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Substance Abuse in Adolescence? How soon should I worry?

Stop by the Blog and post your comment, join a discussion, add a topic... All about parenting, our children, risks, concerns, help and more! "It take a village to raise a child" so become part of that village!

This month there were topics on crafts and fun with your kids, drugs/alcohol risks for adolescents, issues of abuse and neglect and much more! Following is an excerpt from the blog-

Substance abuse is a common concern for most parents during adolescence. By the end of high school it is estimated that seventeen percent of kids smoke cigarettes, twenty eight percent engage in heavy drinking of alcohol and forty percent use illegal drugs (Berk, 2008). These numbers appear high, but in actuality they are down from the last decade (Berk, 2008). The reason adolescents use drugs and alcohol is suspected to be due to a sensation seeking need (Berk, 2008). This attempt to experience sensation and experiment with drugs and alcohol is usually considered normal (Berk, 2008). However, abuse of these substances does occur and becomes a social problem for many youth.

The reason some adolescents try or experiment with substances and are able to walk away, while others become addicted or begin routine use is not a perfect cause and effect relationship. There are many theories as to the etiology of addiction. Abusers are different than the occasional experimenters (Berk, 2008). There are biological and environmental differences that likely influence the addiction process.

Abusers often show differences in early childhood years such as impulsive behavior, social and emotional dysfunction, disruptive and hostile behaviors, etc (Berk, 2008). As adolescents they maintain many of these personality traits and show decreased cognitive abilities, self regulation, and engage in anti social behaviors (Berk, 2008). By the first grade indicators for drug abuse can be correlated to temperament and behavior (Swan, 1995). These indicators include shyness, aggressiveness, rebellious behaviors, and gender (Swan, 1995). Although adolescents who abuse drugs and alcohol have decreased cognitive abilities, research indicates that first graders who score higher on Readiness for School tests have a higher correlation to drug use at adolescents (Swan, 1995). The genetic component of addiction should not be overlooked. Many predispositions exist for addictive behaviors and can be linked to parental abuse of drugs and alcohol (Berk, 2008).
The environment also plays a role in addiction. Lower socioeconomic status seems to link to the rates of addiction and abuse of alcohol and drugs (Berk, 2008). Family mental health issues, abuse, neglect, and exposure to authority figures abusing drugs and alcohol also increase the risk for the child to engage in addictive behaviors (Berk, 2008). Drug use by parents observed in the early childhood years is considered an indicatory of later abuse by the child (Swan, 1995).

Historically there has been a suspicion that the use of medication by parents to control children’s behavior in the early years may increase the risk for later drug abuse. As more parents attempt to treat children with stimulants and ADHD drugs, the theory was that the child will learn to self medicate in later life (Berk, 2008). A Longitudinal study of one hundred seventy six middle class Caucasian boys treated with ADHD stimulants, however, attempted to dispel this belief. The research cited by A Kaplan in the July 1, 2008 Psychiatric Times issue, found that boys who started treatment earlier than age six had decreased drug abuse than those who started treatment after age eight (Kaplan, 2008). Comparison group rates of drug use were similar to those of early treatment (Kaplan, 2008).

Kaplan does not believe that treatment with ADHD medications is linked to the onset of addictive behavior, but does recognize that the diagnosis of ADHD may be associated with addiction (Kaplan, 2008). Kaplan further suggests nine indicators or predictors for addictive behavior in regards to the use of ADHD medication (Kaplan, 2008). Variables include the duration of treatment with medications, the age treatment began, the dosage, the severity of the diagnosis, the socioeconomic status of the family, and parental characteristics including psychopathology (Kaplan, 2008).

Although there are many indicators and factors that appear to increase the risk of drug abuse and addictive behavior for adolescents, the protective factors are available to prevent this unfortunate result. These protective factors include achievement in school, after school activities and close family connections (Swan, 1995). Family involvement is the greatest influential factor in middle childhood, but by adolescence, peer influence is much greater (Swan, 1995).

Valerie Poling
Child and Adolescent Development


Berk, L. (2008). Physical Development in Adolescence. In L. Berk, Infants, Children and Adolescents (pp. 532-567). Boston: Pearson.
Kaplan, A. (2008). Risk of Substance Abuse Not increased by ADHD Drugs. Psychiatric Times , Vol8.
Swan, N. (1995, January). Early Childhood Behavior and Temperament Predict Later Substance Use. Retrieved March 6, 2010, from National Institiute on Drug Abuse:

As a parent, my child is only 4, but whenever the opportunity arises, I am already preparing him to say "NO Way!" to drugs or alcohol. My husband thinks this is way too early to start, but in the social climate we live in today, is it really? I don't want him to be curious, I don't want him to try that initial "experiment"- but according to research the "experimental stage" is healthy and normal. What are your thoughts? How are you handling the issue of drugs with your children? Alcohol? I have heard parents say that if "my kid is going to drink I want them to do it at home where I can keep them safe", but do you really think they are going to ONLY drink at home? Do you think that will curb their interest? I personally feel that education of the risks and outcomes is the key... I would really love to hear from you on this...Feel free to comment, you can do so anonymously, too!

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