Addiction is a troubling and potentially earth-shattering disease at any age, so when a teen becomes addicted to drugs, alcohol, or even something that seems harmless like a video game, the consequences can be devastating.
Andrew Davidson is a licensed clinical social worker whose private practice is centered on 14- to 18-year-olds. In other words, he knows how teenagers’ minds work, what motivates them, and what triggers addictive behavior.
Teens are most likely to experiment with alcohol, he says, adding that he has seen the whole list of addictive drugs, from marijuana to stimulants to opioids, in his patients. And he is quick to point out that gambling and video games are increasingly affecting young people in a negative way.
“I use a harm-reduction approach – I’m trying to reduce any kind of harm they could do,” he says. “If they choose to use, they need to know what the dangers are.
“Sometimes parents have a different agenda. That’s OK. When a teenager is living in their household, they have to follow what their parents are asking them to do. There’s got to be accountability built in there.”
Teens are very susceptible to peer pressure, and that’s what leads many to alcohol, marijuana, or worse. Studies show a direct correlation between the age someone begins using drugs or alcohol and the likelihood they will become an addict by the time they’re in their 20s.
Davidson tells parents that they should get involved in their children’s lives, even if it causes conflict.
“I tell parents to ask questions, have limits and set expectations. If you find your teen is dangerously using, you have a right to get involved,” he says.
Parents can watch for physical signs that their teen is in trouble, including bloodshot eyes, nosebleeds, changes in weight or eating habits, and unusual smells. Trouble at school – such as slipping grades or lack of interest in activities – can also be a red flag. There may be a lack of motivation, or an inability to focus, as well.
Davidson says substance abuse and addiction are treatable, and that most who recognize the existence of a problem and get counseling can be successful.
Anything can be addictive
“Anything can be addictive if you use it long enough and often enough,” he says. “Adolescents don’t see the immediate consequences, they don’t see the long-term outcome of what they’re doing. It’s always right now, what’s right in front of them.”
And while it may seem that addiction is a growing problem in America’s teens, there’s some evidence to the contrary. A 2016 study of 8th-, 10th-, and 12th-graders called “Monitoring the Future” found some positive trends.
According to the most recent study, teen use of marijuana has remained relatively steady over the years, but the use of alcohol and tobacco have been on a steady decline. The misuse of other drugs, including inhalants, heroin, and meth, are at their lowest point since the survey began in 1975.
Despite these numbers, it doesn’t minimize the issue, especially if addiction is affecting your family. If that’s the case, Davidson says it’s important to be proactive.
“It’s crucial that family members are involved,” he says. “People don’t get better if family is not involved. If you’re worried about your teen, there are (many) providers who can help and can get you engaged.”