijuana and/or Marijuana Vaping Products

These can come from the not-so-secret hiding place(s) where parents who smoke or vape marijuana attempt to store or conceal it.

Tobacco

This can come from the pack where parents who smoke leave their cigarettes, or an experimental puff on a vape pen left out by a parent, older sibling, or relative.

Over the Counter Medication

These are things like cough syrup with alcohol or other medications that may have intoxicating properties, such as antihistamines or decongestants.

Prescription Medications at Home

Relatives, parents, friends’ parents, or others may leave prescription medication unlocked in the bathroom cabinet. Dangerous medication can include anything from weight loss pills (amphetamines) to anxiolytics (anti-anxiety medication such as Xanax) to pain relievers (opioids/opiates).

Prescription Medications From Friends

Your teenager’s friends may have medication(s) for a disorder such as ADHD. These include medications like Adderall or Ritalin, which are amphetamines.

Since you probably understand that concept that teens are more likely to try intoxicating substances that are easy to find, you should also understand that in order to prevent this from happening, you can take a close look at two things:

  1. What You have in the house right now that teens might use to get high:
    • We’ll cover less common things teens use to get high – like inhalants – in another article.
    • For now, focus on the items we mention above.
  2. How you can take simple steps to keep those things away from your teen.
    • The best policy: keep any potential intoxicant locked up. As for beer/wine in the fridge, parents should keep a close watch on it, so they know when and if their teen begins drinking and/or experimenting.

Now we’ll talk about what parents should watch for if they think their teen is getting high on drugs they find at home, or drugs they find through other means.

How Can I Tell If My Teen Is Using Drugs?

The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry advises you to look for the following warning signs that their teen might be experimenting with alcohol or drugs:

  • Family problems/warning signs:
    • Withdrawing from family activities
    • Arguing or starting more arguments than usual
    • Uncharacteristic rule-breaking
  • School problems/warning signs:
    • Skipping school
    • Declining grades
    • Discipline issues
    • Declining interest in academics
  • Social problems/warning signs:
    • New peer group with interests that include using drugs/alcohol
    • New peer group with negative attitude towards school
    • Behavior that results in problems with the law
    • Activities that are risky/dangerous
  • Emotional problems/warning signs:
    • Sudden personality changes
    • Drastic mood swings
    • Irritability, hostility, anger
    • Apathy/declining interest in formerly favorite activities
    • Depressed mood (extreme)
    • Anxious mood (extreme)
  • Physical problems/warning signs:
    • Bloodshot/glassy eyes
    • Odor of alcohol or smoke on breath
    • Odor of alcohol or smoke on clothes
    • Persistent cough when not sick
    • Constant minor health complaints

The warning signs above may also be warning signs of other issues, such as a mental health disorder, past trauma, or an increase in stress in the life of a teen. It’s important to understand that typical teen moodiness is not a sign of drug use. However, when you observe extreme moodiness in combination with other warning signs on this list, such as red/glassy eyes, a decline in grades, and withdrawal from family and friends, it may be a real sign that your teen has started experimenting with alcohol or drugs.

How to Talk to Your Teen About Drugs

If you think your teen experiments with alcohol, drugs, and/or tobacco, the best thing you can do is have an open and honest conversation with them. This may seem difficult, but you can do it. The three tips below can help you get started. Here’s an important tip to consider before the conversation: don’t have the conversation if you think they’re intoxicated, and don’t have the conversation if you’re angry. If your teen comes home drunk or high, and it’s obvious, wait until the next morning – when they’re sober, and you aren’t angry.

Three Simple Tips for Talking to Your Teen About Alcohol and Drugs

  1. Be Firm About Your Family Policy. If you have a no alcohol, drugs, and tobacco policy in your family, make sure your teen knows it. We think of these things in terms of behaviors and outcomes. For instance, if drinking is a behavior that you prohibit for your teen, the outcome of drinking might be losing privileges or getting grounded.
  2. Avoid lecturing. We encourage you to ask your teen questions like “Have you tried [alcohol/marijuana/tobacco]?” and listen to how they respond. Ask them “What do you know about the physical, emotional, and behavioral consequences of [alcohol/marijuana/tobacco] use?” and listen to what they say in response. If they’re unaware of the dangers, share these articles with them, rather than lecturing:

Talk to Your Teen: Health Consequences of Alcohol Abuse

National Drug and Alcohol Facts Week: The Effects of Illicit Drugs on The Major Organs

  1. Discuss the root causes. We mention in the title of this article that identity formation and social networks – i.e. differentiation and fitting in ­– are reasons your teen might try alcohol and/or drugs. During your conversation, ask, and find out. Let them know there are alternative ways to express their identity than getting high, and that if a new peer group makes alcohol and drug use a rite of passage for joining that peer group, they should consider a different peer group – no matter how cool that group looks to them.

The most important thing about this conversation – for you – is being open honest and direct without being angry, judgmental, or disrespectful. The most important thing for them is that they understand your family policy on alcohol and drugs. Create firm behavioral expectations and establish the outcomes associated with specific behaviors.

That puts everyone on the same page and enables you to move forward together.

How to Handle Problematic Teen Alcohol or Drug Use

If they develop an alcohol or drug problem, the best way to identify that problem is by arranging a full biopsychosocial evaluation – with a drug test – administered by a mental health professional. A psychiatrist or qualified therapist can diagnose an alcohol use disorder, a substance use disorder, as well as any other underlying conditions that may lead to drug use.

This last point is crucial: your teen may use alcohol or drugs to mitigate the painful emotions associated with a mental health disorder, stress, or trauma. This is called self-medication. If your teen uses alcohol or drugs to self-medicate, then the assessing mental health professional will likely refer them for professional treatment and support at a treatment center for teen addiction or a treatment center for co-occurring disorders. If that happens, follow their advice, and get your teen the support they need sooner rather than later. Evidence shows that the sooner a teen who needs treatment gets the treatment they need, the better the outcome.

Our Behavioral Health Content Team

We are an expert team of behavioral health professionals who are united in our commitment to adolescent recovery and well-being.

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